My Greek Novel
by Ellis Parker Butler
Now that John Erskine has published his delightful novel of ancient Greek manners entitled "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" and since Edward Lucas White has written another, entitled "Helen", I am having my own Greek novel retyped and shall offer it to some reputable publisher.
While I have had more than usual pleasure from novels lately -- "Little Ships", "The Venetian Glass Nephew", "Thunder on the Left", and so on -- I think John Erskine's "Private Life of Helen of Troy" has given me the greatest pleasure of all. By this I do not mean only the pleasure of reading a book written in such a superb style. The dialogue, it is true, seemed to me to have the clarity of Mark Twain and Moliere at their best and merely reading it was delightful, but it was a big satisfaction to me to read a book in which a whole lot of really eminent characters are killed off in a genuinely workmanship and offhand manner.
The plot of Professor Erskine's novel, while not so good as the plot of my own ancient Greek novel, is very close to what the plot of an ancient Greek novel should be. I did not think Edward Lucas White's plot was quite so good. I think Mr. White's plot would appeal more to architects because they would be interested in knowing whether a wooden horse should be a one man horse or a three man horse. I did get well excited when the ventilation problem was being discussed and I wished Mr. White had included a blueprint of the proposed ventilation system of the wooden horse, but to my notion there was not enough murder in his book. Quite a number of his characters were killed in battle; but I do not get the kick from a battle killing that I do from a nice clean bit of matricide or a skillfully staged example of papa-murder.
While Mr. White has Deiphobus and Paris killing Achilles in a quite legitimate battle, Professor Erskine, just as a starter or cocktail, has Agamemnon slaughter his daughter Iphigeneia. This makes Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra a little peevish, for since Agamemnon is starting for the war and will be absent quite a while Clytemnestra has to stay at home and she needed Iphigeneia to help with the housework. For this reason she takes Aegisthus as a sort of lefthand husband while Agamemnon is away -- even if Aegisthus will not wash the dishes he can bring in the water and things like that. So when the war is over and Agamemnon comes home and finds that Aegisthus has been smoking his cigars all these years -- or something -- he gets cross. Naturally, Clytemnestra doesn't like that so she kills him. And that, as my friend Gabe Bowman used to say at the Muscatine County Fair, is two babies down and two cigars!
This makes a good start and Clytemnestra is feeling sporty, so she kills Cassandra, a lady friend Agamemnon has brought home with him, and that is three babies down. It seems, however, that Clytemnestra and Agamemnon have a son named Orestes. Orestes is one of these modern fellows with queer ideas and one of his ideas is that it was Aegisthus that killed his father Agamemnon. So Orestes goes home and kills Aegisthus. Four babies down! But it comes out in the paper that this was a mistake, so Orestes and his sister correct the mistake and kill their mother Clytemnestra. Five babies down! And while he is prancing around this wav Orestes decides to make a good job of it and he kills Pyrrhus, a fellow he thinks is trying to flirt with his girl. Six babies down and six cigars!
That is what I would call a peppy plot. At the price Gabe Bowman used to pay for cigars those six cigars would have cost him twelve cents, and if you figure three balls for five cents and say the average ball thrower hit one baby for each three balls thrown, you can see that Gabe's profit on the deal would be a mere eighteen cents. From this you must deduct the wear and tear on the halls and a fair proportion of the five dollars Gabe had to pay the Muscatine County Fair Association for his permit. But of course a lot of people threw as many as twenty five cents' worth of balls at the babies and never hit any. On the whole I am afraid I prefer Professor Erskine's book to Mr. White's.
On the other hand the names in Mr. White's book are every bit as good as those in Professor Erskine's and perhaps that is the important thing. I do enjoy getting away from novels that can't rise above grumpy Nordic Dakota farmers named Ole Oleson who ruin their wives lives by keeping them down to one faded calico dress per decade. It is a pleasure to turn from these to kings and mighty warriors and fair ladies with names like Menelaos, Aegisthus, Eteoneus, Aithre, Deiphobus, Troezen, Laocoon, and Pyrrhus.
My own Greek novel I wrote originally as a play -- ten acts and thirteen interludes the ten acts being divided into thirty six scenes. It was the story of Halitosis, king of Kolynos whose wife Eczema had been stolen by Avoirdupois, king of Pyorrhoea. It was, of course, a tragedy.
When I took my tragedy around to the play producers they were kind but firm.
"A Greek tragedy in ten acts, thirteen interludes and thirty six scenes" one of them said, "is too much. If you can cut your play down to fifteen minutes, change the scene to Wikiwiki and make it a bedroom scene with a classy little song and dance to begin it and a hulahula dance to wind it up, I might give it a tryout in Newark some Friday if you will pay the carfare both ways.
"Sir," I said patiently, "I think you are wrong about this. Let me ask you to use your brain, if any, or what have you? Consider the Italian opera. Think how the Italians of our great city crowd the Metropolitan Opera House on nights when the Italian operas are given. Then think of the vast numbers of Greeks in New York. The patronage of the Greeks alone would make my tragedy a success."
"I am sorry to have to deny that", he said. "You don't study the statistics or you would not talk that way. May I ask you what the Italians in New York do?"
"They run the fruit stands", I said.
"Exactly!" he said. "And they close their fruit stands at night and can attend the Italian operas. But the Greeks run the restaurants. When you have eaten your dinner at a Greek restaurant and have paid your bill you can go where you please -- you can go to the theatre. But the Greek can't go. The Greek has to remain and wash the dishes. And you know Greek cooking, don't you. Have you ever stopped to consider what a lot of work it is to wash dishes when cooks use as much grease as the Greeks use? By the time the dishes are washed the play would be over."
"It wouldn't if you produced the entire ten acts, thirteen interludes, and thirty six scenes of my play", I said.
At this point the play producer pushed a button at the end of his desk and a young lady entered.
"Gwendolyn," he said, "ain't there anybody out there waiting to see me?"
"There's -- now -- nobody but that fellow who -- now -- always wants to borrow ten dollars off of you", she answered.
"Send him in! Send him in!" he said eagerly. "You see how busy I am this morning", he said, turning to me. "You got to excuse me. Gwendolyn, show the gentleman out."
And isn't the trouble with English and American fiction just that? Isn't it true that for ten or twenty years the Gwendolyns have been showing the gentlemen out? If you agree with me -- if you, too, believe that the Gwendolyns have been showing the gentlemen out -- I want to ask you something. I want to ask you what you mean by "gentlemen". I want to ask you what you mean by "Gwendolyns". Because I don't know; it doesn't seem to mean anything to me; it sounds like nonsense to me. It probably is nonsense.
Isn't what we mean rather that the Gwendolyns have been showing the gentlemen up. No, not upstairs, although I will admit that some of the novels -- and, after all, what is Michael Arlen's place in American literature? I ask you this: Is he Gwendolyn? That, too, may sound like nonsense to me but I am not discouraged; it may seem to mean something to you. That a the beauty of writing criticism; almost any sort of nonsense seems to mean something to you. I find my greatest trouble in trying to know where to put the semicolons.
In my Greek novel I sweep all that realistic stuff aside -- all semicolons and spelling and old farmer ladies who die miserably because the old man won't subscribe to The Saturday Evening Post" -- and I leap boldly into the romantic. I don't mean to tell the plot, because that would spoil the reading for you, but I can say that when Eczema has been stolen by Avoirdupois and taken to Pyorrhoea, her husband, Halitosis, goes to Pyorrhoea to search for her. His presence is not, of course, suspected. Approaching the castle of Avoirdupois, Halitosis meets Prophylactic, an Ipanaian, and has a brush with him. With his sword Halitosis cuts Prophylactic into four pieces, and leaves him at the side of the road, but the goddess Deodo joins the four pieces together with skewers and, except for the skewers, Pro-phy-lac-tic is as good as ever. The skewers show more or less.
It will be clear that all this is intensely interesting and there is a lot of thrill and anguish in it, especially where Eczema has to yield to Avoirdupois and his twin ruffians, Calorie and Vitamin. Avoirdupois wishes to overcome Eczema gently but she makes him scratch. There is a touching scene, too, when Halitosis stands looking at the citadel of Kolynos and sees that what he suspected is true, that Avoirdupois has Eczema. This is where Halitosis erects the altar and sacrifices his twin sons Hetrodyne and Neutrodyne to the goddess Antikamnia; and it is here that Eczema takes the two tablets after supper, chanting the Friday Afternoon Sacrifice Chant, No. 28 in the black book, chanting the first and last verses and omitting the second and third, while the slave, Sterno, plays a mournful air on the three stringed aspirin.
I hope my Greek novel will be a success, because I think an author needs a little success now and then. It encourages him to greater efforts.