Showing posts with label Mary Renault. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mary Renault. Show all posts

13 December 2023

1st Person Familiar


I went looking for a book I hadn’t read in 60 years – a novel called The Golden Warrior, that I was assigned in the 8th grade or thereabouts – and for whatever reason, I was curious to read again, or at least leaf through.  Something about it had stuck in my mind.  They didn’t have it at the library, and I found it on the internet.  For nine bucks, I was thinking trade paper, but it’s a hardcover, from 1950.  It came from a mail-order outfit called ThriftBooks, highly recommended.

The Golden Warrior is about the complicated political and dynastic struggle between Harold, last Saxon king of England, and William, duke of Normandy, that ends in 1066, with the Conquest.  It picks up the story fifteen years earlier, when William visits England to talk some turkey with then-king Edward.  Edward the Confessor is known for his piety, which unhappily means his marriage is without issue.  He has no heir, and Duke William wants to be named.

The first thing I noticed was that the dialogue seemed a little strained, at least to my ear, and theatrically archaic.  I don’t mean like Sir Walter Scott, and Ivanhoe, where the flourishes are exaggerated to the point of parody – think Danny Kaye, in The Court Jester – but you find yourself thinking, Did these people actually speak like this?  You understand the need for a certain formality, or discretion, or indirection, and plain speaking could invite a rain of troubles.  Still, the elevated speech patterns push you away, they don’t ask you in, they make you all too aware that it’s artificial, a construct. 

Historical fiction is, of course, tricky.  There’s a higher bar to clear, the suspension of disbelief.  It’s easy to make fun of Sir Walter Scott, but the books that are closer in time to his own, Old Mortality, say, or The Antiquary, ring less false, for the simple reason that he can actually imagine or conjure up how those people talked, whereas the speech of a 12th-century Crusader is beyond him.  (I’d think it was pretty much beyond anybody.)

If you look at Patrick O’Brian’s work, though, or Mary Renault, they somehow get around this problem.  Renault, in particular, uses a device you could call the First-Person Familiar, or the First-Person Intimate.  Think about it for a second.  I recently read Tana French’s In the Woods, and liked it a lot, but the way she chooses to tell the story is unreliable: the first-person narration is as much about concealment as it is about peeling away secrets.  The buried past, the buried present.  See, instead, how Renault opens The Last of the Wine, or The Mask of Apollo.  It’s a sleight of hand, which appears transparent; she seems to withhold nothing.  “When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.” 

It’s so matter-of-fact.  It might remind you of Dickens, Copperfield, maybe.  The later Dickens is slyer, more oblique, sliding up into the story from below.  This, the beginning of Last of the Wine, starts with the boy being born, but in fact in the middle of the story, the war with Sparta already a decade old.  Renault gives us an immediate present, nothing that smells of the lamp.

Actually, that’s not accurate.  It does smell of the lamp.  Not in the metaphorical sense, from Plutarch, meaning labored, but in the literal sense: you can smell the oil in her descriptions, see the light flickering on the wall. 

I’ll get past my initial resistance to The Golden Warrior.  I’ll accommodate the rhythms, the storytelling, the manners of speech.  You learn the beat, the time signature.  Some writers are more easeful than others, is all.  Renault can be deceptive; it goes down so smoothly, you never taste the hemlock. 

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.

09 October 2013

Dirty Words

by David Edgerley Gates

Back in August, Leigh Lundin posted a piece about PINs and passwords that I found very instructive. Birthdates, for example, are too commonly used, and easily penetrated. In fact, I just got a phishing e-mail, purportedly from my cousin G, stranded and broke in the Philippines, urgently in need of money, which is almost certainly the result of a password compromise.

But that's not the point I want to take up here. Leigh also mentioned that people often choose catchphrases, for example F**KU2. Leigh didn't used asterisks. It's not in my nature to censor myself, either, but I'm doing it this time so as not to scare the children, and because one of Leigh's readers took offense, and told him he should clean the column up, and bleep out the foul language. My first reaction was, sheesh, what an uptight prude, but on further reflection, I realized the guy had a point.

Language is extraordinarily powerful, and poisonous. If you use derogatory slang, for instance, to describe gay men, or black people, or Jews, to name a few obvious ones, you perpetuate stereotypes. You can argue, of course, that this is how people talk, which is true enough, and political correctness leads to a kind of homogenization, or Socialist Realism, but I'm a straight white guy, raised as an Episcopalian, so I can't claim to have a dog in the fight. I had a running argument for years with Cathleen Jordan, my editor at HITCHCOCK, who held the line resolutely against graphic violence and colorful profanity. I'd say it was realistic. She'd say, not on my watch. I once heard a cop use a phrase to describe lowered physical requirements for police recruits, the result of Affirmative Action, to bring in more women and minorities, that the applicant pool was all "runts and c**nts." I knew I'd never slip that one past Cathleen, and it took me days, literally, to come up with something. (I finally settled on "midgets and Gidgets," which doesn't have quite the same flavor, or shock value, but any woman will tell you they deeply resent being characterized, or dismissed, as no more than a fold of flesh.)

There's a fascinating conversation in Mary Renault's THE MASK OF APOLLO—fascinating to me, anyway—that takes place between the first-person narrator, an actor, and another dinner guest, who turns out to be the philosopher Plato. (The story takes place in classical Greece, the 3rd century B.C.) They're talking about theater, naturally enough. Nico, the narrator, has just performed Aeschylus' THE MYRMIDONS. After a while, they get around to Euripides, and it turns out Plato doesn't approve of him. He thinks Euripides mocks the Gods. Nico answers, he's the first to show men and women as they really are. Plato say, why not show them what they can be? Nico can only think to tell him, "But it's such marvelous theater." This produces, of course, a deafening silence.

You can see where both of them are coming from. Nico is, after all, a working actor, who goes where his trade takes him, and wants a good play. Plato believes men are base, but can be taught to turn from evil. He sees in his mind's eye a city, a body politic, that rises above itself, and aspires to the ideal (for which there's his REPUBLIC). The dialogue, in effect, turns on the purpose of art, drama in particular, because it's a popular, accessible form, but Renault's novel itself becomes a sort of meta-fiction, both an illustration of seeking the ideal, and also marvelous theater. There is, perhaps, a balance. The audience delivered from outer darkness by sleight of hand.

Where does this leave us? I have to say I lean toward the theatrical, not to say sensational. Those dirty words, and ugly epithets, are part of my vocabulary, and I'll keep them in my toolbox, along with fear, and violence, betrayal and despair. They describe the human condition. Not that we shouldn't seek the ideal, or honor, or heroics---or that we can't rise above ourselves. The trick is in the doing.