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What life was like in 5th-century Greece June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

Dump The Da Vinci Code and grab copies of Mary Renault’s historical fiction.

Serendipity is the reader’s great ally. Chance discovery is one of the finest ways to make the acquaintance of an unfamiliar author or book. Ideally this happens in a place like a library, where towering wooden shelves lined with dusty spines allow the visitor to wander and agonise, waiting for his eye, like a net cast wide, to snag on something tasty. But one could really be anywhere, bookstore, pavement bookstall, in conversation. And one of the easiest paths to discovery is to read a book about books. Just one such, a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens called Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, gave me a number of leads. 

A passing mention led me to a novelist named Mary Renault. Renault set her best-known novels in ancient Greece, from the semi-mythological time of Theseus to the fragmentation of Alexander the Great’s empire. All the familiar themes are there: democracy, tyranny, philosophy, war and civil war, politics, athletics, drama, homosexuality, pan-Greek social networks and myth, above all myth, are explored on the stage of the Greek world, from Magna Graecia to the borders of India. 

In The Last of the Wine (1956), her first historical novel, Renault looks at 5th-century Athens and the Aegean through the eyes of an Athenian aristocrat who comes of age as his city is losing its war in Sicily. There is no need for the novelist to invent a narrative, contemporary historical events were of such pace and scope that they provide all the momentum the story needs, and merely by participating in them the protagonists face the complexity of circumstance that makes the actors in a good novel change, and thus ring true. 

Indeed, because she must keep to the path laid out by known events, Renault is free to bring in and give voice to historical characters. Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, Critias and many others known from Plato and ancient historians are in this book. It is an achievement to have successfully fictionalised these individuals, that is, been able to invent their thoughts, actions and motives, and imagined convincingly why and how they did what we know they did. Meeting such characters in the flesh in her words, as it were, is to me a great attraction of Renault’s books. 

What any historical novelist needs in order to pull off things like this, and what Renault clearly has, is a complete mastery of the sources. This requires her to have read everything a professional historian of the period has, and much more. A professional historian has a beat, so to speak, and spends so much time following it and cultivating his favourite sources that he has little time for material not related to his work. Yet, without the work of the professionals, no “big picture”of history can be drawn, not even by a novelist. 

A professional historian, for instance, would be terrified of approaching a big question such as “What was life like in 5th-century Greece?” head on. There is too much he knows he doesn’t know and much that he is not sure about, and he is not trained to use imagination or leaps of intuition to fill the gaps. Which is not to say that many excellent historians have not done this. A novelist like Renault has to have answers to this question in her head, as well as the confidence and logical vigour to use them where required. 

As a result, while historians dispute some of Renault’s characterisation, especially her somewhat romanticised portrait of Alexander in her three books on him, collectively a very good fictionalised biography, incorporating all the known facts, of a suprisingly little-known titan of history, they rarely fault her on her recreation of life in the period. Having read Renault, then, perhaps one can enjoy Plato or Euripides more. 

In The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, her retellings of the story of Theseus, Renault does something almost more interesting. She gives us a picture of how history becomes myth, and vice versa. Although scholars point out that her tale in this case has scant historical basis, it is nevertheless a highly intelligent, and quite thrilling, exercise in breaking a myth into its elements and putting it together again into a credible story, which retains somehow the power of the myth. 

Part of a myth’s power is the power that comes from foreknowledge. You already know how it is going to turn out. What makes Renault a great novelist and a respectable guide to the inner and outer worlds of ancient Greece is that, as a reader, you know what she must do, eventually. It is the doing that takes one’s breath away.

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