Thursday, 31 May 2012

Glitzy depth

Congratulations to Madeline Miller for her deserved Orange Prize win for The Song of Achilles - and commiserations on the critical Telegraph article about the 'triumph of glitzy storytelling over literary depth'. My favourite for the prize was Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, but as should be evident from my review of Miller's novel, I don't agree with the Telegraph's verdict at all. Given the dreary middle-of-the-road literary novels that often win prizes (see also Anne Enright, The Gathering) I'm thrilled with a win for a book which I see as having 'glitzy depth'. What the Telegraph seems to have missed is that a novel can be outwardly dazzling and gripping while still possessing literary quality (see also: David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas) and that this is incredibly refreshing after many of the worthy reads on the shortlist (I haven't read their favourite, Foreign Bodies, but I couldn't even get started with Georgina Harding's Painter of Silence). If you're interested in reading the glitzy article, click here

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

In defence of spoilers

I'm usually very careful with spoilers on this blog. If I do have to 'spoil' a book's ending to properly review it, for example, I always put up spoiler alerts; as I know many people prefer to avoid spoilers for books they haven't read. I can't say, however, that I've ever understood this. For two reasons; one, it seems to me that if you really want to avoid spoilers, you simply shouldn't read any reviews or comments on the book in question; and secondly, and following on from that point, I suppose I have a different idea of what a 'spoiler' is. Most complaints that I've seen voiced about spoilers concern the giving away of either the ending or major plot points. However, it seems to me that any review of a book is intrinsically full of spoilers for the potential reader, however vaguely it relates to the plot, because if it's a review worth its salt, it's going to give some kind of opinion about the worth of that novel, and, quite frequently, will comment on the characters and writing style. Although it might have avoided giving any information about the sacred plot, for readers like me, who are much more interested in how characters develop, reviews like this can be just as spoiler-filled. And, more broadly, knowing others' opinions of a novel before you begin it colours your view of it - whether you are predisposed to agree with them, or determined to dislike it because it's been so hyped, for example - and so these can be considered 'spoilers' as well.

With 'spoiler' redefined this broadly, it's obvious that no review can avoid spoiling a book. And I see this as a good thing. It's frustrating when reviews in the media dance around a topic, unable to give a full and considered opinion of a work because of the dreaded spoilers. Much better, I believe, to put up a generic spoiler warning and dive right in. Even if we take the word 'spoiler' in its narrowest sense - i.e. giving away the ending - there are many books and films that cannot be discussed properly without a consideration of the ending. I encountered this problem in my review of The Memory of Love, and was thrilled with the freedom I had in reviewing The Song of Achilles, where I was free to 'spoil' because everybody knows the story anyway (and surprisingly, they still enjoyed the book! Spoilers aren't that scary! Also see: The Other Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, etc, etc.)

So while I will continue putting up my spoiler alerts, I would prefer a reassessment of what really spoils a reading of a novel. Privileging plot information in this way, I think, not only short-changes those who don't care about it, but promotes a very narrow definition of why we enjoy reading books.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Nietzsche on friendship

My boyfriend has read a lot of Nietzsche and I have read very little, but I like this quotation very much, especially the first half (apologies Nietzsche, but 'star friendship' sounds to me like something I would have invented at ten or eleven and written on a friendship bracelet or half of a 'Forever Friends' locket):

‘We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did—and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see one another again,—perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us: by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other! And thus the memory of our former friendship should become more sacred! There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path,—let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.— Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies.'

Not strictly book-related... rant on anti-spoiler people coming soon, however!

Friday, 4 May 2012

Orange Prize, Two: ‘There is no peace for those who live after’

[Orange Prize, One, or my first read from the Orange Prize shortlist for this year, was Ann Patchett's fantastic State of Wonder. I've not written a full review of it, but snippets of my thoughts can be found here and here]

I first encountered The Iliad through Roger Lancelyn Green’s accessible retelling for children, The Tale of Troy, and graduated as a teenager to Adele Geras’s excellent young adult novel, Troy, which focuses on the experiences of the Trojans rather than the Greeks. Perhaps this could be seen as the adult counterpart to those retellings, the third of the trilogy; it certainly illuminated aspects of the story I hadn’t considered or heard about before, despite my reservations before beginning this novel that I would find the siege of Troy over-familiar.

Unlike Homer, Madeline Miller starts her story long before Troy is besieged, when Helen is still unmarried and being courted by a number of suitors, amongst them Patroclus, who narrates the story, then a nine-year-old boy who has been forced to join the group by his forbidding father. The courting of Helen was the first of the scenes that I had never seen played out fully in a retelling, and it forms an elegant beginning to this book, which opens almost in folktale mode. ‘My father was a king and a son of kings’, Patroclus tells us, and the formal procession of suitors, and Odysseus’s ruse to allow Helen to choose for herself, reminded me of a traditional tale-structure; one expects the setting of three tasks, a search for a golden apple, rather than the simple awarding of Helen to Menelaus. The closing of this scene makes the first of Miller’s frequent, and seamless, switches between different modes of storytelling. As Patroclus grows up, we embark upon a more naturalistic apprenticeship narrative, as he is exiled from his own kingdom and befriends the young Achilles, and they both go to train under the centaur, Chiron – although the ever-present threat of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, adds a supernatural element that occasionally seems jarring when Miller is focused on the more mundane growing pains of two boys.

And after Achilles and Patroclus fall in love, the story frequently foregrounds the lyric, the style that Miller has said that she sought for Patroclus’s voice throughout the tale, rather than writing an epic Homeric pastiche. There is, indeed, very little of the epic in this story, primarily because of Patroclus’s intense human sympathy and fellow-feeling for those suffering. In his world, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, for example, is no longer a voluntary act, but coercive: ‘She choked, tried to speak, could not. Her body thrashed and writhed, but the hands of the king pinned her down... Iphigenia had known, [Agamemnon] said, had agreed to do it. Most men had not been close enough to see the startled panic in her eyes. Gratefully, they believed their general’s lie.’  This softening of the harsh classical belief systems of honour and sacrifice is also evident in a scene much later in the novel, when Achilles refuses to fight for the Greeks, and Patroclus puts on his armour and goes in his place. In The Iliad, Achilles is worried that Patroclus will take the honour that should be his, but in The Song of Achilles, he’s simply concerned for the safety of his lover: ‘You cannot fight... it is too dangerous... Swear to me. Swear to me that if you go you will not fight them.’ Patroclus’s humane retelling also casts new light on Briseis, Achilles’ captured slave-girl; he explains that Achilles only took her as part of his division of the spoils because Patroclus wanted to save her from rape by another soldier.

I wasn’t sure what I felt about Miller’s decision to reinterpret the classical tale in this way. On one hand, as Victoria noted in her excellent review at Eve’s Alexandria, the story must be re-interpreted for a modern audience, or there is no point in retelling it at all; we no longer understand stories in the way the Ancient Greeks did, and Miller is enormously successful in recreating a gripping epic in a very modern voice. On the other hand, I would have liked to see her face head-on the importance of honour and sacrifice in this culture, and made Achilles and Patroclus sympathetic in spite of this, rather than simply removing the obstacles to our identification with them. She shows that she is capable of this in an earlier scene, when Achilles wrestles between his very human love for Patroclus, and his godlike destiny. He has been told that if he goes to fight at Troy, he will die there, but if he does not go: ‘“... your godhead will wither in you, unused. Your strength will diminish. At best, you will be like Lycomedes here, mouldering on a forgotten island... He can live out his years in some corner eating the bread they soften for him, senile and alone. When he dies, people will say, who?” The words filled the room, thinning the air until we could not breathe. Such a life was a horror.’ And we believe that it is; and we understand Achilles’ choice to go to Troy, even when he might live a long life with his lover.

My objections here are not because I think that this retelling is historically inaccurate – what does that mean, in this context? – but because I felt that Miller could have made this story even more interesting than it already is. Patroclus’s modern values make Achilles and Patroclus feel sundered, set apart from the rest of the classical-minded Greeks, and I wanted to feel that they were part of that culture, even if their homosexual relationship differentiated them from the other men. But to say this is not to imply that this novel is a failure. I enjoyed it immensely. Miller has a wonderful command of the pace, letting the story lull and loiter, at certain points, only to engage the reader’s interest more strongly when the next part of the tale kicks into action. There are several mini-stories told throughout the novel; Patroclus’s childhood; training with Chiron; journey to Troy; the saga of Briseis; Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon; and Miller unites them beautifully, but lets each tale complete itself before going onto the next. The most resonant scene in the novel, for me, was the well-known sequence where King Priam comes to beg Achilles for his son’s body; a scene that is powerful because it has equal resonance for a modern and classical audience, I imagine. ‘It is right to seek peace for the dead,’ Priam tells the bereaved Achilles. ‘You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.’

This book is a worthy contender for the Orange Prize, and the only reason it isn’t my instant favourite to win is because I loved State of Wonder even more. Nevertheless, I’ve heard Miller is working on a retelling of The Odyssey, and I’m very excited, not least because Odysseus is fantastic in this. Highly recommended.