10 December 2014

The Masks of Mary Renault

I've spoken about Mary Renault as an influence before, but it's time I brought her full-front. She's not a mystery writer, of course, but she's probably had more effect on my writing than anybody else, possibly excepting John LeCarre - and that's a toss-up. I'm talking about conscious influences, not something half-buried, like N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for TREASURE ISLAND, say, but more along the lines of picking up on some startling coup de theatre and asking yourself how they pulled it off. Writers are jackdaws, scavenging shiny objects and hiding them in our nests. Sooner or later we persuade ourselves we owned them all along. Always steal from the best, Hemingway said.

Renault's style is hard to quantify, because it appears so unforced. There's nothing self-conscious about it. But you begin to catch on to certain tropes, or tricks, after a while. She has a habit, for example, of not overstaying her welcome. Once a scene has done its work, she leaves it alone, and lets you wonder what happened off-stage. This is like Dutch Leonard's method, Don't bother with stuff the reader's going to skip anyway. Another thing she does is set up a kind of internal opposition in sentence structure, a dialectic, and reversing herself, or your expectations, particularly with interior monologue. In other words, she waits a beat for the punchline. This is from THE LAST OF THE WINE. Out of context, but maybe you can see what I mean. "No man is all of a piece - if I had myself to choose someone who should find me out in a lie, Plato would come very low on my list." (The inversion sets the hook.)

Renault is also a master of voice. Of the eight Greek historical novels, six are told in the first person - all from a male POV, for that matter, and completely convincing - but each narrator's voice is different. Theseus tells his own story in THE KING MUST DIE and THE BULL FROM THE SEA, and he sounds Bronze Age, not like Alexias, later, the Athenian soldier fighting in the Pelopponesian War (LAST OF THE WINE), or the actor Niko in THE MASK OF APOLLO. Niko, for that matter, is somewhat mischievous, and even a little bitchy, full of theater gossip. Bagoas, the Persian boy, is less confiding, not an unreliable witness, but more chasteshall we say, than Niko, who has a flirty nature and a pair of round heels. The notable exception to this is FUNERAL GAMES, told in third person, and with terse declarative prose (I don't remember a dependent clause in the book), and easily the most chilling of Renault's novels, because nothing is elliptical, or withheld. There's no mediating narrative speaker. Any reluctant veil is stripped away. We have only Renault's wintry eye.

Excepting the Theseus books - which have plenty of carnal sex, the guy fathered more children than Zeus - the novels are cast as love stories, THE LAST OF THE WINE, THE MASK OF APOLLO, THE PERSIAN BOY, and she manages this without any affectation or embarrassment. Whether it's physically consuming, or kept at a distance, or simply an old ember that still gives off heat, we feel both a lightness of heart and the breathless pull of Eros. Here are Alexias and Lysis on the beach. Alexias has cut his foot on a sharp stone. "I sat on a flat-topped rock, and trailed my foot in the sea. The water was clear, and the blood unrolled in it like smoke in a blue sky.... A gull screamed over us, an empty sound, to tell us we two were alone upon the shore." Tell me that's not a metaphor you'd kill for, We two alone upon the shore.

The thing I've always admired most about Mary Renault, and the thing I've always most wanted to imitate, is that her books are all of a piece, from breast to back, familiar and contained, and utterly confident, as if sprung full-blown from the brow of a god. They're entirely natural, without any sense of being labored over. Her voice, or voices, seem to come from inside your own head, like an echo. They don't smell of the lamp.

Craft is a matter of practice, and application. We learn by doing. But transcendence is a gift, and like as not, it catches us by surprise.


  1. A nice appreciation.
    And what wonderful covers she's gotten!

  2. The last two paragraphs of this post are written as beautifully as anything I've read for quite a while. Beautiful read!

  3. I read THE KING MUST DIE last year. As a huge fan of mythology I loved how she found, shall we say, a materialistic explanation for the Theseus story. I have to get around to reading BULL FROM THE SEA.

    By the way, you might want to read a nonfiction book called THE QUEST FOR THESEUS, which traces the history of the tale.

  4. Thank you for reminding me about this wonderful writer who influenced me in my salad days! A treasure.

  5. David, that's an amazing and beautiful paean to Ms Renault.

  6. David, I too have read all of Mary Renault's work, and I love her. "The Last of the Wine", "The Mask of Apollo", and "The Praise Singer" are my favorites. She had STYLE. And she did wonderful things with voice: In "The Mask of Apollo", besides the wonderfully catty Niko's narration, a superb portrait was Aulus Ripilius, quite definitely Roman, not Greek, in any way, and whose opinion of his Greek companions is... poor... Love her stuff. Great article!


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