Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith. Girl Meets Boy. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007.

The Canongate Myths series encourages and organizes what writers have been doing for millennia: retelling myths. Some contributions of the series have become well-nigh canonical themselves—The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s feminist revision of the Odyssey, for example. Others have sparked controversy (as, rather predictably, Philip Pullman’s retelling of the life of Christ) or introduced myths that don’t have the advantages that Homer or Ovid confer (I’m thinking here of Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg). 

Ali Smith’s retelling of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe is not the newest contribution to the series, but it remains a timely one. Iphis is a girl who should have been a boy; her father will not raise a daughter. So Iphis’ mother gives her child a gender-neutral name and raises her as a boy. When Iphis grows up, she and her best friend Ianthe fall in love and plan to marry. Isis visits Iphis, changes her into a man, and ensures that (s)he and Ianthe can live happily ever after as man and wife.

Iphis’ story is embedded within, and echoed by, Smith’s broader story of two very different sisters both living in Inverness and working for a bottled-water company, Pure, under a management whose motives are anything but. Anthea, the younger sister, is a dreamer and nonconformist who finds her direction in life when she meets and falls in love with Robin, an environmental and feminist activist who paints graffiti messages over the city under the tag ‘Iphis07.’ Smith’s descriptions of Anthea’s feelings for Robin are lyrical, with a beautifully apt nod to As You Like It:

She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy….She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree. I had simply never found anyone so right. (84)

Anthea and Robin’s relationship turns Anthea’s sister Imogen’s world upside down. Imogen has always been the good girl, taking on responsibilities after her parents disappear one by one. As an adult she is anorexic and self-effacing, her thoughts continually relegated to parenthetical comments overshadowed by the words of her casually misogynistic boss, Keith. Imogen struggles with homophobia: “(Oh my God my sister is A GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” (49). She searches for a reason why her sister is the way she is, tries to interpret music and television preferences like oracles. She realizes she only knows slurs, and drunkenly asks Robin what the correct word for her is. Robin’s response is nothing short of perfect: “The proper word for me, Robin Goodman says, is me” (77).

In the end, it is not Anthea and Robin’s transformation into “Iphis and Ianthe    the message girls    2007” (133) that is the heart of the story. It is Imogen’s journey out of parentheses and into main sentences as she comes to terms with her sister’s sexual orientation and political activism, and discovers that she has the strength to stand up to Keith. When I first read the novel, I wondered if this was a weakness, if Iphis and Ianthe had been subsumed within a different story, the Ovid-free story that Smith really wanted to write.

But of course, folding stories within stories is the most Ovidian thing Smith could have done.

Much as I enjoyed Girl Meets Boy, I found myself wishing it were a little more grounded. Many passages soar, but, like the sisters’ gender-bending grandfather, end up juxtaposed with the rest of the story rather than woven into it. By contrast, the message of conscientious activism against exploitation in all its forms is omnipresent, but omnipresent in such a way that the reader is left hopeful and full of intention, rather than browbeaten.

(Ought I to mention the Sappho epigram, egregiously misprinted in the first edition? Ought I to volunteer as Canongate’s consultant in polytonic Greek typography?)

(No, I oughtn’t. I am too pleased that the book begins with Sappho, Judith Butler, and Lyly.)

The Secret History—of Philhellenism

Donna Tartt. The Secret History. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

On the first page of The Secret History, we learn that the novel’s protagonists have murdered one of their classmates. The rest of the novel explores the tangled circumstances leading up to this murder, and its consequences. 

I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?

This line—Professor Julian Morrow’s customary signal that his classics classes are about to begin—neatly sums up what is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Through the eyes of Richard Papen, a transfer student from a blue-collar background trying to blend in with his elite and privileged classmates, we see an environment with all the claustrophobia and turmoil of many campus novels (Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons springs to mind): academic stress, sleepless nights, sex, drugs, alcohol. But when authorities investigating Bunny’s death start uncovering Hampden College’s thriving drug trade, Richard and his friends welcome it as a perfect distraction from the truth. The real problem is not that Morrow’s students are downing a staggering amount of alcohol, but that they are caught between the phenomenal world and the sublime.

To put it another way, the students are caught between Apollonian and Dionysian visions of the ancient world. In the classroom, they read Plato and Thucydides, compose essays in Greek, and discuss erudite philosophical problems. When Richard first joins the small group of under Morrow’s tutelage, he notices that “[h]is students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world” (31). Outside the classroom, the group—led by the quietly brilliant Henry Winter—begins to explore the ecstatic side of Greek culture, attempting to recreate mystery cult and Bacchic revelry.

The division between these two experiences of the classical past—Apollo in the daytime classroom, Dionysos in the nighttime woods—is powerfully evoked. Equally compelling is the impossibility of these students maintaining such a double life, of ever fully leaving the phenomenal world behind when they depart for the sublime. Richard constantly expresses surprise at his friends’ composure: he fully expects silent Henry, suave Francis, or the twins Charles and Camilla to betray themselves in word or manner, and, in a sense, the group’s descent into chaos after they murder the sixth classmate, Bunny, accomplishes just that. The cold, rational mask inevitably slips to reveal the irrational reality beneath.

These binaries are, of course, modern paradigms, more to do with the various waves of philhellenism that have swept the western world since the Renaissance. We have idealized the Greeks as quintessentially civilized and enlightened, or as uniquely expressive of raw, primitive emotions that we now repress. The Greeks are poster children for Victorian education, and they are free-spirited forerunners of postmodernism. 

What this accomplishes, both for Morrow’s students and for real life philhellenists, is a sense of exclusivity. Richard is particularly vulnerable to this, eager as he is to escape his unremarkable, suburban childhood. “Hoi polloi. Barbaroi,” he thinks to himself when he interacts with students outside the classics department (147). This is precisely what so many of us think, armed with the ability to read an ancient tongue—whether we choose to think of it as Apollonian or Dionysian, it is very easy to feel like initiates in the Hellenic Mysteries, guardians of an ancient, dying heritage. The Secret History concentrates these tendencies by making the reader a member of this miniature cult, in on the secret, shaking our heads at the barbarous and short-sighted many.

I do not wish to imply that the Hampden College classics department, with its one professor and its six students, is in any way an accurate representation of classics as a discipline. Morrow’s pedagogical methods are unorthodox and of dubious effectiveness—his students somehow manage to be at once deeply familiar with the entire canon and uncertain whether or not Greek has an ablative case—and many of the views he espouses are almost ludicrously Victorian. I have enough respect for Tartt to think that these inaccuracies are part of her characterization rather than misconceptions on her part. 

In spite of this, The Secret History captures vividly some of the dangers inherent in studying the classical world. It is so easy to idealize, so easy to create from our own values and longings a society completely other and completely praiseworthy. Classics certainly needs advocates, individuals able to demonstrate the value of learning languages in which you will never be able to order a hamburger and learning the history of a people you will never meet. But it also needs to avoid perpetuating a world made up of initiated classicists and the hoi polloi. 

I deeply enjoyed The Secret History; its pacing, its preoccupation with beauty, its insider-outsider narrative forever poised between belief and disgust. But I do fear that those outside of classics will think that classicists really do look like Julian Morrow or Henry Winter—debating in Greek, espousing an ancient philosophy, coldly excluding the unwashed masses.

The Eagle

Image: Focus Features
Esca (Jamie Bell) and Marcus (Channing Tatum) saddle up for adventure. Image: Focus Features

Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth was one of three books which, together with early and excellent Latin classes, set me on the path towards classics as a child. The others—Black Ships Before Troy, also by Sutcliff, and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths—shall always have a fond place in my heart, but it is The Eagle of the Ninth that held me spellbound. The landscape of second-century Britannia was wondrously familiar and strange, and I spent hours tracing my finger over the map at the beginning of the book and matching the ancient names to modern places I knew and had been. Londinium. Aquae Sulis. Isca Dumnoniorum. I loved Sutcliff’s evocation of the variety of people on the margins of Rome’s imperium, and the tensions between them. Romans from Italia, Romans from the provinces; Britons, Celts, and Picts in varying degrees of enslavement and Romanization; soldiers, priests, and politicians.

The Eagle, a 2011 adaptation directed by Kevin Macdonald, maintains some of this variety, and, for the most part, the plot and historical context. Young centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) comes to Britannia hoping to discover the fate of his father, who twenty years earlier marched into the unconquered north and disappeared with the rest of the Ninth Legion. Seriously wounded during the first battle of his first command, he is forced to retire to the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) at Calleva Atrebatum to recover. While there, he hears a rumor that the Ninth Legion’s eagle has been spotted north of Hadrian’s Wall and decides to recover it, and, he hopes, his family’s honor. And so Marcus sets out, accompanied only by his Celtic slave Esca (Jamie Bell).

However faithful the plot appears on paper, the tone of the film, and its political subtexts, could not be further from the book. With its dust, cattle, and pallisades, the frontier post at Isca Dumnoniorum looks more like Texas than Yorkshire, an impression strengthened by the Romans’ American accents versus the Britons’ Anglo-Scottish hodge-podge. (Tatum, in particular, has a distinctly southern twang.) Where Sutcliff’s Marcus calmly gives orders to “Shoot me that maniac,” the film Marcus sets his jaw, breaks formation, and charges headlong into the fray. This is a world of individual heroism, last stands, and glory, not tactics and efficiency—more Western than sword-and-sandal. Even Marcus’ doctor seems confused as to what genre he belongs in, extracting pieces of metal from a wound caused by an overturned chariot, not a bullet.

Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince. Image: Focus Features.
Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince. Image: Focus Features.

The turn towards an American approach to storytelling and violence becomes disturbing when Marcus finally encounters the Seal People, who (without giving away too much plot) have plenty to hide about the Eagle and its loss. The women and children of this tribe look like peasants in a Scottish fishing village circa Braveheart, but the men sport mohawks, bone necklaces, and dark all-over warpaint. The evocation of Native American cultures is deliberate: Michael Carlin, the production designer, designed the Seal People’s village “as a cross between Celtic stone houses and Inuit tents,” while costume designer Michael O’Connor says that “Marcus and Esca go into an unknown world, just as the first explorers of America did.” (“Making The Eagle,” Focus Features). Is this our only image of a “primitive” society? Is our cinematic vocabulary for victim-as-villain limited to “Native American,” and vice versa? Clearly the filmmakers have Things to Say about American imperialism, but to my mind this is far from the best way to say them.

The intersection between the film’s portrayal of the Seal People and its portrayal of slavery is, if anything, more concerning. The Romans—Uncle Aquila in particular—distrust slaves, but it is the Seal People who most consistently show cruelty towards them. This, problematically, emphasizes the civilization-savagery binaries between the Romans and the Picts and tacitly justifies Rome’s military brutality. In the book, Marcus frees Esca before the journey north, so that they go as friends and equals rather than as master and slave. The film is perhaps more realistic in leaving Esca’s manumission until later, but it utterly changes the nature of the two characters’ relationship, makes Marcus a less sympathetic character, and complicates Esca’s motivations in ways that are not adequately explored or explained.

As wild and wooly (and, often, beardy) as things get in Caledonia, production values south of the wall are fairly high, with convincing images of Roman provincial life. Particularly impressive is the gladiatorial match in which Marcus saves Esca’s life, a muddy occasion at which many audience members seem bored at best. Provincial life, however, is far more narrowly provincial than in Sutcliff’s novel: nowhere do we hear of Marcus’ childhood on a farm in Etruria, or of his father’s previous tours of duty in Judaea and Egypt. This is a purely insular world.

It is also a purely male world. One of the more inexplicable changes the filmmakers have made in their adaptation is to delete Cottia, who is not only Marcus’ love interest but also, as a proud Briton living with her Romanized family, bridges the gap between Roman and Briton. The film’s only female voices are in untranslated (and anachronistic) Gaelic, and, interestingly, the most consistent message about women in the film is that Romans treat them barbarically. (“They are savages,” the Seal Prince proclaims after he catches Marcus eyeing up his sister.)

For all its problems, the film is enjoyable to watch. Tatum’s performance as Marcus rides on his fabulous fight scenes, and, though his emotions remain firmly at the stubborn and suffering end of the spectrum, there is a certain thick-headed charm to him. Bell, as Esca, does an impressive job making the most of the meager amount of inner turmoil the script-writers give him. French actor Tahar Rahim is memorable as the Seal Prince, and Sutherland’s Uncle Aquila provides the sort of knowing wink that communicates contemporary parallels far more subtly and effectively than a Pict with a tomahawk.

And, if the toga-clad politicians, cowboys, and Indians weren’t enough for you, there are some bagpipes waiting at the end.

The Sweet Girl

Annabel Lyon. The Sweet Girl. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2012.

In his life of Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius claims to have “stumbled upon” (περιετύχομεν) a copy of the philosopher’s will, recording provisions to be made for his household—his children, concubine, slaves, and property. His daughter Pythias, this will records, is to be given in marriage to one Nicanor. Out of this provision, and the societal structures surrounding it, Annabel Lyon constructs The Sweet Girl.

Lyon’s debut novel, The Golden Mean, dealt with Aristotle’s relationship with Alexander the Great during the latter’s childhood in Macedonia. Here, Aristotle reappears as an aging genius: kind to his children, witty, inconsistent, eccentric, and, as he sickens and dies, erratic. We see these facets through the eyes of Pythias, whose sharp mind and voracious curiosity equal her father’s. Faster than her brother at reading, fascinated by her father’s dissections, quick to remember herbs and remedies—Pythias possesses a formidible intellect.

So far, so typical: historical fiction is full of intelligent young proto-feminists who demand education, win respect from men, perhaps even disguise themselves as boys and have adventures. In their laudable effort to expose the injustices of the past, authors can often project very modern sentiments about what a woman’s role in society should be.

Lyon, however, makes her heroine’s unusual education plausible within the context of a patriarchal society—perhaps, even, a tool with which that society reinforces its values. Early in the book, seven-year-old Pythias sits in on a meeting of her father and his students, at which they discuss her brilliance. “‘A freak'” declares one student. “‘She’s not representative of her sex. She’s the exception that proves the rule'” (17). Pythias is an experiment, a conversation starter. By the time Pythias reaches puberty, Aristotle, although clearly fond of his daughter, has no idea what to do or how to relate with her. She becomes an outcast from male/intellectual society, an outsider among women.

The book’s trajectory as an exploration of father-daughter relationships shifts abruptly when Alexander the Great dies and public sentiment in Athens turns against Macedonians. Aristotle and his family depart, and the philosopher dies shortly afterwards. Pythias is left to wait for Nicanor to return from the east, making her way however she can. What follows is a journey into the seedier side of Greek life, equal parts fascinating and dizzying. Pythias must confront poverty, betrayal, the gods, and her own sexuality.

Lyon’s writing is often elliptical—perhaps appropriate for a narrator supposed to have learned to write from Aristotle—and her evocations of antiquity deft. There are no ethnographic tangents into architecture, diet, religious customs carefully explained. (The one exception, possibly, being a litany of Athenian slang for sexual positions not seen since Fishcakes and Courtesans.) Characters speak with a modern rhythm, using words like “Daddy,” “tiptoes,” “shiny,” but avoiding clearly dated idioms. The gods put in an appearance on occasion; initially this is jarring, but later it becomes a powerful way to evoke Pythias’ disorientation.

The Sweet Girl is a pleasure, beautifully written and full of surprising turns.


Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.
Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

A woman in line for the National Theatre Live broadcast of Carrie Cracknell’s Medea kindly asked me if this was my first time seeing a Greek tragedy. When I told her that this was the fourth production of Medea I had seen, she laughed. “You’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?”

While I certainly wouldn’t call tragedy a punishment, Medea is, inevitably, an intense experience. We are trapped, watching as a woman, suddenly unmoored from her marriage and from her adopted home, tumbles over the edge of ordinary logic as she fights to regain control and to punish those who have caused her suffering. “I choose to take back my life,” she tells us. “My life.”

Helen McCrory brilliantly portrays Medea’s tight spiral into revenge. Out of time, out of options, she spends much of the play pacing like a caged tiger through the dilapidated basement that is her domain. The contrast between the dystopian grunge of Medea’s home and the bright, clean wedding hall above emphasizes her position. McCrory skillfully modulates between grief, anger, coldness, and self-deprecating humor, and Medea’s final tortured decision to kill her own children is heartbreakingly convincing.

The chorus of Corinthian women, dressed as bridesmaids for Jason’s wedding to Kreusa, lurk passively on the fringes of the stage. They offer Medea their silence, but keep their distance. The contrast between their usual tense passivity and the choral odes, distinguished by marionette-like, spasmodic dancing (choreographed by Lucy Guerin), is somewhat jarring. Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp’s music is marvelously unsettling, but slightly overshadows the already shadowy chorus.

Performances are strong across the board: Michaela Coel as the Nurse maintains a narrator-like semi-detachment throughout the play, and Martin Turner’s Kreon is a wonderfully smooth politician. The one character I have difficulty with is Jason (Danny Sapani). Sapani handles Jason’s grief over his children brilliantly, but is a tad too upright in his interactions with Medea. For a man described as “a demon, a he-devil,” Medea’s husband is remarkably calm and reasonable, lacking the caddishness that adds insult to Medea’s injury.

Ben Power’s translation is consistently strong, balancing the sheer weight of the text with a conversational modernity. Medea can use words like “lust” and “craven” when she attacks her husband, but also pithily mock him: “Just for old times’ sake, let’s pretend I don’t despise you.”

Perhaps the most surprising element of the production is the decision to cast a silent Kreusa (Clemmie Sveaas) and to show both her wedding and her death. While the sight of a joyful wedding party upstairs visually emphasizes Medea’s exclusion and isolation, showing Kreusa convulsing in the tangles of a poisoned cloak is, I believe, a misstep. A visual image of her death detracts from the wonderfully vivid messenger speech that describes it (here delivered by Toby Wharton).

Glutton for punishment? I would gladly be punished with another look at this production.


Image: Paramount
Image: Paramount

Hercules is no stranger to the silver screen, and between the wave of Marvel superhero reboots over the past decade and the post-Gladiator resurgence of the sword-and-sandal flick, the stars were aligned for the son of Zeus to make a comeback. Make that more than aligned: Brett Ratner’s filmwhich opened this week, is the second Hercules-themed movie of the year.

Based (controversially) on Steve Moore’s comic book series Hercules: The Thracian War, Ratner’s film occupies a middle ground between the blood-soaked grime of 300 and the murky ethics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s violence aplenty, but Ratner’s film is about dismantling a myth rather than stylizing it, and its troubled hero manages to avoid the moral queasiness I’d expected of a modern treatment of his madness myth. (More on madness later.)

You know the story. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) completes his famous labors, singlehandedly slaying the hydra, defeating the Nemean lion, etc., as the jealous goddess Hera single-mindedly pursues her husband’s illegitimate son. But, as the movie informs us after two minutes of CGI-heavy adventure, most of this is…exaggerated. The real Hercules is a skilled mercenary, strong, but not a demigod. After finishing up a job clearing out pirates in Macedonia, Hercules accepts a commission from Lord Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson). The task: eliminate a charismatic and deadly sorcerer, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann—the character seems to share a homeland and a love of horses with Homer’s Rhesus, but little else). The reward: Hercules’ considerable weight in gold. It’s too good to pass up, and Hercules and his loyal gang set out for Thrace.

This gang was, for me, one of the most startling departures from tradition. Aeneas plays well with others, as can Odysseus and even Achilles when it suits them. Hercules works alone. Even in the one major myth where that is not the case, the voyage of the Argonauts, Hercules quickly leaves his shipmates behind and starts traveling ahead of them, having adventures of his own.

Nevertheless, the gang is, in this version at least, a second family to Hercules and key to his success. Ian McShane has a wry humour as the seer Amphiaraus, and Askel Hennie is truly terrifying as a severely traumatized, berserker-like Tydeus. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is there to make snide remarks, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) provides archery support,  and Hercules’ young nephew Iolaus (played with delightful swagger by Reece Ritchie) manages PR.

Iolaus is, to me, the most interesting addition to the ensemble: his skill as a storyteller not only guides the growth of Hercules’ legend, but inspires troops far more effectively than Hercules’ occasional Nikias-like pep talks. Eager as he is to be allowed to join the fight instead of cheering from behind, Iolaus realistically holds more power than any of his companions. In an age of mass media, controlling the story, controlling the spin, is a vital part of controlling any situation, and imagining Iolaus as an iron age spin doctor allows the filmmakers to explore modern problems of image control and public relations in a way that marries well with older tropes of Rumor and the hero as storyteller. Judging from Hercules’ evident popularity, Iolaus has handled his greatest challenge admirably: he has explained away the fact that Hercules seems to have murdered his wife and children.

The story of Hercules’ madness, most familiar from Euripides’ Heracles and Seneca’s Hercules Furens, is usually an opportunity to reflect on guilt and personal responsibility. At what point do we declare a person mad? Are we still responsible for our words and actions while ill or insane? Do we blame fate? The gods? What are the responsibilities of those of us witnessing such crimes? Before seeing the film, I had been looking forward to seeing how this modern interpretation handled the problem. I expected the gods to be removed from the equation—standard practice for the modern sword-and-sandal—and speculated about influence from modern theories of mental health. It was, I think, the film’s greatest missed opportunity: as successful as Hercules’ PTSD-style flashbacks are as a device for exposition, the final version of the event in this film completely removes responsibility from Hercules’ shoulders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in this genre, the long-dead Megara (Irina Shayk) is one of few women with any screentime in the film. Atalanta, though handy with a bow, has little dialogue and is dismissed by her comrades as not quite female. Ergenia has a bit more depth to her, but much of it is disappointingly clichéd: she selflessly works to heal the wounded, is motivated primarily by her love for her son, and, in the end, needs rescuing. I was most shocked, though, to find that about 90% of the women in the cast were billed in the credits as either “vixen” or “tavern vixen.” Perhaps the target audience is expected to be as preoccupied with “buxom Amazons and exciting bondage” as young Iolaus?

The battles were, predictably, a “best-of” tour of breakthroughs in warfare from the bronze age to well past the Roman conquest. Alexander’s chariots were there, along with hoplite formation, Roman tortugas, and some exciting cavalry action. In spite of the grab-bag, battles were harmonious (if that is a word one may use about battles), well-paced, and exciting. The one thing that really bothered me was the rate at which the Thracian army changed shields: they went from square Roman-style shields to more oval models before finally switching to round hoplite shields for the final showdown. You would think the costume department hadn’t read Lysias.

In the end, although I was disappointed in the treatment of the madness theme, Ratner’s Hercules is an entertaining and enjoyable summer adventure. No performance is perfect, and historians may wish to avert their eyes during battle scenes, but between Johnson’s warm-hearted and earnest portrayal and the revisioning of Iolaus as storyteller extraordinaire, the film is well worth an afternoon at the cinema.