The Song of Achilles ~ Madeline Miller

imagesI’ve been waiting to read Miller’s novel centred on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles ever since it won the last Orange Prize back in the summer of 2012.  Unfortunately, it seemed such a good fit for my Wednesday evening book group that I made the mistake of adding it to the list as my next choice and it’s taken until now for our turn to come around.  However, the timing has also proved to be serendipitous because this week has seen the start of the Coursera MOOC on historical fiction and one of the questions we have been asked to address is how you define the historical genre.  Consequently, the first question I posed last night was whether or not we should regard a novel that counts amongst its list of characters a sea-nymph, the god Apollo and a crotchety old centaur as history or myth and where did the dividing line between the two come.

Miller has taken the story of the Trojan War, familiar to many of us through Homer’s Iliad, and used it as a means of exploring further the relationship, only hinted at in the sources, between the demi-god, Achilles, and his companion, Patroclus.  Most particularly, she has tried to understand Achilles reaction when his friend is killed: a reaction so extreme that in many ways it is the point that turns the fortunes of the entire war.

In order to do this she has created a shared boyhood, education and early manhood that encourages a growing physical and emotional attachment that blossoms into a love that transcends everything else that happens to them and thus leads to that moment on the fields of Ilium when Achilles finally calls out Hector despite knowing that by doing so he is sealing his own doom.

But is it historical fiction or is it myth?

At least one of our number last night found it very difficult to see anything that had ‘gods and talking horses’ in it as history.  However, I don’t have that same problem.  Certainly the eighth century BC Greeks would have thought they were listening to an account of their own ancestors’ story and more recent archaeological evidence tells us that certain elements of the tale were very probably true.  Troy did exist at the time that Homer describes and the city has been destroyed on more than one occasion.  I wonder if we are not inclined to see it as myth rather than history simply because the Greeks, when telling a story, would automatically include the gods as that is the way their culture worked.  The fact that they attributed various events to those gods doesn’t nullify the events themselves it just says that they hadn’t yet looked for another way of explaining them.

History or no, the novel does have a lot to say about our own times, especially in respect of the act of war.  We think of the ten year siege of Troy as a never-ending conflict in which countless men from both sides suffered, not to mention thousands, tens of thousands, of innocent civilians who simply got in the way.  But how is that different from what has happened in Iraq or Afganistan?  When Patroclus says:

All of us, the lowest foot soldier to the general himself, began to think of Troy as a sort of home.  Our invasion became an occupation.  Before now we had lived as scavengers off the land and the villages that we raided.  Now we began to build, not just the wall, but the things of a town: a forge, and a pen for the cattle we stole from the neighbouring farms, even a potter’s shed.

he could be talking about any invading army settling down for the long term, possibly even for ever.  And Miller considers too, what war does to the individuals involved.

I knew he killed men every day; he came home wet with their blood, stains he scrubbed from his skin before dinner.  But there were moments, like now, when that knowledge overwhelmed me.  When I would think of all the tears that he had made fall, in all the years that had passed… He seemed to sit across the world from me then, though he was so close I could feel the warmth rising from his skin.  His hands were in his lap, spear-calloused but beautiful still.  No hands had ever been so gentle, nor so deadly.

Perhaps it’s because the books and theatre I’ve been experiencing recently have all been to do with war, but I can’t help seeing the parallels here with all the conflicts down the ages and thinking about the fact that history is often just a recitation of our repetition of the same old mistakes.

In terms of style we had all found the book very ‘easy’ reading, and I don’t mean that to be in anyway pejorative.  One element that I was impressed by was the way in which Miller used some of the same techniques as the original writer.  Just as he drops in teasers about events that he realises his audience know are to come, so Miller does the same thing with the prophecy that Achilles will not die while Hector lives.  In order to avoid having to face the Trojan champion in the field and thus hasten his own death, Achilles coins the mantra ‘What has Hector ever done to me.’  And those of us who know the story already experience a chilling sense of prophecy from being able to foresee precisely what it is that Hector will do to provide a deadly answer to that mantra.

All in all, then, this was a book that we very much enjoyed.  However, whether or not we ever answered the question,The Song of Achilles, history or myth, I’m not sure and I would be very interested to hear what anyone else thinks.

From the Folio Prize Academy

ImageIt will be some time before the excitement of the Booker long list diminishes in my circle of acquaintances mainly because one of my colleagues in our English Department, Richard House, is included for his remarkable book The Kills.  I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about this work as it has progressed and have read the first of the four volumes Sutler.  You might feel daunted by the prospect of a novel that comes in at over a thousand pages, but don’t be.  Richard is a born storyteller and I promise you’ll soon find yourselves completely involved in the tale he has to tell.  Nevertheless, it isn’t the Booker that I want to talk about today, but the newest kid on the block in the world of book awards, The Folio Prize.

As I’m sure you know, this is the prize that came into being after a number of writers and critics expressed dismay over the quality of the books being selected for the Booker short list some years ago and, as a result, the remit for the reward is rather wider than that for the Booker.

The Folio Prize is open to all works of fiction written in English and published in the UK.  All genres and all forms of fiction are eligible. The format of first publication maybe print or digital.

Rather than the books being nominated by publishers it will be what is called the Academy who will come up with the first selection, with publishers having a chance to suggest additional titles only as a second option.

The judges will consider a total of 80 books.  The first 60 will be nominated by the Academy.  Publishers will then be invited to write letters in support of additional titles, after which the balance of 20 books will be called in by the judges.

The sole criterion for judgement will be excellence: to identify works of fiction in which the story being told and the subjects being explored achieve their most perfect and thrilling expression.

There will be no long list, simply a short list of eight from which the winner will then be chosen.  The first short list will be announced next February and the prize awarded in March.  I have to say that I have some reservations about this selection process, but that isn’t what I wanted to bring to your attention today.

The Academy comprises well known and respected figures from the book world, mostly writers and critics, and in the run up to the first award they have each been asked to imagine that the prize has been running for some decades and to name a book that they would like to have seen win it.  The result is a series of posts that you can find at:

Some of these are simply a paragraph saying little more than the equivalent of ‘this is a very good book and I really like it’.  Others, however, are far more interesting.  The most recent, for example, is a trenchant essay by Anna Funder on Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, which she calls probably the most brilliant novel in Australian Literature.  And there is a fascinating piece by Michael Cunningham on Literary Prizes, Joyce and Woolf which he concludes by nominating not one but six novels that he thinks deserve to be more widely read, namely:

Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

Don DeLillo, White Noise

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man

James Salter, Light Years

I’ve only just discovered this site but now call in every day to see if there’s something new, especially as every now and again there is a book I haven’t even heard of and many that I have heard of but not previously thought about reading.  Should any one be lacking in reading matter for the summer, or have finally worked their way through that mountain known as TBR, then this could provide you with just the stimulus you’re looking for.