#BBAW: Introduce Yourself!

The time has come! The time is now! After a few years of lying fallow, Book Blogger Appreciation Week has returned! Huge, huge thanks to my co-hosts Heather, Andi, and Ana, and thanks to everyone who’s participating.

Day 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I’m starting with an unoriginal one, I know! But Jane Eyre was the first book where I ever read the end before I read the middle. It gave me a taste for romance, for gothic novels, for crazypants plots where lunatics set things on fire, and for angry-girl heroines.

Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

I mean, come on. I was never going to make this list without at least one Diana Wynne Jones book on it. Although Jenny’s Law states that Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread, I have chosen one of the only DWJ books that I loved immediately. Fire and Hemlock is, nevertheless, everything I have ever loved about Diana Wynne Jones; in particular, the way that it’s packed full of adult truth bombs that gradually exploded as I’ve gotten older.

Also it left me with a great love of cellists.1

White Is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is one of a very few writers whose books I will read purely for her writing. White Is for Witching is my favorite of her five so-far books. It is about, I swear, a xenophobic house and the family that lives in it. There are twins and pica and university examinations, and every one of the narrators is unreliable. (I LOVE UNRELIABLE NARRATORS.)

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

“Jenny, are you just including The Charioteer on your list because everyone you’ve ever recommended it to has thought it was super boring?”

Mary Renault has been a super formative author for me in my life, from when I read her Alexander the Great books in late middle school. The Charioteer is slightly atypical for her in that it has a modern (to Mary Renault! World War II!) setting, but it also requires the queer characters to speak to each other in a coded, roundabout, subtexty way. That she manages to make these unspoken relationships urgent is a testament to her powers as an author.2

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey includes extensions of the Homer stories, alternate versions of them, stories that happen around the edges. It is stories, and it’s about stories, and I will read stories about stories every day until the heat death of the sun.

Happy first day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Head over to the Estella Society to link up your #BBAW posts.

  1. Jubilee on The Bachelor played the cello, yet Ben insanely sent her home. The other Ben from Kaitlyn’s season would never have done this.
  2. Mumsy, I forgive you for not loving this book. I mean, sort of. I mean, you did just make me cookies the other day.

Mary Renault at Shiny New Books

As you’ve probably heard, the third issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books came out earlier this week. I was lucky enough to get to write a post about one of my favorite-ever authors, Mary Renault, for this issue. You can read the post over in their neck of the woods, and feel free to complain to me in the comments about my obvious preference for Hephaestion over Bagoas. I know that’s a point of contention FOR SOME.

While you’re over there, check out the whole issue! The editors and contributors have reminded me again how much I want to read Station Eleven; they’ve sold me on House of Ashes, the story of a fictional coup in a fictional Caribbean country; and they’ve at least come very close to making me reconsider my stance on missing white girls to read Upstairs at the Party. I absolutely loved Victoria’s review of Janet Malcolm’s most recent essay collection, and I’m dyyyyyying to get my hands on a copy of Peter Mendelsund’s book on graphic design, Cover. And whether you know Frances Hodgson Burnett only from her children’s books or you’ve read some of her crazier adult stuff, you’ll get a kick out of Harriet’s post about her life. Enjoy!

Review: The Charioteer, Mary Renault (plus, a giveaway)

Since nobody loves this book (and when I say “nobody loves this book” I want you to understand that I really mean “Mumsy does not love this book and it breaks my heart”), I have decided to try once again to explain what I love so much about it.

The Charioteer deals with a conflict of values, my favorite kind of conflict to read about. The three main characters, Laurie and Ralph and Andrew, are gay men living in British army hospitals in the 1940s: Laurie and Ralph because injuries prevent them returning to battle, and Andrew as an orderly because he’s a conscientious objector. (Well, Laurie and Ralph are gay. Andrew exists in a state of presexual innocence, which is less annoying than that phrasing makes it seem.) So all through the book runs the tension between the moral necessity of integrity — these are all three men of integrity — and the social necessity of self-concealment that devolves upon a gay man in 1940s Britain. Here is Laurie sounding out Andrew (who fails to be sounded):

“If I only had my gramophone here, we could have had some Mozart, some time… I’ve got quite a bit of Tchaikovsky, ballet music mostly. It’s all right when you feel like it, or don’t you think so?  I read somewhere once, Tchaikovsky was queer.”

 

He seemed to wait hours for the upturned face to change; but the pause was  in his own imagination, as he realized when Andrew said with mild interest, “Was he? I hadn’t heard. He was never actually shut up, surely?”

 

“No, it never came out. Though I believe–” He saw his mistake, and with a painful jolt caught himself up just in time. “Not mad, you know. Just queer.” He waited again.

 

“You mean a bit…Oh, yes, I see.” Andrew wrung out the cloth in the bucket. “I find all Russians slightly mysterious, don’t you? Perhaps if one met more of them.” Laurie said yes, that was the trouble, probably.

One of Renault’s very best writerly tricks is her ability to show two people who are participating in a mutual conversation but not in the same conversation, and she has it on full display in The Charioteer. With everyone but Ralph (and, on most topics, Andrew), Laurie is on guard. There’s an incredible tension to the recognition that any casual line of talk — about nurses, night passes, pacifists, school, the crossing at Dunkirk — can turn on a dime and take him back into dangerous territory. Laurie’s attentiveness to this, and his competence and resourcefulness at reframing dangerous conversations are compelling in the same way as Tatiana Maslany wriggling out of one impossible situation after another on Orphan Black.

A side effect of these eyeline-mismatch conversations is that Renault produces elegant descriptions of the small and large shifts in persona any kind of human interaction can dictate. Laurie is devoted to his mother but still aware of her tendency to “retreat into optimism leaving him to face reality alone”; and he presents the gentlest version of his life for her perusal. He’s likewise very fond of his John-Bull stereotype hospital friend, Reg, who satisfies Laurie’s need for “simple, platitudinous sympathy” but also seems at all times on the edge of discovering that Laurie’s gay. Here he is expressing his unhappiness over Laurie’s close friendship with Andrew, a conscientious objector:

“No one here can’t say you ever done any highbrow act. But what I mean, these lads come along, college boys like yourself, reading literary books and that. Well, stands to reason, ordinary, you have to keep a lot of your thoughts to yourself. I watched you when you didn’t know it, time and again.”

 

Laurie came crimson out of the locker, where he longed to remain. “Christ, Reg, the bull you talk.” They sat, not looking at each other. Laurie knew his protest had been too weak; it should have been something more like “What would I want with that bunch of sissies?” Why, he wondered, was it the people one held in the most innocent affection who so often demanded from one the most atrocious treachery?

(Here again, by the way, these two men are not in the same conversation. Laurie spends this scene trying frantically to figure out whether Reg is objecting to Andrew on gendered or on ideological grounds, and Reg spends it determined to make his (ideological, if you’re curious) point, and feeling that Laurie is refusing to take a tactful hint.)

Renault does the incredibly difficult thing in The Charioteer of writing about three main characters who are all strongly moral, variously flawed, and flawlessly differentiated from each other. And not boring. It’s not just one character who’s moral and not boring — which is already a challenge for many authors — it’s three. Admittedly you get Ralph and Andrew through the eyes of Laurie, who’s sort of in love with them both, but it’s still clear from what Laurie learns of them that they are unyielding on points of morality, without reference to personal cost. Laurie himself, if you can frame his reluctance to be forthright with Andrew as Renault’s version of Dan Savage’s campsite rule, takes on a significant burden of pain to ensure that his presence in Andrew’s life does no harm to Andrew.

Lest I be accused of panegryic-peddling, I will say this: Although Mary Renault wrote in fetters when she wrote of her own time and at liberty when of Gods & Greece, The Charioteer is the least fettered of her modern novels; by which I mean that she speaks fairly openly about homosexuality and what it means to society and to individuals. She is not always at her awesomest on this subject. Renault slapped a frame of classical antiquity on homosexuality; and she could be monumentally unkind about people who framed it otherwise. The effeminate gay characters in The Charioteer are bitchy nightmares, and Ralph and Laurie despise them so casually it’s clear the reader is meant to do the same. It’s not great, even if you understand the reasons behind it.

I shall make one more point and then retire from the field. Even granting that Mary Renault lived in South Africa and couldn’t get into trouble, it is awesome to me that she wrote all these books that assumed the perfect reasonableness of the existence of queer people in Britain. Promises of Love, a book in which the protagonist develops a relationship with a man who has previously been in a relationship with her brother, was published in 1939. The Charioteer says outright that Laurie and Ralph have sex, and it was published the year after Alan Turing got convicted of indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. Just, way to go, Mary Renault, writing about characters who are (apart from, you know, fearing societal rejection) perfectly cheerful and un-angsty about being gay. Way to not be Radclyffe Hall.

AND NOW. Due to my unceasing search for the One Best Copy of The Charioteer, I have a (used, but in good condition) spare copy of it, and I would like to give it away. If you are interested, please leave a comment below with an email address where I can contact you. I will draw names out of a hat if more than one person asks for it. You can comment any time this week (from now until next Monday night), and I will draw names on the morning of 8 October.

Edit to add: Please go read the lovely Charlotte’s review of The King Must Die, it’s excellent.

Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

Lucky you, bloggy friends! Two guest reviews by Mumsy in such a short time!

I was expecting Jenny to start Mary Renault Week by reviewing The Charioteer, a novel that (as Jenny correctly notes) only Jenny loves.  And then I would have started my review by saying that Mary Renault is actually at her best when she is writing about ancient Greece, about which she appears to know Everything.

(And because I find it difficult to switch tracks, I have now said just that.)

The Mask of Apollo is somewhat different from most of Renault’s novels in that it features an entirely fictional narrator: Nikeratos, an Athenian actor. Because Mary Renault apparently spent several previous lives in ancient Greece (not really!  I just made that up!), she is able to invest Niko’s world  with small details that make his life very present and very engaging.  This is Niko, describing his first appearance on stage at age 7, in the role of the murdered son of Hector, being mourned by Hecuba:

I had already heard [the actor playing Hecuba], of course, lamenting with Andromache; but that is her scene, and I had my own part to think of.  Now the voice seemed to go all through me, making my backbone creep with cold.  I forgot it was I who was being mourned for…All I remember for certain is my swelling throat and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.

 

My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play.  The sponsor would lose the prize; Kroisos the crown; my father would never get a part again; we would be in the streets begging our bread.  And after the play I would have to face terrible Hecuba without a mask.  Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running…

 

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted me gently.  I was gathered in the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.   The flute, which had been moaning softly throughout the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

If Nikeratos’s life if fiction, his times are real, and his life’s thread has become entangled with those of Dion of Syracuse,  Dion’s mentor Plato, and the dissolute Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysios the Younger. Niko’s involvement with these prominent men and their grand affairs of state is minor and tangential, yet it is the actor, and not the philosophers and statesmen,  who is able to see what the principal actors cannot: the arc of the vast drama being enacted on a world stage, and its inevitable tragic end.  It is Niko, with his knowledge of the theater, who recognizes the uses of political theater.

What I adore about Mary Renault is that she rarely falls into that trap of making historical events feel too contemporary. Nikeratos’s times may have parallels to our own, but Renault is marvelous at highlighting aspects that are utterly foreign to modern times. The Mask of Apollo is permeated with a spiritual sensibility which I found completely fascinating precisely because it is so different from the sensibilities of current culture. The pervasive sacredness of daily life and the interactions of the human and the divine are presented in ways that manage to be at once thoughtful and weighty without being even slightly trivial or childish – a neat trick when you consider how fairy-tale-ish Greek mythology has become to contemporary eyes.

Okay. Also: there are some bits that drag. (I admit it, but I still loved it.) Oh, and also, you should definitely read everything Mary Renault wrote, except The Charioteer. (You could probably skip The Last of the Wine too, if you want.)

Humph. I feel there was unnecessary trash-tralking of my beloved Charioteer in this post, but never mind, I have managed not to insert any snide little [sic]s into this post, despite temptation. On Friday I shall tell you why you should definitely not skip The Charioteer.

Review: The Persian Boy, Mary Renault

For lo, this shall be Mary Renault Week on the blog! In case you missed hearing about this (not that I’ve been shrieking loudly about it or anything), Mary Renault’s books have been released in ebook format at last! And are now available for purchase wherever ebooks are sold! Thus, this week I have decreed shall be the week in which I post only about Mary Renault. If you post about her too please tell me so in the comments and I’ll add links to my posts. Today I am reviewing The Persian Boy; on Wednesday my lovely Mum will be doing a guest post about The Mask of Apollo; and on Friday I will be posting about the Mary Renault book beloved only by me, The Charioteer.

The Persian Boy is the second book Renault wrote about Alexander the Great, and the better book, I think. Fire from Heaven takes you through Alexander’s childhood, through wonderful episodes like his meeting his lifelong friend Hephaistion and taming his best-beloved horse, Oxhead, up until the death of his father, Philip. The Persian Boy gives you Alexander through a stranger’s eyes: Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who is given to Alexander as a gift in the wake of Alexander’s conquest of Persia.

If you are only waiting for Alexander to show up (which, okay, yes, I was), the beginning of The Persian Boy can be slightly slow going. Bagoas goes through a lot before reaching the court of the Macedonians, and it can be difficult to read. But once he and Alexander meet — Mary Renault really is at her best when writing about characters she admires — everything starts firing on all cylinders. It’s because Mary Renault is spectacularly good at writing Alexander in a way that makes you understand why so many people chose to fight and die for him.

Over the years, there has been much heated debate between Mumsy and me about why she loves Bagoas best and I love Hephaistion best. We discussed it last week while I was making notes for this post, and we found that we did not disagree with any of each other’s points, but simply ended up with different emotional responses. Hephaistion and Alexander have a relationship of equals, in terms of their feelings about each other; and while of course Alexander is more powerful in worldly terms, the gap between him and Hephaistion is much much smaller than between him and Bagoas (who is a very treasured slave but still is basically a slave). Mumsy’s case is that she loves the different kind of thing Renault is trying in this book, to write about a love where there is complete trust on both sides, but where one party’s love is utterly self-abnegating. Bagos will give up anything, suffer anything, to stay with Alexander.

Regardless of where you land on this important question, Bagoas’s devotion to Alexander carries the book. Though it hardly needs something to carry it. Renault’s depiction of the episodes of Alexander’s life that we read about in Arrian and Curtius is marvelous. Where the sources provide the material for her not to invent, she doesn’t (except she adds feelings); and when there are gaps to fill, she fills them ever so plausibly.

Finally, I cannot leave this review without a word of praise for the author’s note in the back of the book. Basically the best author’s note ever. For one thing, she lays out which bits of the book are true and which she made up and why she made them up that way (hooray!). But mainly, the author’s note is fun because persnickety:

Muddled sensationalism is typical of Curtius, an unbearably silly man with access to priceless sources now lost to us, which he frittered away in the cause of a tedious literary concept about the goddess Fortune, and many florid exercises in Roman rhetoric. (Alexander, exhorting his friends kindly to remove the arrow stuck in his lung, is impressively eloquent.)

And:

More puzzling is a present-day outbreak of what one may call blackwashing, since it goes far beyond a one-sided interpretation of facts to their actual misrepresentation. A recent popularization says only of Philotas’ execution that it was “on a trumped-up charge,” though his concealment of the assassination plot is agree on by all sources… Hephaistion is “fundamentally stupid,” though in not one of his highly responsible independent missions, diplomatic as well as military, was he ever unsuccessful… That there are fashions in admiration and denigration is inevitable; they should not however be followed at the expense of truth.

You see? Don’t you love Mary Renault already?

Now is a good time for you to read Mary Renault

(Also, there was never a bad time to read Mary Renault.)

Almost the whole of Mary Renault’s oeuvre is being put into e-book format as of next week. !!!!!! As you may know if you have hung around this blog or reviewed Song of Achilles or spoken of Mary Renault at all in any way ever, I am a huge huge HUGE fan of hers. My lovely mother handed me Fire from Heaven when I was thirteen or so, and I have loved Mary Renault ever since then. No author I have ever read before or since has managed to give such a credible sense of place to a story about ancient Greece; and very few authors of my experience are able to hang so much emotional weight on what remains unsaid among her characters.

Since Mary Renault is great and you all probably wanted to read her books anyway, would anyone be interested in some sort of Mary Renault week? I was thinking the week of the 23rd, as that will give us all a little time to read her books and compose posts about them. I shall write about my very favorite Mary Renault book, The Charioteer, as well as about my very close next favorite, The Persian Boy. I am also hoping to con Mumsy into doing a guest/conversation post about The King Must Die, as that was her gateway drug to Mary Renault. And then I will also do posts rounding up links from anyone else who has posted about her.

SO. Anyone else feel like it? I’m trying not to call anyone out in particular but some of y’all have spoken to me before about wanting to read Mary Renault and I feel like there is no time like the present! I very, very much want her to be more widely read in the present day so that I will have a larger group of people to talk about her with.

The other two Mary Renault books I got from the university library

I am always trying to think of ways to maximize my reading pleasure when an author has written more than one book. Before I realized it was futile because everyone has different tastes, I used to go on Amazon and try to figure out what a shiny new author’s least popular book was, and then I’d read that one first so it would be all improvements from that point on. This did not work at all with, for instance, Salman Rushdie. I accidentally read his most-acclaimed book first, Midnight’s Children, and when (after consulting Amazon) I tried to read what seemed to be his least popular book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I ended up liking it way better than anything else I’ve read by him since. I have since given up this Amazon-reviews scheme. I have y’all now.

Still, when y’all haven’t read the books I want to read, and in fact nobody seems to have read the books I want to read, I find myself trying once more to predict ahead of time what unread books I will like best.

I checked out two of the three new-to-me Mary Renault books, and placed a hold on the third one. I suspected, without any evidence to demonstrate that this would be the case, that I was going to like the third one least. I began Promises of Love and found I wanted to live in it because that’s how hard I love Mary Renault. And then I was all, oo, I should stop reading this, and read one of the other two instead, because Promises of Love is obviously going to be good, and I should save it for last so if the other two disappoint me I will still have this to look forward to.

And then I remembered that the second book I had checked out already, Return to Night, was the one that won a big award, and I thought that one really was likely to be best because it won a prize, and I didn’t want to start with the best one!, so the one I really wanted to start with was the one I didn’t have, Kind Are Her Answers. But I didn’t want to wait, so I read Promises of Love straight away, and then Kind Are Her Answers, and then Return to Night.

I was at least partly right: Kind Are Her Answers was way the worst. It’s about this doctor called Kit who falls out of love with his wife, because she’s useless and manipulative and needy; and he falls in love with the niece of a patient, this flighty actress girl whose only qualities seem to be that she professes wild devotion to Kit and kisses other men out of pity all the time. Kit is crazy about her, probably because she spends every minute of their time together saying the kind of things I remember Richard Yates mocking rather mercilessly at the end of Revolutionary Road. It occurs to Kit that Christie (her name is Christie; yes, they essentially have the same name) might care as little about him as she professes to care about the other men she is always kissing out of pity; but he doesn’t care because she has big eyes and is manic and pixie and dream. I hated her and hoped that she would drown, but she never, ever did. There is also this, like, cult that Kit’s wife joins. I don’t even know.

When I finished this book, my prevailing thought was that Christie was nauseous (please note correct use of that word) and the adorable name Kit was wasted on this book. Mary Renault, may I respectfully inquire what the hell?

Subsequently I read Return to Night. It was better but still not that great. This doctor called Hilary who is thirty-five and rather closed off falls in love with a young patient of hers, Julian. Julian wants to be an actor, but his possessive mother is dead set against it and doesn’t think much of Hilary either. As in Promises of Love, there are some histrionics relating to illegitimacy. I think I was soured on Mary Renault from how awful Kind Are Her Answers was, because I wanted to stab Hilary and Julian in the face as soon as they appeared. It wasn’t really fair. For all I know, Return to Night was secretly wonderful, but Kind Are Her Answers put me off it.

Please do not think I dislike Mary Renault now. I don’t. I love her nearly always. When I was reading these two books, I kept thinking what a shame it was that all this lovely writing and (sometimes) keen insight was being wasted on two rather rubbishy books. I wanted to go home and read The Bull from the Sea and The Praise Singer, and maybe read the Alexander books again.

Other reviews: There are none. Nobody reads these books. In the case of Kind Are Her Answers, I recommend for your own sakes that you keep it that way.

Review: Promises of Love, Mary Renault

Obligatory pre-gushing blurb: Vivian, a nurse in between-the-wars England, meets Mic, a pathologist and the latest in a string of close friends of her flighty, unreliable brother. Though Mic initially seems interested in Vivian because of her resemblance to her brother, they soon become good friends and then lovers.

I am experimenting with keeping a reading journal. I have not decided exactly what sort of thing you write down in a reading journal, but one thing it is definitely good for is saving anecdotes and quotations that I like. Then when I am done reading, I can go back and see if I want to copy any of them out for y’all, or copy them into my commonplace book to keep forever. When I was reading Promises of Love, I wrote down about fifty trillion quotations from it, and I’d have written down more had I not been perpetually weighing the relative merits of using the time to write things down (thereby expressing in pen and ink my not inconsiderable delight with Mary Renault) or to read more pages. Mary Renault’s modern novels are flawed, but I love the way she writes her characters’ interactions:

“Look.” He twirled the [paint] into an ascending spiral. “There’s a lyric of Catullus exactly that shape. No, it’s gone.” The viscous mass had settled, leaving only a few concentric rings. “Landor,” he said. “One of those terse quatrains. See, Mic?”

“You and your patterns.” Mic got up. “Get yourself a microscope. You’ve a vicious taste for illusive syntheses.”

“Of course they’re elusive. So’s everything worth bothering with.”

They talked–in this alone like her expectations–of indifferent things: town-planning, Swedish architecture, the sick staff-nurse, whose blood-cultures as it happened had been in Mic’s charge. Yet Vivian did not feel that they were taking shelter or concealing themselves in these things: they were a background, an accompaniment to what was really being said, for which words were instruments too harsh and shrill.

Renault’s modern novels deal in an incredibly interesting way with communication, how both successes and failures in communication can mean profound things about and have profound impacts on the relationships of the characters. I love the feeling I get, when I’m reading her books, that every word is considered. A character may say something by accident, but Renault never will.

The flip side of that is I never know what she’s thinking. Mary Renault is one of the most self-concealing authors you ever saw. I suppose this would thrill Roland Barthes, but it bewilders me. Her characters do and say and think such peculiar things. I just do not know what to make of them. I want to go back in time and shake Mary Renault and demand she explain to me what she exactly thinks about gender and creativity and sexuality. But of course trying to figure out what statements her books are making is part of the reason they interest me.

In spite (or because) of this bewilderment, I spent the whole of Promises of Love in a state of euphoria. It smelled old and delicious, and I kept lowering my nose into it and inhaling. More than that, I was overwhelmed with love for this book just because of its utter MaryRenaultiness. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Mary Renault novice, as I don’t think she’s at her radiant Fire from Heaven best in it, but I am so happy I got to read it. Lovely university library.

Some other bits I liked:

The flat…was beginning to take on the mannerisms of educated poverty–the streaky stained floor, whose string rugs were already present to her mind’s eye; the amateurish paintwork, in cheeky but successful colour-combinations; the aura of half-dry distemper from the walls; a little oil-stove in a corner giving out more smell than warmth.

It was like seeing someone off by train; the clock crawling through the last minutes, the futility of one’s remarks increasing with the last-minute effort to be significant.

She was quite well aware that she was talking, not to him, but to a suit of well-cut conversational clothes tailored, like his material ones, by a craftsman to whom fit and finish had become second nature. His pretences at self-revelation–the lightly deprecated indiscretion, the note of emotion suppressed a second too late–were merely the touches that distinguished Savile Row from the Strand.

The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

I have this strategy – I’ve mentioned it before – where when I really like an author, I save some of their books.  I haven’t read two (2) of Salman Rushdie’s books.  Martin Millar has written a number of books that I haven’t read, and I haven’t made the small effort it would take to order them used online.  This is not because of any shortage of love in my heart for Martin Millar’s books.  It’s because I’m saving them.  I do it with rereads too.  It’s been at least five years since I last read Persuasion, although (well, actually it’s because) I love Jane Austen, and I like to give myself a little treat every few years.

I haven’t read Mary Renault’s Theseus books in several years.  I haven’t read The Last of the Wine since high school.  And I have never ever read The Praise Singer, and until today I had never read The Mask of Apollo.  I read this book all over the place yesterday and today, and I did it at my parents’ house where (you may have heard) there is also a tiny little puppy who likes to snuggle on laps, chew on curtains, and wrestle with a stuffed koala bear.  Because The Mask of Apollo is so good it’s sick.

The Mask of Apollo

The book is about an Athenian actor, Nikeratos, who lives in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.  After a particularly magnificent performance as Apollo, he meets Dion of Syracuse as well as Dion’s close friend, the philosopher Plato.  Thereafter Niko becomes involved in Dion’s political intrigues as he (Dion, not Niko) works in Syracuse to establish the perfect philosopher-state as envisioned by Plato.  This doesn’t work out as fantastically well as you might think, though Mary Renault seems very definitely to think it could have gone better if Alexander the Great, rather than Dionysius II, had been in charge of Syracuse at the time.  (Alexander makes an appearance at the end of the book, and it was like seeing an old friend.  I love Mary Renault’s Alexander books, because nobody has ever loved a protagonist, and I am including Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey, the way that Mary Renault loves her Alexander the Great.)

I’m a little sad that I’ve now read this book.  I’ve read it, and it’s read, and I can’t ever read it for the first time again.  I loved all the stuff about ancient Greek theatre – Niko speaks about how the actors interacted with each other, how the scenery worked, and the special effects, how the audiences responded.  Mary Renault writes beautiful characters, brave and flawed and frightened – you can see that she loves them, the ones she’s made up, but especially the ones she’s found in history.  I also now know a whole lot of things about Dionysius II that I never knew before.

A scene I like – I remember my mother showed me this scene when I was younger, long before I’d read any Mary Renault books in full.  Niko is not quite seven, playing little Astyanax in Euripides’s Women of Troy:

All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.  My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play…Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running.  I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted my gently.  I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.  The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

I also loved how Niko casts everything in theatre terms.  It’s not obnoxious, though it could easily be – yes, we get it, Greek politics are like the theatre – but Niko is wry and a little detached, and it seems natural.  This I liked, when he’s speaking with one of Plato’s students, a woman called Axiothea:

“The philosopher is the pilot.  He knows where the harbor is, and the reef; he knows the constant stars.  But men still pursue illusions.  Their prejudice will not be broken till such a man takes the helm and shows them.  Once he has saved them from the rocks, that will be the end of guesswork.  No man will drown if he sees the remedy, will he?”

She paused for a feed-line, as philosophers do – just like comic actors, though one must not say so.

Other bits I liked:

“A man more precious than empires, both to us and to men still unborn, with who knows what wisdom yet undistilled in him.  He is clear of all misjudgement, except his faith in me.  He had not seen Syracuse for twenty years; Dionysos he had known only as a child who rode upon my shoulder.  For no living man but me would he have gone again to Sicily.  And I sent for him – for this very thing which has made and broken all: his charm that can make discourse beautiful and catch the soul through the heart.  Was Oidipos himself more blind?”

And:

There’s always one more war to win, or one more election, before the good life; meantime they wrangle about the good, those who still believe in it.  So we dream.  Of what?  Some man sent by the gods, first to make us believe in something, if only in him, and then to lead us.  That is it.  We have dreamed a king.

I will now stop raving over Mary Renault.  I love her.  This book was wonderful and I love her.  Internet, read more Mary Renault!  I love her!  I am giving this book five shiny sparkly stars, and I feel like I want to go read every surviving ancient Greek play right now and imagine Niko playing the roles.

Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault

I will preface this by saying that I can understand how you might not like Mary Renault’s writing. But I like her a lot, and this, the first of her books about Alexander the Great, is the first thing I ever read by her. It takes us from Alexander’s childhood through to Philip of Macedon’s death, and it is a damn good book. I love how Mary Renault makes silence and implication work for her: how something will happen, and you don’t think anything of it, and then the characters react in a way that makes you go back and look at it again, and reassess. To me this is very pleasing.

After rereading Fire from Heaven for the first time in a while, I am beginning to suspect that I was not paying any attention to it any time that I read it before. There are so many things that I didn’t remember ever reading! In past readings, I got that Alexander was fierce and loyal and awesome – still definitely true, incidentally. Mary Renault’s Alexander is one of my favorite characters ever, partly because I think Alexander the Great was cool and partly because Mary Renault does an excellent job on him. I always think it must be so difficult to write a character with charisma like a cult leader or a great general, so you really believe people would follow them, and it must be even harder when it’s a real historic character. And Alexander in this book is so great I would almost follow him to war and I am a pacifist. So.

The relationships with the other characters, I definitely picked up on that – his friendship (etc) with Hephaestion (they’re sweet), the initially simple love/hate split for his mother and father, respectively, that gets more complicated as he gets older. I love how we see this change for Alexander. As a child, his mother means security and his father is a threat. When he gets older, he develops a certain level of respect for his father in war, and finds his mother’s constant demands more and more difficult. (And more and more, if I am remembering The Persian Boy right.)

The politics though? I would say the vast majority of the political machinations going on in this book were new to me on this reread. As a younger reader, I managed to pick up on nearly all the character moments while completely tuning out what was going on around them. Like how Philip was conquering things, and how he wanted to use the Thebans to get to the Athenians, and the Thebans took him (but not Alexander!) off guard by throwing in their lot with Athens. And how an old lover was responsible for Philip’s death. Total shock to me this time around.

I was so in the mood to read this! Maybe I will get crazy and finally read The Mask of Apollo as I have been meaning to for quite some time now. I like Mary Renault. Her heroes are heroic, and the ancient times act real in her books.