Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE SONG OF ACHILLIES by Madeline Miller

From The Independent, September 11 2011
Vivian Groskop reviews

The Song of Achilles, By Madeline Miller

For a whistlestop tour around the life and times of Achilles, you'd be hard pressed to find a better guide than Madeline Miller.

This young, first-time novelist has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek and has studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience. Something about this accomplished and enjoyable novel makes you feel it's the book she's been working up to for her whole life thus far. And that's very satisfying for the reader indeed. The Song of Achilles is original, clever and in a class of its own.

The setting is Greece in the age of heroes. When Patroclus, a complicated and stubborn young prince, accidentally kills a man, he is exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. There, he is raised by King Peleus, who is the father of Achilles, a youth the same age as Patroclus. Whereas Patroclus is geeky, awkward and self-conscious, Achilles is strong, handsome and regal. "This is what a prince should be," thinks Patroclus. They become unlikely companions and, eventually, lovers.

Sex aside, so far this sounds like something out of a prep-school classics lesson, circa 1984. But Miller works hard to transcend the potentially preachy limitations of her material, and The Song of Achilles is an incredibly compelling and seductive read. Her skill is considerable: she has to make us believe in Achilles and Patroclus almost as if they were modern-day characters in a Hollywood movie. (I have to confess to seeing a young Brad Pitt as Achilles throughout; Patroclus would probably be Steve Carell, who played the 40-year-old virgin in the movie of that name. In fact, both Pitt and Carell are too old for these roles, and no one would want to see the sex scenes.)

This is a tale of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the epically long Trojan War. The gods are continually intervening and trying to make sense of things, while the men rampage around trying to appease the gods and get what they want at the same time. Achilles spends most of his time brandishing his sword and killing people without really registering it. He doesn't know his own strength.

There is one man whom Achilles must avoid killing, and that is his arch-rival Hector. He knows the prophecy: Hector dies first, then Achilles. So as long as Hector lives, Achilles is safe. As Patroclus puts it: "And Hector must live, always, he must never die, not even when he is old, not even when he is so withered that his bones slide beneath his skin like loose rocks in a stream."

Patroclus is a beautifully drawn, complex character; the real hero of the story. He is what we all fear we might be – pathetic in the face of fate – but his honesty and practicality make him a loveable chap, especially when he takes on the role of war camp medic and gets to know all of the great warriors' flaws. "Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax's acid stomach. It moved me to see how much they trusted me, turned hopeful faces towards me for comfort." (At this point in the novel, the seven-stone weakling of the piece was suddenly seeming a bit more like George Clooney to me.)

Although Patroclus purports to be a coward, we know that the only person whom he really fears is Achilles' mother, the cruel sea goddess Thetis. She is forever popping up with blood spilling out of her lips, kidnapping Achilles to warn him of the evil ways of men – and then to grieve that even she cannot save him from them. The interplay between the gods and men in The Song of Achilles is wonderful: no one is ever completely in control, although this doesn't stop both sides from persuading themselves that, at some particular moment, they are the ones with the power.

Of course, you can't write a book with "Achilles" in the title without it having a heel of some kind. And this novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work. There is plenty of sexual tension (and actual sex), much of it homoerotic: Brokeback Mountain sets sail for Troy. But it has all this – necessarily, as sex is the whole point of the story, and much of Achilles' power rests on his masculine allure – without being remotely trashy. It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres. It does what the best novels do – it transports you to another world – as well as doing something that few novels bother to: it makes you feel incredibly clever.

Of course, if we were all better read in classical history, perhaps we would not need to read a novel like this at all. The Song of Achilles just made me glad that I was ignorant enough to really enjoy it.


From Literary Review, September 2011

Peter Jones reviews THE CRIMES OF ELAGABALUS: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, by Martjin Icks

The popular image of a Roman emperor is probably determined by Nero: fat, corrupt and doomed but determined to go out in a blaze of orgies, alcohol and mayhem. Elagabalus (actually Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal whom he intended to replace Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon, makes Nero look an amateur. Brought to power in AD 218 at age fourteen by his family in a desperate bid to maintain Antonine rule, he lasted four years before being done to death in the arms of his mother after a reign of which Gibbon said its ‘inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country’. Even if accounts are only half accurate, one can see why.

Here are some extracts from one of the three sources for his life, the *Historia Augusta* (so named in 1603) a collection of lives of the emperors, put together probably sometime in the fourth century AD. Authorship is debatable – the great Sir Ronald Syme thought it put together by a rogue university teacher with a strong imagination and powerful sense of humour – but it gives a general idea of the sort of person we are talking about.

Depilated and made up like a woman, ‘the recipient of lust in every orifice of his body’, he sent agents looking for men with large organs to satisfy his passions. He put a dancer-cum-actor in charge of the Praetorian Guard, and a barber of the grain supply. The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. His feasting and parties were a riot: ‘He would often shut his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let in lions and leopards and bears - rendered harmless - so that when they woke up they would find at dawn, or what is worse, at night, lions, bears and panthers in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died as a result of this.’

He invented a prototype whoopee-cushion: ‘Many of his humbler friends he used to seat on air-pillows instead of cushions and would let out the air while they were dining, so that often the diners were suddenly found under the tables. Finally, he was the first to think of setting out a semi-circle on the ground, not on couches, so that the air-cushions might be loosened by slave-boys at their feet, to let out the air … When already emperor, he used to order ten thousand mice to be brought to him, or a thousand weasels, or a thousand shrew-mice… He served his parasites with dinners made of glass… Sometimes, however, paintings were served up to them, so that they were served with everything, as it were, and yet were tortured with hunger…’.

Since an early, violent death had been predicted for him, he even had a suicide tower built ‘with gilded and jewelled boards spread underneath in front of him,… saying that even his death ought to be costly and of an extravagant pattern…’ (all tr. by Anthony Birley, Lives of the Later Caesars).

He was, in other words, the sort of emperor the Arts Council would have died for, and while Icks very diligently tries to sort out historical fact from fiction in the first half of the book, this is where his real interest lies – Elagabalus’ ‘cultural legacy’.

He re-emerged in the course of the fourteenth century ‘rediscovery’ of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Commonly seen as the archetypal tyrant who was above the law and committed only to his own personal desires, he was amusingly touted as the perfect ruler of an anti-utopian society by Thomas Artus (1605) in an attack on the French state of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the emphasis shifted from the perfect tyrant to the perfect paradigm of sexual ambivalence, orientalism, ennui and decay. Moral disapproval disappeared and art for art’s sake held the centre stage: Elagabalus the performer with the whole world his audience, the ‘pure product of aestheticism at all costs’ (David).

Maurice, the hero of Didier’s La DestinĂ©e (1900), found in him ‘the incomparable artist’, determined to cross every boundary in the search for the unrealisable. Inevitably he is turned into an ancient pop-star in Thomas Jonigk’s opera Heliogabal (2003), with the novel message that stars come and go. He was now a positive figure, battling the morals and values of the day in the name of self-realisation and sexual liberty: in fact, ‘just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks’ (a Neil Gaiman comic, 1992).

Just about sums it up, really. But ‘reception studies’ being all the rage in university classics departments at the moment at the expense of the serious study of the language and culture of the ancient world, I can already see a flock of bleating receptionists being herded together on the horizon to do yet more, pointless ‘research’ into this ghastly creature. But once you have done the historical job on him, which Icks has, the rest is intellectual froth. Comprendre tout, c’est pardonner tout. No, it isn’t.