It is possible - though somewhat distressing - that my love affair with Mary Renault is beginning to draw to a close. It began about eight years ago,...moreIt is possible - though somewhat distressing - that my love affair with Mary Renault is beginning to draw to a close. It began about eight years ago, when I first read The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea surrounding a passionate, pilgrimage-like trip to Greece. I was amazed that Renault possessed the same respect, reverence even for the Greeks and the Greek culture that I did. The care and seriousness with which she endowed her historical novels impressed me - here, I thought, is another person like me! It didn't bother me that much, then, that her books were so universally lacking in female characters - she wrote about Greek, mostly homosexual (though all of them, with the possible exception of Bagoas, are at least slightly bisexual, which touch of realism I also appreciated) men, and those were important stories that needed to be told, even though there was little room for women in them.
However, several years later, having just now finished the last of her historical novels that I will ever read for the first time (two of her earlier, contemporary set efforts I haven't been able to secure yet), I find that I can look at her with clearer, more judgmental eyes. I see flaws, now, in her writing, that I never noticed before - shortcuts she makes in her characterization, the way the persistent marginalization of the women in her stories moves beyond a quirk of plot and into a troubling, almost, Anne Rice-like pattern, the way the structure of her novels is almost always oddly anti-climactic, with the plot petering out in a manner that, while it may be quite realistic, proves distinctly unsatisfying. I don't fall into a sort of contented adoration when reading her books any longer - I don't feel quite so much at home.
But, nonetheless, she remains good, and strangely unique. She writes about Greek men, Greek masculinity with this astonishing clarity and compassion that I don't think anyone else has quite managed on that particular topic. She is still the only author I know who writes men in love with one another and remaining - realistically - warriors, without a hint of stereotype (this turns into a quite ugly denigration of effeminate gay men in The Charioteer, which is enormously problematic, but we'll leave that alone for now). And what I found most interesting in The Persian Boy was the freedom that she found, in the person of this entirely unexpected narrative voice, to explore this really fascinating dialogue about what the classical Greek culture means, what makes it what it is and how much of that is actually worthwhile.
The Persian Boy is a strange book. It is the story of Bagoas, a eunuch in the court of King Darius III of Persia, who became the eromenos of Alexander the Great after Alexander's conquest of Persia. It's a brilliant example of an author taking a minor figure in history and opening them up, making them into a very wonderful and unique window into a large and important time while still giving them realistic prominence as an individual. I appreciated it as a book that gave voice to a voiceless figure in history, for eunuchs and concubines get mentioned on the sidelines of both of histories and novels - for a character to rise to the rank of protagonist, normally they must daringly and implausibly escape both of those situations. Bagoas' position also gave him a unique and interesting perspective on the aforementioned Greek/Persian dialogue that runs throughout the book. While he loves Alexander unerringly, and loves the Greek qualities in him because they are part of him, he finds Greek ideals and ideas, generally speaking, ludicrous and laughable (but, of course, he loves Homer, because I don't think Mary Renault could bear to write a point of view character who didn't like Homer). His paeans to the dignity and power of hierarchical Persian court rituals, especially the ritual of vassals' prostration before their king, are startling and powerful, and almost convincing. You side with him for a long time, sharing his frustration as Alexander's Macedonian comrades proudly refuse to bow before him as though for an oriental monarch - Bagoas does not only consider them old-fashioned, as Alexander himself does, but insolent, uncouth, and disloyal, as well as entirely irrational.
And then, midway through the book, the limits of Bagoas' vision came into focus a little more clearly. Alexander is committing hubris, and most dreadfully - claiming that his deeds outshine those of Herakles and Dionysus is a blasphemy that would shock me in the most arrogant of Roman emperors. Alexander may, as Renault and Bagoas claim, want nothing more than the love and devotion of his subjects - but the devotion he wants is that due to a deity, not to an equal and citizen. Moreover, Bagoas was trained in the rites of respect and hierarchy of which he speaks so highly at the same time as his training in concubinage - at the age of twelve. I was impressed, at the beginning of the book, by how seriously Renault took Bagoas' trauma (in this she does not resemble Anne Rice and The Vampire Armand, which has some suspiciously similar plot points), but by the time Bagoas meets Alexander it has seemingly faded to the background, to be replaced with a cool professionalism and a pride in his 'work' as a concubine and courtesan. I distrust this, and thus anything Bagoas says about sexuality or power dynamics following his formalized training in the court of Darius. The moral tapestry Renault is weaving is a little more complex than that - are we really sympathizing with these tyrants, who habitually mutilate children for use has sex slaves, over the Greeks, with their wonderful 'undignified' nudity and their belief in democracy? Perhaps Alexander should have been murdered after making his his comrades prostrate themselves before him.
I may be reading too much into it. It is clear from the afterword of the book that Renault loves Alexander almost as much as Bagoas does - she may have been willing to excuse him both the ways in which he was Greek and the ways in which he was Persian. But I, at least, was stimulated by the ethical dialogue, by having my sympathies jolted so.
Other problems I had with the book - because the central character is a trauma survivor whose sense of his masculinity has been seriously (and literally) damaged, the exclusion of women felt even more arbitrary than it normally does. We hear Bagoas speak with anger and nuance about his own violations, as though they are serious crimes worthy of our attention as readers, but the screams of captive women being raped are referred to, more or less casually, throughout the book. I wanted to hear their stories as well, not just Bagoas'. Also, Bagoas monogamy was a mild irritation the whole time - his jealousy of Hephaiston just felt utterly stupid. I wanted them to have good, sympathetic conversations with one another.(less)
Frustratingly simplistic. These are easy reversals of fairy tales, and stand or fall based entirely on the reader's agreement with the reversal, rathe...moreFrustratingly simplistic. These are easy reversals of fairy tales, and stand or fall based entirely on the reader's agreement with the reversal, rather than as stories on their own. I like the idea of lesbian friendly fairy tales - I, for one, am someone who always wanted to kiss the witch, as the title proclaims - but there must be a way of telling those stories without leeching all the power of the original. Threat is powerful - the danger and ugliness of fairy tales are why they have stayed with us so long. If all the witches and the stepmothers are good, if all Rapunzel wants is to stay in her tower and love her foster-mother, what is the story about? These versions too often felt that they were going for the easy way, switching the fairy tales simply to make all the female characters amicable to one another. I would like romantic love between women which is a little more hard-won, not the twist ending that these stories made it. And if Snow White is going to stay with the stepmother who did threaten to kill her, I'd like a little more of the emotional complexity behind that decision.
I'm so hard on these stories partly because they came so near to being something that I would love. And I very much wanted to love them, but in the end they were just too straightforward, their prose affected rather than organic, each ending on the same emotional note. And there are better fairy tale rewrites out there - try the terribly under-appreciated Donna Jo Napoli, who is all about emotional complexity.(less)
In this novel, Mary Renault departs from her usual setting of Classical Greece to tell the story of a young gay British soldier on medical leave durin...moreIn this novel, Mary Renault departs from her usual setting of Classical Greece to tell the story of a young gay British soldier on medical leave during World War II. I was at first skeptical about Renault writing a novel in a more modern setting, but the straightforward prose and austere beauty that has leant so much to her Greek novels works to her advantage here, giving true voices to her soldiers. It's a quiet book, with the characters' sexuality given an important but subtle place, unlike what we might be given to expect from more modern queer literature. In that, it was highly reminiscent of E. M. Forester's Maurice, particularly in the early chapters, which give brief images from the protaganist Laurie's youth - interesting, since Forester's novel had, at the time, been written but not published.
It's a lovely book, and one of the rare examples of a queer themed novel that actually seems to be a romance primarily, without falling into an unrealistic fantasy of universal acceptance - a difficult balance to strike. I loved the characters, and their problems and dynamics felt very real to me. It was a book that aknowledged and celebrated the beauty of true connections between people even as it showed the places where fundamentally good people make mistakes. Highly recommended to anyone looking for a queer themed book, a book about England during World War II, or anyone looking for an emotionally realistic romance.(less)
There are interesting themes lurking in this book, themes of gender, and identity, and sexuality, and art and what we are willing to sacrifice for it,...moreThere are interesting themes lurking in this book, themes of gender, and identity, and sexuality, and art and what we are willing to sacrifice for it, but, alas, these themes never did more then lurk. Rice, with her characteristically odd focus, never gives those things in her premise which are rich and fascinating anywhere near enough time to flower. I have little empathy for the reviewers here who rate this book badly out of distaste for its subject matter; I love unexplored corners of history, and when so much disgust greets even the mention of the castrati, they are likely to remain one of those corners for a long time. I wanted Rice to, in this narrative, bask in the glory of the Italian opera, write in tribute to the dubious, troubling moral values explicit in the mutilation (though mutilation it is not when it is consensual, but few times in this novel was it so. I do not put much stock in the high drama in the secondary plotline of this book, the very beginning, with the unwitting fate of the peasant boy with the beautiful voice whose parents had fallen on hard times...that I could believe, and easily) of young boys for the betterment of an extreme, demanding art.
But she does not. Instead, she spends her time on lurid family scandals that more fit the plots of one of those authors than a work of serious historical fiction (which I suppose this is not, but I like to be open minded), and on romantic relationships which are never carefully developed enough to be convincing. I did not want to hear about the drama of casting within the castrati's school; I wanted to hear, in richer and more convincing detail, what it was they were learning. The refusal of one of the characters to play female roles was fascinating, but I wanted more of a careful look at that, at the insecurity and nueroses that it comes from. I felt that Rice's insistence on not qualify that characterization choice was the product of a perspective firmly rooted in the modern era, when what we now call 'drag' is given a far different sort of recognition.
If I had reminded myself of Rice's proven failings, of her repeated inability to focus on the parts of her plotlines that I particularly find interesting, then I could have expected precisely all my dissatisfactions with this novel. Take that as a warning, those of you familiar with Rice's others work: this is as representative os anything, even if it has no supernatural elements.(less)
This title is somewhat misleading - as author Eva Cantarella says in the introduction, our modern designations of homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexu...moreThis title is somewhat misleading - as author Eva Cantarella says in the introduction, our modern designations of homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual simply didn't exist in ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, I fully understand her reasoning in not titling it 'Homosexuality in the Ancient World', but think that, since this book was not, in fact, a study of the way in which people in the mentioned time periods have demonstrated sexual feelings for both genders, but rather one finding the evidence that homosexual relationships were indeed a part of both cultures...I do think that the title ought to have been changed.
It's an odd book, feeling often to be doing little more than enumerating references without expounding on them in any significant way. Personally, I didn't find it satisfying in the least, even taking into account the often sparse records avaliable (particularly on female homo- and bisexuality). It gave me much useful information, but I didn't find it a substantiative study.(less)
While Caryl Churchill deals in this play with entirely fascinating issues, and she deals with them using impressive and admirable frankness, the play...moreWhile Caryl Churchill deals in this play with entirely fascinating issues, and she deals with them using impressive and admirable frankness, the play as a whole feels awkward and stilted, with the presentation of the complex issues often feeling all too simplistic, odd typical ideas repeated after being said many times. There were glimmers of true theatricality, but they were all too quickly disappeared.(less)
A unique masterpiece of modern theater. With eminently successful audacity and a finely tuned theatrical sensibility, playwriter Tony Kushner weaves t...moreA unique masterpiece of modern theater. With eminently successful audacity and a finely tuned theatrical sensibility, playwriter Tony Kushner weaves together the lives of a group of divergent and fascinating characters as the deal with the AIDS crisis, internalized homophobia, the Reagan administration, the spectre of Ethel Rosenberg, and the coming of apocalypse, among other things. Tony Kushner's writing is breathtakingly poetic and frequently hilarious, and the play offers greatly rewarding reading to anyone willing to put themselves in the unique mindset that it requires.(less)