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.

What is Historical Fiction?

historicalfictionLike a number of other bloggers I am preparing to start the Coursera MOOC, Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction and one of the papers suggested as prior reading before the lectures begin has set me wondering what exactly fits into the category of historical fiction.

Perry Anderson’s essay, From Progress to Catastrophe, first published in the London Review of Books, takes a broad look at the genre from the earliest days of its inception through to the present day and while all the usual suspects are discussed in respect of the period up to the 1950s and 60s some of the more recent novels he mentions took me by surprise.

One of the reasons I decided to take this course was that I have always considered myself to have a problem with historical fiction.  Probably this is because I grew up in the 50s and 60s and was not a particularly discriminating reader.  As Anderson says:

The Second World War, when it came, reinforced the effects of the first.  The flow of historical fiction at the lowest levels of the genre… swelled again as the mass literary markets expanded with the post-war boom: in Britain hoary sagas of doughty patriots battling against Napoleon poured – and still pour – off the presses… over time, this output has yielded a teeming universe that can be glimpsed in such omnibus guides as What Historical Novel Do I Read Next?, with it’s capsule descriptions of more than 6000 titles, and league tables of the most popular historical periods, favoured geographical settings and, last but not least, ‘top historical characters’ – Henry VIII and Jesus Christ tie for fourth place.

I know that some people will take exception to the phrase lowest levels of the genre but what I was reading was and as I began to study literature more thoroughly and became more judicious in my selection of reading matter I left historical fiction behind me not realising that even then there was more to the genre than I was giving it credit for.  As Anderson points out this was also the period in which Lampedusa’a The Leopard appeared and the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairene Trilogy, Palace Walk, was published. However, I read neither of these books because I had walked away from the historical novel, I was now looking for more literary material.

Except, as the latter part of this essay makes clear, I hadn’t left the genre behind.  What I somehow failed to recognise was that many of the literary novels I was reading (and let’s not get into a discussion as to how you define the term literary in that context) were also historical fiction.  I’m afraid my early acquaintance with those hoary sagas, not to mention an occasional session with the odd bodice-ripper, had blinded me to the fact that it is perfectly possible to write a literary novel and set it in a period that pre-dates our own.

So, when Anderson starts to talk about such favourites as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and A S Byatt’s Possession,  I find myself being brought up short.  These are not historical fiction, they are literary novels. But of course they are historical novels as well, it is just that in my blindness I haven’t been able to see that.  As Bones might have said:  “it’s historical fiction, Alex, but not as you know it”.

I have been equating historical fiction with some of the poorly researched and even more poorly written novels that I read in my teens – how much more stupid can I get?  Especially as I know just how much research goes into some of those current historically based books.  I was listening to Simon Mawer, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky only last week saying that a novelist who works in an historical period must always know that period so well that they are aware every time they deviate from the facts and be able to defend their decision.  And for goodness sake, the writer I probably admire more than any other is Hilary Mantel!

I suspect that what has been happening here is that I have been more concerned with what has been occurring in the plots of these books and with the universalities of the themes that the writers have been exploring than I have with the setting.  That they are placed in the dim and distant past (or in some cases not so dim or distant) has passed me by as I have focused on what the author has had to say about the eternal truths of human nature, forgetting that the very fact that those truths are eternal means that they cross centuries as well as geographical and social borders. If nothing else, this course is going to make me re-evaluate my approach to the genre and reconsider some of those books that I have read without really taking account of their historical context in the past.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to know who came first, second and third in that list of ‘top historical characters’, i have to admit that I would dearly love to know.

The Chasing of the Tail

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotThe most popular pastime in our house this week has been that known as chasing one’s tail.  When I first retired my problem was not finding time to blog but rather finding things to blog about because suddenly I was left with a great deal of time on my hands and very little with which to fill it.  Isn’t it funny how things change?  Now I am running around witless, chasing said tail, because I have so much that needs doing that I don’t know how I am going to find the necessary hours and minutes in which to complete it all.  And, of course, just when I haven’t got time to deal with it, my main computer has died (RIP) so I can only hope that this missive, going out on a wing and a prayer, will reach you all.

Earlier this week, Stefanie, over on So Many Books, wrote a post about wanting to prioritise and if ever I needed to follow her good example it is now.  Which is why I am making time to write here because it will  help me sort out what has to be done, what ought to be done and what it would be a good idea to do if I possibly can.

There are some things I can’t shift.  So, I have to take myself off to Stratford in an hour or so and go and work with the students over there.  That’s a regular Thursday commitment during the Autumn and Spring terms and takes up most of the day.  I also have to prepare for the regular Shakespeare class that I teach for a local group, this term on Measure for Measure, and that takes considerable thought as they are working at Masters Level. Ideally, it should get a least two hours a day.  Aren’t ideals a wonderful thing!

Then it is my turn to lead the Bookworms reading group discussion next Wednesday and I haven’t even started the book, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, let alone given any thought to how I’m going to shape the discussion.  At least I have got the two meetings this week, one on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  and the other on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, out of the way.

Oh, and just for good measure, I’m starting a course on historical fiction, Plagues, Witches and War with Coursera on Monday and there is a considerable amount of preliminary reading that I have to do for that.

And this is before I even start to think about the things I ought to do, like getting the computer mended or replaced.

Looking at that list there are two things that simply cannot be allowed to slip whatever else does and they are the preparation for the Shakespeare group and Bookworms.  Other people are relying on me where those are concerned and so they have to take priority.  Then comes the historical fiction reading and only after that can I start to look at all the work on medieval history and culture that I promised myself I would get round to this Autumn.

Do you know, two sets of retired people told me yesterday how bored they were.  How do they manage it?  There are times when a bit of boredom would be a welcome distraction!  And now I’ve just looked at the clock and I really have to go.  Have a good day.