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The Best of Brit Lit

A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: the story of Paris flooded with water, a bold new take on Homer’s Odyssey, and a history of the sonnet.

06.08.10 12:26 PM ET

Paris Après le Déluge

Drainage came late to Paris, as visitors, especially American visitors, have long remarked. Jeffrey H. Jackson's book, Paris Under Water, tells the mostly forgotten story of how in February 1910, the French capital suffered a major boost to this unwanted reputation. As Gillian Tindall writes in her TLS review this week, the inundation was a nasty shock since technology was supposed to have put a stop to such problems. There had been floods throughout the Middle Ages, and there was a particularly dramatic one in 1658, but since then the Seine had been dredged and embanked with many more quays, bridges had been strengthened, and locks and canals created. By the start of the 20th century, that era of radiant modernity, filled with new inventions, which was celebrated in Paris by the Exposition Universelle of 1900, it was believed that the wonders of engineering had made excessive flooding a thing of the past.

Yet two of those modern inventions caused the water in 1910 to penetrate much further into the heart of the city than it would otherwise have done. Even as military engineers toiled in the driving rain to build the walls of the quays high enough to contain the swollen and racing river, unpleasant yellowy waters began bubbling up elsewhere through drains and appearing in basements. Drainage had not been as comprehensively planned as the London system. The new Métro—so new, in fact, that many of its lines were still being built—distributed water far and wide, even as far as a buried lake, possibly a long-dried alternative arm of the Seine in prehistoric times. Walls and pavements began to sag. Holes appeared. In the unlit streets of that relentlessly cold winter, where snow fell as well as rain, the waters shone eerily with a Venetian beauty that has survived in photos and which Jackson vividly describes.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel By Zachary Mason 240 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.

Homer Remixed

It is not easy to persuade a TLS reviewer and Professor of Greek at Cambridge that a book is “perhaps the most revelatory and brilliant prose encounter with Homer since James Joyce.” But that is Simon Goldhill’s conclusion after reading Zachary Mason’s novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey. While Professor Goldhill is an authority on Greek tragedy and much else, Dr. Mason is learned in “corpus-based metaphor extraction systems,” which did not, at first, seem a promising entry point. Since Joyce’s Ulysses made rewriting the Odyssey the foundational gesture of modernism, there have been “innumerable rather trivial contemporary engagements with Homer, which, even when they are as engaging as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, have rarely been more than a one-trick pony.” Yet in 44  short chapters, Mason produces, in Goldhill's view, “a deeply knowing and emotive revisioning of Homer’s reality.”

The Art of the Sonnet By Stephen Burt 464 pages. Belknap Press of Harvard University. $35.

Whither the Sonnet?

The sonnet alone, of the many verse forms originating in the Middle Ages, flourishes in the present century, writes Katherine Duncan-Jones, reviewing The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Mikics. Other difficult forms were deftly deployed by the great Peter Porter, whose death last month is still much mourned in London; Porter surpassed even his master Auden in poetic versatility, as he pointed out in a quartet of triolets (1987): “The nearly mindless triolet, / the only form that Auden shirked.” But these now enjoy small currency outside literary competitions. Sonnets arrived in the late 1580s with a bang and were deployed for many purposes, including dedications, commendations and memorials. But the form proliferated in “sequences,” collections of linked sonnets, sometimes rounded off with a complementary poem of “complaint.” Usually amorous, bearing the fictive name of a female addressee, they were so numerous that, after a decade or so, mockery and neglect were bound to ensue. For well over a century thereafter the form was despised and ignored. Good men believed that Shakespeare’s sonnets should not be published, and it is not clear whether Samuel Johnson, was aware that they existed. The new book celebrates the sonnet's uneven return to grace.

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.