How Classics Can Shape Your Writing with Malouf and Mendelsohn at SWF

After a wave of enthusiastic clapping from the crowded Roslyn Packer Theatre, Australian author David Malouf and renowned American critic and classicist, Daniel Mendelsohn sat down and discussed the classics, a world of ‘naked statues and bad behaviour’ (Mendelsohn quoting John Winkler).

mendelsohn and malouf
Mendelsohn and Malouf discussing the classics at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Image Credit: Prudence Upton.

Both spoke of discovering and falling for the classics in their staid, quietly Judeo-Christian suburban childhoods. For two young boys, in different generations and on different continents, the world of Greek and Roman culture was one which allowed them to see ‘something else, another way’ (Malouf). This ‘polyamourously perverse’ past opened an alternative worldview which continues to fascinate these men today. Malouf’s 2009 Ransom is a re-imagining and expansion of a small segment of Homer’s Iliad. Mendelsohn praised this work, both in conversation and in a New Yorker review.

The discussion roamed from the classics’ ‘extraordinary and exciting’ attitude to the body to modern adaptions. Both men agreed that a commonly made mistake when interpreting these classics is the impulse to strip them of their ‘original strangeness’,  ‘to underscore familiarity and erase difference’. (Mendelsohn). Mendelsohn spoke of an adaption of Medea, where this granddaughter of the sun is transformed into a pill-popping housewife, made ordinary. They spoke of women and how they are created in the literature of these deeply patriarchal cultures, often terrifying figures when ‘acting as a man’.  Malouf  said of Homer’s Iliad that almost all action is male action, but the metaphors are grounded in the world of women, as a lost alternative and a kind of challenge to the male sphere of war. This balancing is a key component of tragedy. As Mendelsohn said ‘there are no bad guys’, only conflicting and irreconcilable world views.

They spoke of the legacy of the classics. Aeschylus first put ‘resentment and rage’ into the women and this legacy has continued  directly into ‘Ibsen and Tennessee Williams’. We owe much of 17th century love poetry to Ovid, and the very concept of the State to the Romans.

As the session wound to a close they spoke of ‘the Fall’. Mendelsohn was most eloquent on this topic. He spoke of how ‘most stuff just disappears’ and the incremental decline, unnoticed until its already over.


Stay tuned for more Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage from Writer’s Edit.

In the meantime you can check out our Sydney Writers’ Festival Profile as well as the 5 Events You Can’t Miss.

Madeleine Stark

Madeleine grew up next to a beach with a lighthouse. She has freshly graduated from a Bachelor of Communications in Writing and Cultural Studies.

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