Jessica's Reviews > The Charioteer

The Charioteer by Mary Renault
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's review
Nov 26, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: hagging-out, favorites, love-and-other-indoor-sports

My least favorite thing about this book reporting business is choosing the star rating. I seriously get ulcers trying to quantify my personal, subjective response to each book I've read. Was it just "okay"? Did I "like it" or "really like it"? Part of my problem is that I've resolved from the beginning to be incredibly stingy with my five-star ratings. I've only given five stars to books that I feel have affected my sense of self and relation to the world on some profound and fundamental level, which has created the problem that my four-star category now is the broadest and least meaningful. My rule in distinguishing between a three-star and four-star book is how urgently I feel the need to return to reading it while I am not. Anything I actively crave earns the fourth star: four-star books make me look forward to subway rides, cause me to resent social obligations.... But The Charioteer made me rethink my commitment to the four star system. This was a book that I flung down at midnight on a Tuesday, beating my breast, cursing my fate, and crying out to the gods, "Why must I work?" because it broke my heart that I couldn't stay up all night long finishing it. I did debate postponing Thanksgiving, and there were times while reading that I actually had to stop, put the book down in my lap, and just freak out for a minute about how good it was. This was a book I found myself reading while walking down a crowded street at midday in Chinatown, a childhood behavior to which I rarely revert... Anyway, all of this did, for me, emphasize the limitations of the four-star rating. Shouldn't I just give books five stars if I think they're "amazing"? I guess I will try it, and see how I feel.

This book was amazing! Remember how great and romantic Farewell to Arms was, except that the female character was sort of a misogynistically drawn 2D fuckdoll, and the protagonist was a bit of an inarticulate, hypermasculine alcoholic brute? Well, imagine that book only British, not American, with a sensitive refined young wounded soldier and adorable cute boy orderlies instead of Hemingway's somewhat ridiculous female characters... Okay, this really wasn't anything like Farewell to Arms, and the comparison doesn't do justice to either book. They just both had romances in hospitals between wounded soldiers and hospital staff: I guess it's a genre, and not just those two... it's very romantic, all this wounding and nursing! Well, it is in the books. I don't know about real life.

The Charioteer was like some kind of dream birthday dinner of all my favorite foods. Instead of stuffed tomatoes and coffee ice cream, it had England during World War II, gay romance, and some of the most stunningly skillful writing I think I've ever read. I can't remember many books that more successfully conveyed private emotional states, a description of the physical world, complex and convincingly human characters and their interactions, and all the rest of that stuff that contributes to making up a really class-A, five-star novel. While reading this, I remembered that novels are an art form. As I personally read just for pleasure and judge books exclusively on their merits as entertainment, when I'm forced to confront this artwork thing it feels like a revelation. The Charioteer accomplishes so much of what it is I believe successful literature should do: that is, it conveys the fine and subtle specificity of a certain time, place, and character, while tying this individual story to the broad human experience. Anyone who can hang her novel on some Plato, as Renault does, and make it work so beautifully that a girl like me actually spends time poking at the Phaedrus online, deserves some sort of prize -- perhaps an extra star!

I couldn't stop wondering, as I read this, why I tend so often to love novels about mid-twentieth-century gay men so much. I think I must enjoy the inherent romance and painfully secret subtlety surrounding homosexual relationships in the pre-Stonewall era: there are few things as romantic as a forbidden, secret love that persists amidst strong social prohibitions, plus these books often avoid the tired cliches of heterosexual romances, and therefore seem more fresh. I also really enjoy the unsaid, unspelled-out nature of these relationships. There were so many conversations in this book that I had to read a few times before I caught the meaning implicit between the lines. A lot of that is probably its being British, on top of being gay, but the kind of careful and cryptic, thickly-coded social interaction which is what makes earlier, nineteenth-century novels about upper-crusty types so fascinating, survives longer in gay fiction. I love reading this stuff. It's like doing a crossword puzzle, trying to figure out what it means, only a crossword puzzle with a payoff beyond just the process.

I think another reason I like reading older books about gay men is that I'm so exhausted by depictions of women as objects of desire and of female sexuality, that it's a huge relief to get the romance without having to think about that stuff. There's something so relaxing about it, to me, dodging all those feminist issues, yet still getting the kind of novel I want. There are actually quite a few well-drawn female characters in The Charioteer, and this was one area where it seemed unsurprising that the author was a woman. I am really interested now in Mary Renault. I want to read everything else she wrote, and though I'm not sure how I feel about historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, if it's anything like this, I am sure I will love it.

I really can't say I'd recommend this unreservedly to everyone, though if you're interested in historical fiction about gays in the military, it's hard to imagine that you could do better. I also recommend this to people who love the Novel, especially the life-during-wartime British Novel, which I have to say, I should think would be a lot of you.
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Reading Progress

November 26, 2007 – Shelved
July 14, 2009 – Shelved as: hagging-out
Started Reading
November 27, 2009 – Shelved as: favorites
November 27, 2009 – Shelved as: love-and-other-indoor-sports
November 27, 2009 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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David You have to read her historical novels as well - they are extraordinary.

Have we had the "Memoirs of Hadrian" conversation yet, or was that a different Jessica? (I am painfully embarrassed even to have to pose that question, but there are way too many smart, funny Jessicas on goodreads ..... I'd better stop before I dig myself deeper)

Jessica Elizabeth: Oh, I love Forster, precisely for those reasons. Forster was my original favorite gay writer, and I feel like he bridges the gap between those genres I mentioned: nineteenth-century Society stuff and the twentieth-century coming out novel. The way Forster writes about women is special in that not being a woman, he doesn't have the concerns of one, but he also does not have the perspective of a straight man with women and sexuality. I know a lot of people wouldn't agree with any of this, but I've always loved his books, and I think that's one of many reasons why.

David: Yes, that was me. It wasn't so much a "conversation" as you shaking your head mournfully, telling me how disappointed you were in me, then having a few more drinks and later blacking my left eye... an evening I prefer not to return to, obviously. Let's just say I think that on vacation in Vegas was not the right time. I'll try Memoirs of Hadrian again someday, when I'm feeling more sophisticated.

message 3: by Kirsti (new)

Kirsti I know you've had trouble finding books to get excited about, so I'm glad you found something that you truly loved!

message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jessica wrote: "The way Forster writes about women is special in that not being a woman, he doesn't have the concerns of one, but he also does not have the perspective of a straight man with women and sexuality. I know a lot of people wouldn't agree with any of this, but I've always loved his books, and I think that's one of many reasons why.

YES, totally. His portrayal of Margaret Schlegel is really something.

....haha, he also tried to get me to do the Memoirs of Hadrian thing, unless that was Manny.

message 5: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Fantastic review! Awesome! I am also v stingy with my 5-star and even 4-star reviews, which makes people think I am a Grinch, but yeah, this book deserves lots of them. (I get around it by rarely starring anything.)

You might like Persian Boy of her historical novels next -- that's the big famous one. The first novel of her Alexander trilogy (Boy is the middle volume) has lots of young gay love, too, altho not really the same atmosphere. But Charioteer is special.

message 6: by Jay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jay Cardam Having read your review, I hope you went on to read the other Renault work...It is an impressive group.

message 7: by Ixel (new) - added it

Ixel Did you try her Last of the Wine? I loved and re- and re-read Charioteer, but for my money the skill she displays in Last of the Wine is even better. I re-read it even more often. For a long time my style was very Mary Renault-ish, and it still can have heavy sprinkles of semi-colons.

If the fact that it's a historical novel puts you off, you might like The Promise of Love. It's about a young het couple, lovers, in the thirties who are having difficulty in going forward because of very restricted personal lives. It also avoids the veneer of gender identity as a factor in the romance. I believe it was semi-autobiographical, and then Renault and her partner moved to South Africa and that's where she started the historical romances.

Don't bother with the Alexander novels - they're only ok compared to most of the rest. Imho.

Jessica Ooh, thanks for the recommendations, Ixel. I started a couple of her Greek ones after I read this but couldn't get into them. I've been in a real reading crisis recently, though, just hate everything I start, so this seems like a good time to try Renault again.

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