The Masks of Mary Renault

It is interesting to speculate what kind of critical reception The Praise Singer might have received had it not been the seventh in a sequence of immensely successful historical novels by that masked and devious illusionist Mary Renault (inevitably, a nom de plume). Her publishers have been touting her new work as “a landscape of ancient history filled with the living substance of passions, politics, and poetry”: though all blurbs tend to shoot for the moon, this one is more off-target than most. The ancient history is there all right, almost to excess: a kaleidoscope of the late sixth century BC, mugged up from Herodotus, Lyra Graeca, volumes of art history, and prosopographical treatises. But the passions, such as they are, remain flat and muted, the politics lack that frightful obsessive vigor which characterized every performer in the city-state pantomime, from tyrants to demagogues, and the poetry is for the most part absent. Since the narrator is Simonides of Ceos, the unofficial poet laureate of the Persian Wars, we get a lot about the business of being a poet, but all refracted through a rather dull and essentially middle-class view of life, and expressed in what C.S. Lewis would term drab prose.

In one sense this is fair enough. Quite a lot of Simonides’ work survives, and he was not, to be quite honest, the kind of genuis whose effusions can ever have set the Ilissos on fire. Ugly, methodical, and painstaking, he composed victory odes, epitaphs, dithyrambs, elegies, or whatever else the patron of the moment might call for, on public or private themes, collecting a fee in cash or kind for his pains. His workaday talent was completely eclipsed by the blazing genius of Pindar: his popularity depended, in the last resort, on skillful but sedulous encomiums. He worked his passage from one political regime to another without notable loss of face: after the murder of the Peisistratid tyrant Hipparchus in 514 he judged it prudent to retreat north to Thessaly for a while, Hipparchus having been his protector, but it was not long before he returned to Athens, where he wrote an epigram announcing that “a great light dawned for the Athenians when Aristogeiton and Harmodius slew Hipparchus.”

Aficionados of Miss Renault’s fiction will not be surprised to learn that much of The Praise Singer is centered on Hipparchus and his smart gay literary set; that Anacreon’s image of the beautiful boy as charioteer of his soul gets prominent mention; or that the climax, such as it is, is provided by Hipparchus’ murder, and the high-minded homosexual jealousies (as opposed to lofty democratic patriotism) which lay behind it. Egalitarianism has never been Miss Renault’s thing (a fact which set up some interesting tensions in The Last of the Wine, 1956); sooner or later the sixth-century aristocratic code, with its faith in inherited excellence, its elegant snobbery, and its stylishly homosexual mores—much diminished in popularity, being thought antidemocratic, by Pericles’ day—was bound …

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Letters

Waxing Lyric March 8, 1979