Master and God

Lindsey Davis. Master and God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.

Lindsey Davis is best known for her two delightful historical mystery series set during the reigns of Vespasian (Falco) and Domitian (Flavia Albia). Her mysteries are well-researched and well-plotted, with the wry sense of humor that tends to characterize my favored mystery series—Lord Peter Wimsey, Amelia Peabody, Cormoran Strike, and Brother Cadfael all make me laugh more than shudder. When I found a copy of Davis’ stand-alone novel, Master and God, I couldn’t wait to crack it open and immerse myself in the back-streets of Flavian Rome.

Set over the entire fifteen-year span of Domitian’s reign, from the death of Titus through the “Reign of Terror” and Domitian’s assassination, the novel centers on the on-again, off-again romance between Flavia Lucilla, a freedwoman hairdresser, and Marcus Vinius Claudianus, a member of the Vigiles and, later, the Praetorian Guard. As is almost obligatory in historical novels, the two become closely involved in the great political happenings of the time. Lucilla is the Flavian ladies’ favorite stylist, and the novel abounds with lush descriptions of the notorious elaborate hairstyles of the period, as well as wig-making episodes as a nod to Suetonius’ snide comments on Domitian’s sensitivity around his baldness. (Janet Stephens has a fantastic tutorial on how to create a Flavian coiffeur, should you so desire.) Once he is promoted to the Praetorian Guard, Vinius is constantly at the emperor’s side, apart from a not-so-brief stint as a prisoner in Dacia.

The romance between Lucilla and Vinius is—as is to be expected over a fifteen-year plot—continually interrupted by both external and internal factors. With Vinius especially Davis has done an excellent job painting a character whose devotion and strengths in one area of his life (his military career) interfere with other areas of his life (his five marriages before Lucilla). Lucilla suffers a bit from what I like to call “plucky maiden syndrome,” assuming an independence and status which strains credibility for a woman of her social standing in the period. 

The attention to detail which is characteristic of the Falco and Flavia Albia mysteries is on display here, too, for better and for worse. As always, Davis vividly conjures up ancient Rome’s bustling side streets and ramshackle tenements, but once she moves into the forum or the palaces, she wanders dangerously far into the realm of over-exposition. A description of the placement of the famous equestrian statue of Domitian, for example, reads suspiciously like a very dry report I once gave on Statius’ Silvae 1.1. Many chapters begin with a protracted history lesson on, for example, the military situation in Britannia, the tactical reasoning behind Domitian’s attack on the Chatti, even Quintilian’s Institutio Oratia. Davis’ love for the period is clear from the way she writes these expository passages, but the novel would have greatly benefited from careful editing to incorporate necessary information within the action and dialogue.

Davis’ typical brand of humor is also evident, though, sadly, not nearly as often as in her mysteries. My favorite example is the inclusion of a guard dog answering in public to the name “Terror,” and to “Baby” in private.

I don’t think Master and God would be the first Lindsey Davis novel I’d recommend to a friend—The Ides of April still holds that place—but, for those who enjoy (or can stomach) a generous helping of overt exposition, the novel gives the reader a beautifully visceral sense of Domitian Rome, with all its dirt and paranoia.

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 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.