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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / translation


Michael Schmidt

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Gilgamesh

Title: Gilgamesh
Author: Michael Schmidt
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 163 pages
Availability: Gilgamesh - US
Gilgamesh - UK
Gilgamesh - Canada
  • The Life of a Poem

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Our Assessment:

B : good introduction to and contemporary perspective on the classic work -- and an interesting look at translation, in its broadest sense(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 14/10/2019 Joan Acocella
The Spectator . 12/10/2019 Thomas W. Hodgkinson
TLS . 20/3/2020 K.J.Falconer

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) kind of journey through the work, an account of its origins and discovery, of the fragmentary state of the text, and of the many scholars and translators who have grappled with its meaning. (...) Schmidt, in his book, sort of moseys through the poem, addressing topics as they arise. (...) Sometimes Schmidt seems less a literary historian than just a friend, who has come over to our house for the evening, with a bottle, to read us a terrific poem. (...) (I)t would not be a bad idea, in approaching Gilgamesh, to start with Michael Schmidt’s book. Yes, it is a commentary, not an end-to-end translation, but it includes a lot of translated passages -- the best ones, needless to say." - Joan Acocella, The New Yorker

  • "Anyone interested in Gilgamesh will get something out of this ‘little essay’, as Schmidt calls it, even if there are as many oversights as insights. But those new to the poem should first plunge into one, or preferably several, of the available translations." - Thomas W. Hodgkinson, The Spectator

  • "Although published by a university press, this is not a scholarly monograph. Schmidt has not formally studied the Epic of Gilgamesh beyond the standard undergraduate excerpts, and he doesn't know the languages in which the scattered fragments of the original(s) are preserved. (...) The outward levity of his tone and the agility with which he hops from theme to theme, from narrative point to narrative point, are signs of a profound and affectionate ease with the text and its world. Enkidu aside, the King of Uruk couldn't wish for a better friend." - Kirsty Jane Falconer, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The ancient not-quite-epic ("The poem's final failure as an epic may be due to the fact that it isn't an epic", author Michael Schmidt observes) Mesopotamian poem Gilgamesh is among the most famous texts of world literature -- not least because it is one of the 'first' -- but also one of the more unusual. For one, despite being: "the oldest long poem in the world, [it] is a relatively new classic", only fairly recently (re)discovered, translated, and included in the canon. It is also one that does not exist, in the original, in some final fixed form -- including literally, as Schmidt notes that:

     No one institution possesses a full text of Gilgamesh in Standard Babylonian. It s now a jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. The pieces of the jigsaw are mixed in with pieces of other puzzles, themselves spread across many centuries and several languages.
       Though well pieced-together, much of the poem remains fragmentary: of its estimated 3600 lines, "3200 are known either in whole or in part" -- and: "Some of the parts are very small". So also:
Because of discoveries and re-interpretations of older tablets, the words won't settle. They change before our eyes; the poem remains provisional, shifting like dunes.
       The Standard Babylonian it was written in is particularly distant, as well -- a much less familiar classical language (especially than world literature standards such as Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, among others), contributing to the uncertainty of and debate about meaning. As Schmidt notes:
A definitive text will never be established. The poem will never stabilise. It abounds in contested readings; and, to complicate matters further, additional material that re-adjusts the poem keeps surfacing in archaeological digs, museum collections, and even on the black market in antiquities.
       This inconclusiveness seems to be part of the appeal of the work as well, allowing contemporary readers -- and, in particular, translators/poets -- to impose their own readings and interpretations on the text; as Schmidt notes, many of the contemporary 'translations' are by authors without first-hand knowledge of the text, unable to read it (to the extent that is possible in any case ...) in the original. And Schmidt's approach in his Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem is to consider it very much through this contemporary lens -- or rather the many lenses it has been subject to, a cluster conveniently recent and not spread out over centuries or millennia as with many other classical texts, as this particular work has:
suffered the fate of long-established classical text, but -- being a newcomer -- it has suffered in a more accelerated form: it has been annexed and academicised, put upon, traduced, or -- we might rather say -- colonised, in a post-modern spirit.
       Schmidt introduces Gilgamesh through its contemporary (English-language) renderings, pointing to and comparing various versions (and suggesting through which ones readers might want to approach the text). So central is his interest in and focus on how the work is seen now that, as he explains in his Preface: "I wrote to fifty poets across the Anglophone world and asked them five questions about Gilgamesh", including what version they first encountered it in, and which is there currently preferred one; the responses then feature quite prominently in his study.
       After an initial discussion of the work and some of its versions, Schmidt immerses readers more fully in the text itself, in twelve chapters summing up the tablets (chapters, essentially) of the work (the twelfth not being an actual part of the original poem, but connecting: "in suggestive ways to some of the Gilgamesh themes"), a slightly more than just re-telling of the episodes. Here, too, he quotes from various translations -- and the variety is both fascinating to see and helpful in making his various points --, but the focus is on content and feel; Schmidt isn't offering yet another standard translation, but rather a sort of introductory summary and gloss.
       (Chapter-epigraphs to these tablet-chapters also feature selections from the translations, and further variations -- and also include a sample transliteration; interestingly, for all the discussion of the poem, he limits himself to this sound-sample, but doesn't offer a visual one of the original cuneiform text (which is, after all, very different from the more familiar-to-us alpha-betical system) or the tablet-format, beyond the book's cover-image. While there is some discussion of the original form the poem was written and preserved in, it's somewhat surprising that this isn't displayed more prominently -- though given Schmidt's focus on the contemporary (and English-language) reading and perception of the poem, perhaps understandable: the cuneiform-and-clay version of the poem is almost entirely irrelevant to modern readers. (So also Schmidt notes that the poem was almost surely a text to be recited -- as suggested also by, among other things, the extensive repetition that features in it, an aid to memorization -- and he is much more interested in and focused on sound: "We want to hear". And although Gilgamesh has become much more of a literary -- in the sense of printed, and to-be-read -- text, form (i.e. printed, on the page or in electronic form) is almost taken for granted.))
       Schmidt also repeatedly notes that: "Gilgamesh is a poem without a poet" -- an unusual feature he finds particularly significant (to the extent that one of his criticisms of Philip Terry's rendering is: "I am unhappy with his introduction of a first-person narrator"). This anonymity, as well as its: "freedom from a specific sense of time and place", differentiate it from much classical and especially epic work -- and seem one of the reasons it has been so frequently (and freely) adapted by contemporary writers.
       Schmidt does look a (very small) bit beyond the Anglophone world, but it's a shame that Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem is basically limited to the English-language reception and reaction to the work; surely, it would be fascinating to see how other languages and cultures have taken to it, and what creative writers elsewhere have done with it.
       Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem is a good entry-point to the work, in offering a good overview of the content but especially in showing how many different ways there are of seeing it in English today, and in comparing the various approaches and giving examples. (As such, it is also a fascinating look at contemporary translation, with renderings that range from the scholarly-precise word-by-word ultra-literal to second-hand and free.) Fairly succinct, the study does cover a great deal, presented in quite quick and to-the-point form. There's a lot more to be said about Gilgamesh, but this a good starting point that raises many of the significant and interesting questions, and it is a fine read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2019

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Gilgamesh: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Schmidt is editor of the PN Review.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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