#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.

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.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

Ah, yes, The Charioteer. By the matchless Mary Renault, my love for whom cannot be expressed in strong enough terms, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which I read as a kid and have never stopped loving. The Charioteer is one of her earlier novels, set more in modern times (World War II), at an army hospital as it happens.

Basically the main character, Laurie (called Spud because his last name’s Odell, bless him) is wounded at Dunkirk and falls madly in love with a conscientious objector who is an orderly at his army hospital. And their chaste romance continues apace, because Laurie nobly fears that he will ruin everything for innocent Andrew if he tells him about homosexuality. I am not a big fan of Andrew’s, to be honest, because he gets all noble and offended about everything, which makes me tired, and plus it crushes me when Laurie’s all tense and snappy due to unrequited love. So meanwhile he is reunited with this guy he admired when they were in school together, before the guy got expelled for being a big gay, and they get along gorgeously and Ralph is rather sweetly gallant. P.S. I like Ralph better than Andrew, and if I were Laurie, I’d be like, Huh, now with Ralph I have a future that contains good conversations, good sex, and no hiding shit, whereas with Andrew it’s just the good conversations and endless mental torture, and the decision would be easy, but Laurie spends a lot of time agonizing over it.

I can’t explain what makes this book so appealing to me. One thing is that they really do have good conversations. Mary Renault writes these beautiful dialogue sequences that are just impossibly eloquent with the things they’re saying and the things they’re not saying. I go green with envy reading it because I will never, ever be able to pack that much meaning and intensity into a line of dialogue, ever. And overall, it’s just such an understated and melancholy book, and I really do like Ralph an awful lot. He’s such a dear and he loves Laurie so much.

I will add this caveat: There’s a fair bit of unpleasantness with the more effeminate gay characters. They all have idiotic names like Bim and Toto and Bunny, and they are all gossipy bitchy people trying to screw up everyone else’s lives by telling lies and reading diaries and making half-assed manipulative suicide attempts. Not very nice in Mary Renault and not incredibly defensible even though she was writing about people that actually existed in a certain environment to which she had been recently, and to her detriment, exposed.