Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I first heard of The Song of Achilles when Madeline Miller won last year’s Orange Prize, an impressive achievement for a debut novel. Miller teaches Latin and Ancient Greek, so has a strong background to take on Homer. As a long time classics geek myself, I put it on my to-read list. Her take on Achilles is undeniably modern, and manages to strike a difficult balance by giving justice to the complex world of classical myth while being readable to a layperson.

The Song of Achilles takes its title from the opening line of The Iliad
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
but is not solely about the events that take place in the epic poem, which rather than telling the story of the fall of Troy as is often assumed, actually only relates the events of a few weeks in the tenth year of the war. Miller takes much of her story from events related in the Epic Cycle, and throws in a fair bit of her own invention. Her version of this ancient myth is narrated by Patroclus, Achilles’s closest friend, and, as Miller interprets, lover. Her story begins with Patroclus’s childhood, when he is exiled by his family and sent to live in the court of Peleus. Here, he and Achilles strike up a boyish friendship that over the years grows into a romantic relationship. These events take up almost the whole first half of the novel. We are introduced to a very different Achilles from the wrathful one I knew from the classics. Here he is a laughing, energetic boy, albeit a rather gifted one (his mother is a goddess after all). Our view of him is through the prism of Patroclus’s feelings, yet we see glimpses at times of insouciance that could so easily be arrogance, determination that could become stubborn pride. The love story is handled with a light touch, and beautifully told, yet I found myself wanting things to move forward a little quicker.

At last our heroes reach the shores of Troy, and the story spins through to its inevitable conclusion - the story of The Iliad: Agamemnon (the most powerful Greek king) and Achilles will fight; whilst Achilles sulks, Patroclus will fight in battle and be killed by Hector; Achilles will then kill Hector in a rage. Spoilers? No, the Iliad is thousands of years old. This of course poses the problem of how to keep it interesting when we already know what will happen. Wisely, I think, Miller doesn’t try to make the ending a surprise. By using the classical beliefs in prophecy and the fates, our heroes themselves are aware that Achilles will kill Hector, and in doing so will cement his reputation as ‘Aristos Achaion’ the best of the Greeks, but this will also lead to his own death.

The second half of the novel is what I had hoped for when I started. At first Patroclus admires Achilles, seeing him in a new light as he triumphs in battle
I could not see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.
The familiar Achilles eventually begins to appear, and the story we all know is told. Miller’s love story adds pathos to an otherwise straightforward retelling. Disappointingly, I felt some moments lacked emotional punch, especially the scene where Priam visits Achilles to beg for the body of his son, Hector. Thankfully Miller handles the inevitable problem of the death of our narrator with aplomb. How? I won’t tell, but she brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.

Miller plans to write a novel based on the Odyssey next. I’m looking forward to reading it, especially as Odysseus was one of her most successful characters. The Song of Achilles is an interesting and at times very moving interpretation of one of the world’s oldest myths. I can’t help, however, comparing it to Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2008 novel Lavinia, in which Le Guin tells the story of the second half of The Aeneid through the eyes of Lavinia, the eventual wife of Aeneas. In my opinion this is a superior take on classical myth. But then, I did always prefer the Romans to the Greeks.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

My husband enjoys reading Jonathan Lethem, and over the years has tossed a few my way, some of which I read, and some of which (much to his disappointment) I never quite got around to. I read one of his early works a couple of years ago - Amnesia Moon, a post-apocalyptic road movie, where reality was a slippery construct. Lethem is one of those authors you can’t judge based on one book; he doesn’t stick to writing in one genre. Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel, set in Lethem’s hometown.

Our hero is Lionel Essrog, and we meet him in a car, on a stakeout which goes horribly wrong. He is listening in on a meeting between his boss, Frank Minna, and some unknowns, which culminates in Minna‘s murder. With only the few clues picked up through his wire, Lionel is determined to uncover the truth behind Minna’s death. Except they aren’t really detectives. Frank Minna is a small time crook, using the detective agency (which itself masquerades as a car agency) as cover. Lionel and his three colleagues were recruited as teenage orphans from a home, and have worked for Frank Minna all their lives. Whether or not the Minna Men are all still loyal is only one of the many threads Lionel will have to unravel.

It sounds pretty straightforward so far, and for the most part it is; Motherless Brooklyn follows all the conventions of a detective novel. In his wanderings of Brooklyn, Lionel slowly begins to piece the clues together, which are then revealed to us in a final dramatic set-piece. Lethem throws in a couple of (admittedly sedate) car chases, a fair bit of gun waving, some Buddhist monks and, although there is no blonde bombshell, there is an attractive girl who garners some attention from our hero. The detective element of the story is, well, competent. I’m not sure the reveal was as satisfying as I wanted it to be. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, more that I didn't feel it lived up to my expectations based on the rest of the book.

What makes this novel interesting is the compelling narrative voice Lethem finds in Lionel Essrog. He is no hardboiled detective, or greasy gangster. Lionel is basically an ordinary guy who happens to have Tourette’s Syndrome. I don’t know a lot about Tourette’s, but to me it seemed a very convincing portrayal. Lionel’s ticcing has some physical expressions, like his penchant for tapping shoulders, and eating habits, such as needing to eat the same number of items as others around him. Many of his verbal tics take the form of echolalia, which is repetition of what others are saying. These allow Lethem to engage in a bit of wordplay, as Lionel mangles words and phrases
"I don’t know. Screw Tony. I like you better Lionel. I just never told you.” She was hurt, erratic her voice straying wildly, searching for a place to rest. “I like you, too, Julia. There’s nothing-Screwtony! Nertscrony! Screwtsony! Tootscrewny!-sorry. There’s nothing wrong with that."
Not that Lethem uses Tourette’s as a gag, as we so often see it. It is a central part of Lionel’s character. He is often written off as a bit crazy, meaning he is ignored while he observes everything around him; this is one of the reasons he was so valuable to Minna. Lethem also captures the humour people develop to deal with adversity. Lionel is very self aware, and able to joke about his impulses, even as he craves normality.

Brooklyn, and a sense of place, is another central part of the novel. Lionel knows Brooklyn intricately. There is a sense of geographic detail that, as I have never been to Brooklyn, I’m sure I wasn’t able to fully appreciate. It serves a purpose further than accuracy though, as Lionel has never travelled - his world is a very insular place. The intrusion of Minna’s murderers into this place is initially very shocking, but eventually drags him out into a wider world.

Lethem somewhat reminds me of one of my favourite authors China Mieville, in the way he genre-swaps. I think it must take considerable skill to immerse yourself in the different conventions for each book. In the end though, what all good books have in common is character, and setting. Lethem certainly creates these convincingly.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

I think I have already mentioned on this blog that I have a little tradition of reading a Dickens novel for Christmas, which started when I read my first (Bleak House) over the holidays some years ago. This year I reread one of my favourites, Little Dorrit, which is also one of Dickens’s lesser known novels. It is one of his later novels, and is one of the heftier tomes. In it Dickens tells a deeply personal story, and produces some of his best satire. He set the novel in the late 1820s and centred the story around the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Dickens own father was imprisoned here, a part of his childhood he was deeply ashamed of. Although the Marshalsea was closed by the time Dickens was writing, he still wished to address the injustice of locking up debtors at the whim of their creditors regardless of the size of their debt.

The titular character Amy, or Little, Dorrit, lives with her father in London’s Marshalsea Prison, where he has languished for decades. Once a rich man of property, he ruined his family, and his children have been brought up in prison; the youngest, Amy, was even born there. Elsewhere we meet the Clennam family: Arthur Clennam has recently returned to London from China where he and his late father were working for the family firm. His stern mother represents the firm in London, though she is housebound, never leaving her wheelchair. She is aided by the creepy Mr Flintwinch, her servant and eventual business partner. Arthur Clennam has been led to believe by his father that the family fortune may have been built upon someone else’s misfortune. When he comes home to find Amy Dorrit employed as a seamstress by his mother he suspects a connection. But he is not the only person on the trail - the villainous Rigaud is infiltrating their society, and blackmail is on the agenda.

As you can see, Little Dorrit is another example of a labyrinthine Dickens plot. It is also an excellent example of how Dickens at his best used plot to explore various ideas. Along with social inequalities and injustices, Dickens is particularly concerned with prisons: the Marshalsea, a jail cell in Europe, Mrs Clennam imprisoned in her wasted body, her chair and her house, but also those prisons that are entirely the constructs of our minds. Even if the walls are removed, Mr Dorrit can never be free of the effects of years of incarceration. Even the highest forms of society, Dickens shows, can be a form of prison - trapping its inhabitants in expectations.

I have already mentioned on my blog Dickens’s penchant for writing his heroines as dutiful, perfect housekeeping, self-sacrificing annoying little things. Little Dorrit is the epitome of these traits, devoting herself to her father way beyond the call of duty. For some reason I find her less annoying. I think partly because he also gives her a bit more substance than some of the other examples (like Little Nell, ugh). Once or twice she is able to make a selfish decision, i.e. the decision that is best for her, not her father. She is also so taken for granted by her family that I genuinely feel for her.

One of Dickens‘s cruellest, but also funniest characters is Flora, Arthur’s childhood sweetheart. They were deliberately separated by their families, and then by the twenty years or so Arthur has been in Asia. Flora is now a widow, and not quite the woman Arthur remembers
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had became a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much.
As Arthur recoils from Flora, she is more than willing to throw herself at the man she once loved. It is cringe-worthy, and made worse by Dickens giving her just enough of genuine good meaning, especially in her behaviour towards Little Dorrit, to take the edge off caricature. Her character is beautifully conjured in her long ungrammatical speeches - a breathless gallop of thoughts, sorely lacking in punctuation.
Ask me not…if I love him still or if he loves me or what is to be or when, when we are surrounded by watchful eyes and it may be that we are destined to pine asunder it may be never more to be reunited not a word not a breath not a look to betray is all must be secret as the tomb wonder not therefore that even if I should seem comparatively cold to Arthur or Arthur should seem comparatively cold to me we have fatal reasons it is enough if we understand them hush!
The cruelty in this fabulous creation of Dickens's is that she wasn’t entirely a fabrication. As soon she appeared in print a Mary Winter (who had once been Mary Beadnell, Dickens’s first love from whom he was separated by family), recognised herself. It was not the first time she had inspired Dickens; she also appears in the youthful guise of Dora in David Copperfield. She had recently been reunited with Dickens and he obviously found her something of a disappointment. Dickens may be have been a great writer, but he could be savage to those who failed to live up to his expectations.

It may be 150 years since Little Dorrit first appeared in print, but much of it seems startlingly relevant today. After all, this Victorian London revolves around bureaucracy and money. The rich get richer, while those without are condemned to desperate lives, scrabbling to make ends meet. Dickens depicts what must be the first Ponzi scheme to appear in print, run by Mr Merdle. Merdle is the man of the moment, sought after by the fawning society glitterati, even as he desperately paddles to stay afloat, in a prison of his own making. The entirety of London is swept up in this ruthless pursuit of money. Mr Merdle’s bank is a sure bet, right up until the moment it collapses, revealing its customers have nothing more than castles in the air. In this post GFC world it seems we have not learned much; Greed rules eternal.

And what of the end? Oh yes, everything gets wrapped up nicely and neatly, with unexpected twists, coincidences, and a fair bit of schmaltz. If you like your conclusions neat, Dickens will give you that, but you have to put realism aside. The plot is only the bone, and around it Dickens gives us plenty of meat: memorable characters, metaphor and social critique. I have long been a fan of Dickens; despite his flaws, he deserves his reputation as one of the great novelists.