J. E. Lendon


On his book Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins

Cover Interview of January 04, 2011

A close-up

Mount Helicon, sacred to the muses, looked down upon the great marsh of Copaïs, graveyard of cities.  In heroic times men had cleared the limestone caverns that drained Copaïs to the sea, and tilled her smiling bottomlands, and built their dwellings there.  But with the passing of the heroes, and the silting of the ways, as the water carried in by the rivers Cephisus and Melas failed of escape, the cities were drowned, and Copaïs became a mere—a sea of reeds, the haunt of waterfowl, rich pasture for lowing cattle and questing pigs.  To her neighbors, the Boeotians, Copaïs gave their comfortable things:  herbs and rushes, plump ducks and woodcocks, and above all, tasty eels, grown fat from nibbling beneath the green-brown waters upon the inundated works of forgotten men.

Sweating porters bore the eels from the huts of their snigglers to rich fanciers as far as Athens, fifty miles to the south, to be roasted over coals in beet leaves.  But nearer by far were the epicures of Thebes, lords of the Boeotian plain, their character, it is nice to think, formed over centuries by the very qualities of this writhing delicacy:  strong, cunning, voracious.

This passage introduces the eel motif, which twines itself about the narrative of the book (leaving aside the literary use to which eels are put, by virtue of my Japanese childhood I’m quite addicted to unagi).  I’ve also tried very hard in the book to give the modern reader a sense of place about the locations where the story unfolds, and that mission often involves descriptions of this nature or accounts of local myths (or, more exactly, what were recounted as local myths to Roman-period collectors of the same).

But the passage also represents for me a tiny, rare, but intensely gratifying, literary victory.  The process of my writing runs like this.  I write passages like the one above.  My brother, who kindly reads all my longer work and much of my shorter, makes it even more like that—this is the process we call “bedizening.”  Then most of the purple gets stripped out again by my agent, academic friends I impose upon to read the manuscript, the press’ editor and copy-editor, and my gimlet-eyed colleague and partner Elizabeth Meyer, who, when her own moral suasion fails, calls in my mother, an English teacher of the old Hemingway-admiring school.

I don’t deny for a moment that all this editing is necessary, and I am abjectly grateful for being saved from myself.  But the result is that stylistically my work is usually a stricken field, the battlefield of Waterloo the day after the fighting.  Very rarely can I look at a passage and say, “mine!  all mine!”

The eel snigglers of Copaïs are all mine.