cover image The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

Roberto Calasso. Knopf Publishing Group, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58154-5

That Greco-Roman mythology should shape a contemporary novel is hardly unusual, but the way this breath-takingly ambitious work shapes--and reshapes--classical mythology is remarkable indeed. Calasso, publisher of the intellectual Milanese house Adelphi, revisits the theogonies set forth by Hesiod, Homer, Ovid et al. and then recasts them for a postmodern audience. Gods and men enact the cosmic mysteries as the narrator comments aphoristically on the progress of ancient and divine history (``With time, men and gods would develop a common language made up of hierogamy and sacrifice . . . . And, when it became a dead language, people started talking about mythology''). Calasso presents the abduction of Europa by a bull, analyzes the Trojan war, discusses the meaning of the word ``tragedy'' and charts the fall of classical Athens. Into this elegant chronology he also interpolates quotations from and allusions to a pantheon of classical writers, in the same weightless manner in which those writers made use of standard formulaic tropes; he extends his territory by planting modern points of reference (``Jason would have preferred to live a bourgeois life at home, just as Nietzsche would have preferred to be a professor in Basel, rather than God''). Readers who don't know their Theseus from their Thyestes shouldn't be discouraged--Calasso's work bridges the perceived distance from the origins of Western culture. Illustrations not seen by PW. BOMC alternate. (Mar.)