I stumbled upon The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World by David Malouf at the local library. It was on a front-piece or thematic shelf and caught my eye.
Drawing on mythology, philosophy, art and literature, Malouf traces our conception of happiness throughout history, distilling centuries of thought into a lucid narrative. He discusses the creation myths of ancient Greece and the philosophical schools of Athens, analyzes Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary declaration that “the pursuit of happiness” is a right, explores the celebration of sensual delight in Rembrandt and Rubens and offers a perceptive take on a modern society growing larger and more impersonal.
I believe the only book of Malouf’s that I have every read was Ransom but it was a short book on an interesting subject which appealed to me in this season of my reading discontent. So I grabbed it and added it to the pile of mostly children’s books I was lugging home. This weekend I read it.
It was an interesting read; a sort of discursive discussion of happiness and the changing nature of that term. A dose of the ancient western world, some Montaigne, a dash of Thomas Jefferson, some Dostoevsky and musings on our hyper-technological world.
The few dedicated regular readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by myths and legends and of their reworking and re-imagining. So it is not a big surprise that I was intrigued by the novel Ransom by David Malouf.
Edmund White’s NYT review has a concise plot summary:
David Malouf’s “Ransom” reimagines the tragic story at the heart of “The Iliad.” Achilles mourns his childhood friend Patroclus after he is killed by Hector. Achilles takes his revenge by killing Hector in battle and desecrating his body.
The central action in Mr. Malouf’s novel occurs when Priam, Hector’s father and king of Troy, travels in a mule-drawn cart with half of the city’s treasure (the “ransom”) to plead for the return of Hector’s body so that it can be buried properly. Two instances of towering grief meet in the encounter.
As is so often the case, your knowledge of the backstory and your expectations will play a big role in your take on this story.
Those with a stronger knowledge of the Iliad and the story at the center of the novel might have stronger feelings and/or higher expectations that those who read it “straight” as it were.
But one thing I think everyone can agree on is that it is beautifully written and, at times, quite moving. More below.