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 to attract her attention.
What is really surprising about The Praise Singer is how little excitement it generates in comparison with some of its predecessors, such as The Mask of Apollo (1966) or The Persian Boy (1972). That bizarre sexual tension which has always hitherto supplied Miss Renault’s fiction, modern no less than historical, with its crackling voltage and most characteristic tone, a highly strung mood of controlled intellectual hysteria, has now completely vanished. All that remains is a bundle of the old props: comradely male lovers (peripheral, now, to the main action), perfunctory father-hatred, the structure of a typical Renault Bildungsroman. For whatever reason, the fuel is gone that maintained that fire; the resultant flatness recalls, for me, Carson McCullers’s limp, late novel Clock Without Hands, dutifully dedicated to her analyst. Simonides, apart from being Miss Renault’s only poet-narrator, is by far the most tepid sexually of her heroes; and viewed through his eyes the erotic ambiance of the Peisistratid court comes to resemble nothing so much as that long, stupefying, lower-middle-class gay birthday party which formed the centerpiece of The Charioteer. No one would guess from this novel that sixth-century Athens and Ionia were enjoying a period of dazzling intellectual and cultural expansion, unashamedly elitist, the excitement of which still has the power to touch us today.
What we get instead is a series of vignettes, a tourist’s guide to the period, dutifully researched and paraded. Lame Hipponicus snarls choliambics from the gutter. Anacreon is rescued from Samos by warship. Onomacritus forges oracles, Homer gets a Peisistratid recension, Psiax—at Hipparchus’ suggestion, and in Exekias’ workshop!—begins red-figure pottery,1 Theodorus hollow-casts in bronze, Polycrates is impaled (with characteristic anatomical accuracy): Cyrus, Darius, and “vicious mad dog Kambyses” strike attitudes offstage. Miss Renault doesn’t miss a turn. Not content with giving us a thumbnail sketch of “mad” Pythagoras, she also provides him with a tattooed Thracian servant called—wait for it—Zamolxis, who (as knowledgeable readers of Herodotus will instantly deduce) returns to the Getae and is worshipped as a quasi-divine sage. There are set-pieces on the Olympic Games and the Panathenaic Procession, with Cimon’s famous mares duly winning their third victory. About the only famous historical character who doesn’t get an extended plug is Pindar, and since he and Simonides were rivals, this can be put down to narrator’s jealously rather than author’s forgetfulness.
Simonides himself, that dogged, colorless craftsman, is researched with equally painstaking and piecemeal historical literalism. We even hear about his gift for mnemonics; and to judge from some passages, it looks as though Miss Renault was impressed by that Pindaric scholiast who credited Simonides with a weakness for digression. Though narrated in the poet’s old age, The Praise Singer ends with the assassination of Hipparchus: presumably the poet’s career during the Persian Wars, when he was a friend of both Themistocles and the Spartan Pausanias, and much in demand to celebrate heroic gestes such as Leonidas’ last stand at Thermopylae, is being reserved for a sequel. One interesting feature of the Renault historical canon is the regular arrangement of the novels in sequential pairs: The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo; The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea; Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. If The Praise Singer adheres to this pattern, we should in due course get a follow-up covering the Ionian Revolt, Marathon, and Salamis: episodes both factually and emotionally strong enough—in contradistinction to Simonides’ memoirs—to carry the reader on their own.
Such a novel, if handled with Miss Renault’s old flair, obsession, and panache, could form a fitting climax to her literary career. Yet she has left it perilously late. The Praise Singer is a tired book, autumnal in mood, a raking over of embers and ash, With The Persian Boy (1972), perhaps her most successful essay in historical fiction, there was never a hint of flagging, no reminder that behind the mask of Bagoas stood a woman of nearly seventy. Six years have passed since then: years during which Miss Renault published nothing except a nonfictional illustrated monograph, The Nature of Alexander, clearly a by-product of the research that went into her two Alexander novels.
With The Praise Singer we are conscious of a new mood: calm, golden, elegiac, like those long sunbathed afternoons that enfold southern Attica during late November. It is wholly appropriate to the Archaic period: Mimnermus, for one, would have recognized it instantly. Yet it does raise important questions about the nature, and future, of Miss Renault’s ambivalent art, and suggests that an interim assessment of her overall achievement to date may not come amiss. Though two critical studies2 have already appeared, no clear verdict is in view. Neither Professor Wolfe nor Professor Dick was competent to discuss the classical background: their works are studded with hilarious misspellings and evaluative cocasseries.
More important, is it in fact true (as both these authors suggest) that serious critics by definition discount historical fiction, and are prejudiced against novels with a homosexual theme, so that Miss Renault’s critical standing has suffered, unfairly, on both counts? How far can we unravel the driving obsessions, idées fixes, fantasies, masks, and propaganda which permeate the novels from the creative literary achievement they represent—and what is left when we do? Where is the borderline between art and self-therapy with an epidemic appeal?
Since there exists a clear symbiotic relationship between Miss Renault’s life and her work, and since, further, biographical details concerning her are nowadays hard to come by (her Who’s Who entry is a model of noninformation), it may be desirable at this point to sketch the known facts of her career.3 Mary Renault was born Mary Challans, the elder daughter of a London doctor, on September 4, 1905. At the age of eight she began writing a Western (compare Leo Lane’s Texan potboilers in her novel The Middle Mist): the cacoethes scribendi was there from the start. Of her first, coeducational, school she says: “Through my relationship with the boys was strictly that of an honorary boy, I missed it greatly when transferred to a conventional girls’ boarding school.” A whole series of David-and-Jonathan relationships in her fiction suggests that instead of “though” she might with more accuracy have written “because.” Again, Leo Lane provides the key statement: she describes “what she had wanted from men since she had swum and climbed with the boys of her Cornish home; a need as deep and as fundamental, to be a man with his friend, emotion-free, objective, concerned not with relationships but with work and things,” etc. (italics mine).
From Clifton High School she proceeded (two years late) to St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she read English, and wrote much undergraduate poetry. She then took a clerical job, and wrote a novel. It suffered, as she herself was the first to admit, from that endemic middle-class English malaise, inexperience of life. To divest herself of romantic literary innocence (she had early discovered Malory, Spenser, and Plato, a lethal trilogy in combination), she trained for three years as a hospital nurse in the Radcliffe Infirmary. By now she was over thirty. At some point she worked as the matron of a girls’ boarding school. It was not until 1939, on the eve of World War II, that her first novel, Purposes of Love,4 was published: inevitably, it was based on her nursing experience.
During the war she returned to the Radcliffe Infirmary, working in the brain-surgery ward, but also found time to write two novels, Kind Are Her Answers (1940) and The Middle Mist (1944-1945). Why she did not herself train as a doctor, like Hilary Mansell, the self-styled “second-class surgeon” of Return to Night, is one of those incidental oddities with which her career abounds: Hilary is a defiant feminist in a male enclave, a modern and very likable personality, with whom it is hard to believe that her creator did not largely identify herself. Though her early, contemporary fiction was liberally seeded with clues which, in retrospect, could be seen as pointing toward the direction she finally took, it was not until 1947, and then by a serendipitous accident, that her career really changed direction. In that year MGM awarded Return to Night its $150,000 prize (an interesting choice, when one reflects on the novel’s sexually murky undertones: small wonder the movie never got made), and Miss Renault achieved financial independence. Together with a friend whom she had first met when they were trainee nurses together, she emigrated to South Africa.
Why not to Greece? The Mediterranean, she explains, was then closed by currency restrictions. Yet though such restrictions were soon lifted, Miss Renault still lives near Cape Town. She seems a little defensive about her choice. She belongs to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, and emphasizes that when she first arrived, the country was “governed by the English, not the Afrikaner group.” As a kind of concession, she calls her house “Delos.” The landscape of Cape Province, it is true, much resembles that of Attica, and the social institutions have a certain Spartan flavor: but as an old Greek hand myself I cannot see for the life of me why Miss Renault, that dedicated Hellenophile, should choose to live anywhere rather than the Aegean—unless she is anxious to avoid shorting out the overloaded circuits of fantasy by the insistent presence of the real world.
What seems in any case abundantly clear is that the move to South Africa was closely linked with the transformation of Mary Renault’s fiction that soon followed. Hitherto her novels, of which five had appeared between 1939 and 1948, had all been drawn from contemporary life: that of the underpaid, over-conscientious, sensitive, well-read, psychologically obtuse, and neurotically articulate English professional classes—doctors, nurses, architects, writers, illustrators, teachers—in London and the southern provinces. The overwhelming impression is that of a drab and gritty conformity, a lack of dramatic incident. Occasionally characters go climbing, or explore caves. The romantic misfits, who abound, display a tentative, and recurrent, sexual ambivalence: to protect themselves, they assume various masks, and it is not surprising that amateur theatricals are popular among them.
Julian’s reflections in Return to Night will be familiar to all who have ever studied the creative persona: “If the disguise were really impenetrable, one could get an emotional response from other people honestly, without loss of self-respect; one could become real.” Lack of essential action leads to melodramatic twist endings. This is Auden’s England, the England of the Thirties where everyone, including the doctors, is sick, the stifling world of “the liar’s quinsy / And the distortions of ingrown virginity,” where intellectual spinsters read Chaucer in seaside boardinghouses, where war, finally, comes as a kind of release from the oppressive and restrictive boredom of gentility. Caught in this iron social web, many unhappy idealists sustained themselves with a private vision of another world, real or imagined, where the good life was truly to be found. Miss Renault might, like Evelyn Waugh, have plumped for Froissart and Malory: instead, she chose the world of the early Platonic dialogues, of the Phaedrus, the Lysis, and the Symposium, with their exaltation of male homosexual relationships that are, ideally, nonconsummated: the sexual principle of sauter pour mieux reculer.
There is an interesting paradox here. If we discount the vexed and recurrent problem of their sexual-cum-social character, most of Miss Renault’s misfits are as suburban-conformist a bunch of poetry-quoters as you could hope to meet, dying to bow down before the gods of the copybook headings if only society would deign to acknowledge them. We see this with sharp clarity in the wartime hospital world (another oppressive microcosm) of The Charioteer (1953), where a homosexual doctor, Alec Deacon, observes: “I’m not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on the plane of immorality.” Hence Laurie Odell, the main character, finds a talisman in Plato’s Phaedrus, a much-stained copy of which is given him by the schoolfriend who later becomes his lover, and rescues him at Dunkirk.
For these idealists, the Athens of Socrates and Alcibiades is seen as a shining Golden City where they would be not merely tolerated, but admired, as high-souled warrior-lovers proved and scarred by battle. The psychology is naïve but understandable: who wants to be stuck in the closed shop of nous autres? Ralph Lanyon, the homosexual and brutally honest naval officer (one of Miss Renault’s best portraits), has no illusions about this Platonic dream; he will not truck with nonsense about sublimation, “the tents of Troy, the columns of Athens, David waiting in an olive-grove for the sound of Jonathan’s bow.” He, unlike Laurie, is prepared to face reality as it is. “A lot of bull,” he remarks acidly, “is talked about Greece by people who’d just have been a dirty laugh there”: recent research5 points in much the same direction. Yet English society is not ready to make the concessions of which Laurie dreams: not here, not yet. The Charioteer was the last novel that Miss Renault wrote with a modern setting: what followed was The Last of the Wine (1956). Social reality had been abandoned; a new reality was to be constructed from the sustaining myth.
This had several immediate results, of which the first, and most beneficial, was to provide Miss Renault’s novels with something they had hitherto notably lacked: solid plots. It also, since she took most of her characters from life, and investigated their backgrounds with some care (if not always with critical acumen), meant a shift in her fictional angle of vision. From the drab, private, and peripheral she moved out toward the public event, politics in high places, the battlefield and the council chamber. Thus her persona, of necessity, became an almost exclusively masculine one, a trend already apparent in The Charioteer. It was not that feminine characters defeated her: she drew them admirably, heterosexual and homosexual alike (the lesbian ménage in The Middle Mist is the most accurate, and sympathetic, portrayal of its kind that I have ever come across). But she was now, within the limitations of history—and sometimes, as in the two Theseus novels, well beyond them—setting up her own world of the imagination the way she wanted it.
There were minor benefits from the change: one that perhaps would only be at once apparent to a nonsmoker is that her characters were forced to give up cigarettes, since no other writer since Noël Coward can have so constantly punctuated dialogue and action with a ritual pattern of lighting-up, inhalation, smoke-rings, and stubbed-out butts. The loss, oddly, was in fictional verisimilitude, since Miss Renault, like many other good historical novelists, suffers at times from the almost inevitable temptation to view life only according to selective historiographical convention, i.e., to make her characters live in or around great historical events, and virtually nowhere else. This was already apparent in The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo, where the fictional heroes, Alexias and Nikeratos, hobnob with the great in a way that Hilary Mansell, or Neil Langton of North Face (1948), could never aspire to. When the narrator is himself a historical or literary figure—a Theseus, a Bagoas, a Simonides—the gap is still further increased.
A fictional projection of history—arguably the historical novelist’s proper business, and perhaps the reason why literary critics may underrate the genre, since to some extent it limits free choice in action and characterization—demands skills of a different order from those required by the contemporary novelist. To bring the dead to life, as Robert Graves claimed in a famous poem about his own ghost-raising activities, may be no great magic, but it demands a peculiar blend of discipline and imagination. This Miss Renault undoubtedly possesses. In the strict sense of the word, her research is amateur: that is, it tends to ignore foreign or periodical literature, works from Loeb translations, and is not immune to dotty theories: the lunar influence of Graves’s Greek Myths on The Bull from the Sea was little short of disastrous. Yet, like Kipling in his Roman tales, she has an almost uncanny flair for the telling imaginative detail that persuades us of its rightness. The Persian Boy, her most consistently successful re-creation of the past, abounds in such effects, as here on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon:
That beautiful man-made hill, with its shady trees and the cool groves within its terraces, needs a deal of watering, and it’s a high haul to the top. Often amid its bird-song you can hear, if you listen, the cracking of whips below.
It was not to be expected that Miss Renault would leave all her professional and emotional English luggage behind when she made her spiritual transference to Greece, and what has survived the sea-change best is a streak of gritty practicality, the hard-won knowledge drawn from years in hospital wards. Other novelists may describe ancient battles with romantic fervor; Miss Renault knows all about wounds—the look of spilling tripes, the revolting noise produced by a slit windpipe. At this level her hallmark is a brisk common sense.
The accompanying drawbacks are more subtle. She has never been at ease with the aristocratic temperament, and a great deal of her intellectually prim English middle-class ethos tends to seep into what she writes about Athenian life. This is most noticeable, oddly enough, in her recurrent, and somewhat obsessional, dealings with idealized male lovers. If it is true, as Simon Tidworth argues,6 that “she adopts the style and many of the values of romantic fiction,” here is where we notice it most: Alexias and Lysis are simply Laurie and Andrew of The Charioteer done up in ancient drag, with the same insufferable and fundamentally mawkish high-mindedness. It is only with Bagoas that she achieves a breakthrough to some kind of sexual maturity, and even then it is in the persona of a beautiful eunuch, whose sophistication is offset by a kind of permanent enforced adolescence.
Her worst tactical error was in the Theseus novels, where she switched from the historical to a mythic past, to which her temperament was not well suited, and in which her quirks and self-indulgences stood out with horrific clarity—not least in the warrior Moon Maiden Hippolyta, athletic, bisexual, a cross between Artemis and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and referred to by Theseus in moments of intimacy as “My little leopard.” She also had a no-nonsense trick of euhemerizing every mythic detail that offended her rational sensibilities, so that Chiron becomes a horse-riding backwoods sage known as “Old Handy,” and the Minotaur Asterion is simply Pasiphaë’s illegitimate son in a bull-mask. Compare the picture of the Minotaur in Michael Ayrton’s superb mythic novel The Maze-Maker, and it at once becomes clear that by taking her brisk plain common sense and middle-class values into the Labyrinth, where she was at once in damaging competition with creative talents ranging from Gide to Picasso, Miss Renault simply got out of her league.
She never made the same mistake again, and in Alexander she found the perfect subject for her odd combination of qualities as a writer: one that even survived the ludicrous Ur-Freudian scene with which Fire from Heaven opens, and which Miss Renault (who has, or had, at least enough sense of humor to find Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness unintentionally funny) would have done well to resist, snakes, erections, and all. The Persian Boy seemed, as did, in a very different sense, Eliot’s Little Gidding, to reach a resolution of inner conflicts and problems, a unity of fire and rose. The Praise Singer, with its minor-key mood and flat understatements, becomes, in context, understandable.
What now? It is hard to believe that Miss Renault would find that pugnacious chauvinist Themistocles congenial as a hero. Would she, I wonder, consider treating the Persian Wars, not from the usual Greek patriotic angle, but through the eyes of a Mediser, a collabo, someone who picked the wrong side, a Theban Vichyite? Pindar thought art should recognize no political frontiers: Pindar was a Theban, who, like many of his countrymen, suffered considerable agony of spirit after Plataea. And in Theoxenus of Tenedos, Pindar’s lover, in whose arms he died, Miss Renault could have her most engaging narrator yet. Authors, I know, no more relish having their treatments picked for them (as many a publisher knows to his cost) than Alexander appreciated anyone else selecting his lovers: but the biggest compliment I can pay Miss Renault—except, what is true, that I have just reread every book she ever wrote without once getting bored—is the certainty that no novelist alive could do this particular job better.
February 8, 1979
This well illustrates the Greek instinct (which Miss Renault has here adopted) for simplifying the origins of any phenomenon by tagging it with a single named inventor. The origins of red-figure pottery are in fact both complex and obscure: see John Boardman, Athenian Red-Figure Vases: The Archaic Period (Thames and Hudson, London, 1975), pp. 15 ff., and Martin Robertson, A History of Greek Art (Cambridge University Press, 1976), vol. I, pp. 216 ff. If Miss Renault preferred Psiax over, say, the Andokides Painter, it was probably because we at least know his name. ↩
Mary Renault, by Peter Wolfe (Twayne Publishers, 1969); The Hellenism of Mary Renault, by Bernard F. Dick (Southern Illinois University Press, 1972). ↩
Information derived from Current Biography 1959, pp. 379-381; World Authors 1950-1970 (1975), pp. 1201-1203; Wolfe, op. cit., pp. 13-14; Dick, op. cit., pp. xiv-xv. ↩
Miss Renault has been unfortunate in the American retitling of her novels. Purposes of Love is a quotation from the daily nurses’ morning prayer: the American title, Promise of Love, lost the allusion. The Friendly Young Ladies and The Sacred River (both highly apposite titles) were transmuted, by way of mawkish quotations from Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon respectively, into The Middle Mist and Return to Night. ↩
See in particular Sir Kenneth Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1978). ↩
The Quest for Theseus, by Anne G. Ward and others (Praeger, 1970), p. 252. ↩