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Jo Balmer reviews "Euripides: The Trojan Women"

Euripides: The Trojan Woman: A Comic by Rosanna Bruno, text by Anne Carson. Bloodaxe Books, 80pp. £10.99

"I always thought of them more as drawings than texts", Anne Carson has observed of her radical, often transgressional, versions of classical literature, "but drawings that are physically enterable through the fact of language." It's a typically idiosyncratic approach but one that has increasingly absorbed the classicist-poet, who worked in graphic design as a young woman: 2010's Nox presented versions of Catullus's poem 101 as an objet d’art; a concertina book-in-a-box. And 2012’s Antigonick interspersed Carson's reading of Sophocles's tragedy with Bianca Stone's illustrations on transparent paper, overlaying the text like a pictorial palimpsest. Even her 1992 early collection, Short Talks, she has revealed, began life as a series of titled drawings from which she eventually withdrew the images.

The Trojan Women: A Comic sees Carson in collaboration with comic book artist Rosanna Bruno, author of the acclaimed The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson (2017). Carson is known for her literary shocks and here, from the off, is perhaps her greatest. Euripides's tragedy is one of the most harrowing pieces of verse ever written. It opens with the elderly Trojan queen, Hekabe (often "Hecuba"), lying in the dirt by the smoking ruins of her city, defeated and enslaved. Over the course of its 1330 lines, the women of Troy are allotted as slaves to the Greek generals – the killers of their husbands and sons – as Hecuba's youngest daughter Polyxena is sacrificed at the grave of Achilles and her small grandson Astyanax is thrown to his death from the city's battlements. The play ends with the Greeks setting fire to what remains of Troy, annihilating the city, wiping it from the earth. There's no deus ex machina, no catharsis, no escape from the ancient Greek dictum Hecuba herself repeats: "CALL NO ONE HAPPY UNTIL THEY’RE DEAD". (All of Carson's text is in block capitals, an echo, perhaps, of the upper case lettering of Greek papyri.) Reading the text, let alone watching a performance, can induce a form of literary PTSD. This is further underscored by the knowledge that, when the play was first produced in 415 BCE, the Athenians had themselves just enacted these same scenes for real, sacking the island city of Melos, enslaving its women and killing all its men and boys. It all seems very far from standard cartoon material.

There are further shocks in store. Carson and Bruno's visual characterisations of the tragedy's main protagonists might well seem eccentric, if not baffling. Poseidon, god of the sea and Troy's protector, appears as a huge tidal wave: "A LARGE VOLUME OF WATER MEASURING 600 CLEAR CUBIC FEET". Meanwhile, the goddess Athene is "A BIG PAIR OF OVERALLS, CARRYING AN OWL MASK IN ONE HAND". Even more bewilderingly – but very precisely – the Greek king Menelaos is a "SORT OF GEARBOX, CLUTCH OR COUPLING MECHANISM, ONCE SLEEK, NOT THIS YEAR’S MODEL". Such seemingly strange imagery chimes with Carson's view of Greek tragic metaphor itself, which she believes operates "without a concern for making sense". In The Trojan Women: A Comic, with typical intertextuality, she references Frederick Seidel's 1999 poem "James Baldwin in Paris" in which the poet becomes a leopard and devours his trainer. So here Hekabe is transformed into an old dog and the play's eponymous chorus into an assortment of dogs and cows, while Helen of Troy switches between a silver fox and a silver hand mirror.

These anthropomorphic visualisations are perhaps the most accessible. In Greek myth, Hekabe is translated by her grief into a dog, presumably the origin of Carson's characterisation. And a poem by the seventh-century BCE Greek lyric poet Semonides portrays women (unflatteringly) as a series of animals. In Euripides' Greek text, Hekabe herself is likened to a "mother hen clucking over her chicks" (ll.146-7). There are also clear precedents for portraying tragic and deeply disturbing events through visual anthropomorphism, for example Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, which addresses the horrors of the Holocaust.

In addition, Carson's text movingly and wittily ghosts her Greek source. For example, Euripides's Poseidon bids farewell to Troy's city "of polished stone" which he had helped to construct. In Carson's version this becomes:



When Hekabe laments that, as a slave, she will now have to sleep on "rocky ground", Carson elaborates:






And whereas, in Euripides, the soon-to-be slave women lament that they will no longer see their family graves, Carson has them ask, poignantly: "CAN I CALL MY PARENTS?". At times of extreme stress, both the chorus and Hekabe even briefly revert to the Greek itself.

Bruno's drawings complement Carson's text with forceful vigour. At first, she has said, she found no inspiration in "straight" translations of Euripides's play but as soon as Carson sent her new version "images hit me instantly". So when Poseidon threatens to destroy the Greek ships at sea, a black swell of Hieronymus Bosch-like bodies fills the page. As Hecuba realises she is to be the slave of Odysseus – whose wooden horse destroyed Troy – a close-up of her dog eyes filled with the words "NO" is followed by an entire black page engraved with her echoing cry. Whenever the chorus appears, the individual heads of cows and dogs, each with their own particular expression, frame the pages. According to Bruno, these were inspired by sticker books sent to her by Carson.

Such attention to detail is impressive throughout. When the deluded Kassandra imagines she is about to be "married" to the Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon, Bruno slips in a "Trojan Bride" magazine ("GODS AS MATCHMAKER"; "10 TIPS ON TREATING HIM LIKE A KING"). And, as Hekabe confesses that she has never set foot in a ship but "SEEN PAINTINGS" (a faithful translation of the Greek), Bruno conjures up a framed print of Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee".

Gradually we become immersed in Bruno and Carson's unique vision so that even Athene's dungarees (pragmatic and resourceful, or maybe a tongue-in-cheek nod to preconceptions of feminism?) or Menelaos's aging gearbox (cold, mechanical, not as slick as he might hope?) make sense. "The things you think of to link", Carson has explained of her work as a whole, "are not in your own control. It's just who you are, bumping into the world". In Carson's world Billy Idol ("IT'S A PRETTY DAY FOR A MILITARY WEDDING!") bumps into Samuel Beckett; Bruno's final telescopic image of a departing Greek ship carrying its cargo of Trojan slaves with the caption "WE GO ON" (after Euripides's "feet forward") lingers long in the mind. And if at first The Trojan Women: A Comic might seem impenetrable, it is no more strange, no more "other", than its ancient source, which mixed ritual terror with everyday, lived experience and black humour to the discomfort of its original Athenian audience. Above all, Carson's extraordinary language and Bruno's hugely physical drawings compel us to enter its endless, primeval cycle of suffering and trauma with empathy and compassion, keeping it ancient but making it new.

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her translations of Sappho have been continuously in print since 1984 and in 1989 were shortlisted for the inaugural US Lambda Literary Awards. In 2018, they were reissued in an expanded edition to include newly-discovered fragments (Bloodaxe Books). Her recent collection, The Paths of Survival (Shearsman), was shortlisted for the 2017 London Hellenic Prize. Other works include Letting Go (Agenda Editions, 2017), The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2007), Chasing Catullus (Bloodaxe, 2004), Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 1996). She has also published a study of classical translation and versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments (OUP, 2013). Her latest publication, Ghost Passage, was published by Shearsman in 2022.


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