The other two Mary Renault books I got from the university library

I am always trying to think of ways to maximize my reading pleasure when an author has written more than one book. Before I realized it was futile because everyone has different tastes, I used to go on Amazon and try to figure out what a shiny new author’s least popular book was, and then I’d read that one first so it would be all improvements from that point on. This did not work at all with, for instance, Salman Rushdie. I accidentally read his most-acclaimed book first, Midnight’s Children, and when (after consulting Amazon) I tried to read what seemed to be his least popular book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I ended up liking it way better than anything else I’ve read by him since. I have since given up this Amazon-reviews scheme. I have y’all now.

Still, when y’all haven’t read the books I want to read, and in fact nobody seems to have read the books I want to read, I find myself trying once more to predict ahead of time what unread books I will like best.

I checked out two of the three new-to-me Mary Renault books, and placed a hold on the third one. I suspected, without any evidence to demonstrate that this would be the case, that I was going to like the third one least. I began Promises of Love and found I wanted to live in it because that’s how hard I love Mary Renault. And then I was all, oo, I should stop reading this, and read one of the other two instead, because Promises of Love is obviously going to be good, and I should save it for last so if the other two disappoint me I will still have this to look forward to.

And then I remembered that the second book I had checked out already, Return to Night, was the one that won a big award, and I thought that one really was likely to be best because it won a prize, and I didn’t want to start with the best one!, so the one I really wanted to start with was the one I didn’t have, Kind Are Her Answers. But I didn’t want to wait, so I read Promises of Love straight away, and then Kind Are Her Answers, and then Return to Night.

I was at least partly right: Kind Are Her Answers was way the worst. It’s about this doctor called Kit who falls out of love with his wife, because she’s useless and manipulative and needy; and he falls in love with the niece of a patient, this flighty actress girl whose only qualities seem to be that she professes wild devotion to Kit and kisses other men out of pity all the time. Kit is crazy about her, probably because she spends every minute of their time together saying the kind of things I remember Richard Yates mocking rather mercilessly at the end of Revolutionary Road. It occurs to Kit that Christie (her name is Christie; yes, they essentially have the same name) might care as little about him as she professes to care about the other men she is always kissing out of pity; but he doesn’t care because she has big eyes and is manic and pixie and dream. I hated her and hoped that she would drown, but she never, ever did. There is also this, like, cult that Kit’s wife joins. I don’t even know.

When I finished this book, my prevailing thought was that Christie was nauseous (please note correct use of that word) and the adorable name Kit was wasted on this book. Mary Renault, may I respectfully inquire what the hell?

Subsequently I read Return to Night. It was better but still not that great. This doctor called Hilary who is thirty-five and rather closed off falls in love with a young patient of hers, Julian. Julian wants to be an actor, but his possessive mother is dead set against it and doesn’t think much of Hilary either. As in Promises of Love, there are some histrionics relating to illegitimacy. I think I was soured on Mary Renault from how awful Kind Are Her Answers was, because I wanted to stab Hilary and Julian in the face as soon as they appeared. It wasn’t really fair. For all I know, Return to Night was secretly wonderful, but Kind Are Her Answers put me off it.

Please do not think I dislike Mary Renault now. I don’t. I love her nearly always. When I was reading these two books, I kept thinking what a shame it was that all this lovely writing and (sometimes) keen insight was being wasted on two rather rubbishy books. I wanted to go home and read The Bull from the Sea and The Praise Singer, and maybe read the Alexander books again.

Other reviews: There are none. Nobody reads these books. In the case of Kind Are Her Answers, I recommend for your own sakes that you keep it that way.

Review: Promises of Love, Mary Renault

Obligatory pre-gushing blurb: Vivian, a nurse in between-the-wars England, meets Mic, a pathologist and the latest in a string of close friends of her flighty, unreliable brother. Though Mic initially seems interested in Vivian because of her resemblance to her brother, they soon become good friends and then lovers.

I am experimenting with keeping a reading journal. I have not decided exactly what sort of thing you write down in a reading journal, but one thing it is definitely good for is saving anecdotes and quotations that I like. Then when I am done reading, I can go back and see if I want to copy any of them out for y’all, or copy them into my commonplace book to keep forever. When I was reading Promises of Love, I wrote down about fifty trillion quotations from it, and I’d have written down more had I not been perpetually weighing the relative merits of using the time to write things down (thereby expressing in pen and ink my not inconsiderable delight with Mary Renault) or to read more pages. Mary Renault’s modern novels are flawed, but I love the way she writes her characters’ interactions:

“Look.” He twirled the [paint] into an ascending spiral. “There’s a lyric of Catullus exactly that shape. No, it’s gone.” The viscous mass had settled, leaving only a few concentric rings. “Landor,” he said. “One of those terse quatrains. See, Mic?”

“You and your patterns.” Mic got up. “Get yourself a microscope. You’ve a vicious taste for illusive syntheses.”

“Of course they’re elusive. So’s everything worth bothering with.”

They talked–in this alone like her expectations–of indifferent things: town-planning, Swedish architecture, the sick staff-nurse, whose blood-cultures as it happened had been in Mic’s charge. Yet Vivian did not feel that they were taking shelter or concealing themselves in these things: they were a background, an accompaniment to what was really being said, for which words were instruments too harsh and shrill.

Renault’s modern novels deal in an incredibly interesting way with communication, how both successes and failures in communication can mean profound things about and have profound impacts on the relationships of the characters. I love the feeling I get, when I’m reading her books, that every word is considered. A character may say something by accident, but Renault never will.

The flip side of that is I never know what she’s thinking. Mary Renault is one of the most self-concealing authors you ever saw. I suppose this would thrill Roland Barthes, but it bewilders me. Her characters do and say and think such peculiar things. I just do not know what to make of them. I want to go back in time and shake Mary Renault and demand she explain to me what she exactly thinks about gender and creativity and sexuality. But of course trying to figure out what statements her books are making is part of the reason they interest me.

In spite (or because) of this bewilderment, I spent the whole of Promises of Love in a state of euphoria. It smelled old and delicious, and I kept lowering my nose into it and inhaling. More than that, I was overwhelmed with love for this book just because of its utter MaryRenaultiness. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Mary Renault novice, as I don’t think she’s at her radiant Fire from Heaven best in it, but I am so happy I got to read it. Lovely university library.

Some other bits I liked:

The flat…was beginning to take on the mannerisms of educated poverty–the streaky stained floor, whose string rugs were already present to her mind’s eye; the amateurish paintwork, in cheeky but successful colour-combinations; the aura of half-dry distemper from the walls; a little oil-stove in a corner giving out more smell than warmth.

It was like seeing someone off by train; the clock crawling through the last minutes, the futility of one’s remarks increasing with the last-minute effort to be significant.

She was quite well aware that she was talking, not to him, but to a suit of well-cut conversational clothes tailored, like his material ones, by a craftsman to whom fit and finish had become second nature. His pretences at self-revelation–the lightly deprecated indiscretion, the note of emotion suppressed a second too late–were merely the touches that distinguished Savile Row from the Strand.

Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

I have this strategy – I’ve mentioned it before – where when I really like an author, I save some of their books.  I haven’t read two (2) of Salman Rushdie’s books.  Martin Millar has written a number of books that I haven’t read, and I haven’t made the small effort it would take to order them used online.  This is not because of any shortage of love in my heart for Martin Millar’s books.  It’s because I’m saving them.  I do it with rereads too.  It’s been at least five years since I last read Persuasion, although (well, actually it’s because) I love Jane Austen, and I like to give myself a little treat every few years.

I haven’t read Mary Renault’s Theseus books in several years.  I haven’t read The Last of the Wine since high school.  And I have never ever read The Praise Singer, and until today I had never read The Mask of Apollo.  I read this book all over the place yesterday and today, and I did it at my parents’ house where (you may have heard) there is also a tiny little puppy who likes to snuggle on laps, chew on curtains, and wrestle with a stuffed koala bear.  Because The Mask of Apollo is so good it’s sick.

The book is about an Athenian actor, Nikeratos, who lives in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.  After a particularly magnificent performance as Apollo, he meets Dion of Syracuse as well as Dion’s close friend, the philosopher Plato.  Thereafter Niko becomes involved in Dion’s political intrigues as he (Dion, not Niko) works in Syracuse to establish the perfect philosopher-state as envisioned by Plato.  This doesn’t work out as fantastically well as you might think, though Mary Renault seems very definitely to think it could have gone better if Alexander the Great, rather than Dionysius II, had been in charge of Syracuse at the time.  (Alexander makes an appearance at the end of the book, and it was like seeing an old friend.  I love Mary Renault’s Alexander books, because nobody has ever loved a protagonist, and I am including Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey, the way that Mary Renault loves her Alexander the Great.)

I’m a little sad that I’ve now read this book.  I’ve read it, and it’s read, and I can’t ever read it for the first time again.  I loved all the stuff about ancient Greek theatre – Niko speaks about how the actors interacted with each other, how the scenery worked, and the special effects, how the audiences responded.  Mary Renault writes beautiful characters, brave and flawed and frightened – you can see that she loves them, the ones she’s made up, but especially the ones she’s found in history.  I also now know a whole lot of things about Dionysius II that I never knew before.

A scene I like – I remember my mother showed me this scene when I was younger, long before I’d read any Mary Renault books in full.  Niko is not quite seven, playing little Astyanax in Euripides’s Women of Troy:

All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.  My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play…Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running.  I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted my gently.  I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.  The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

I also loved how Niko casts everything in theatre terms.  It’s not obnoxious, though it could easily be – yes, we get it, Greek politics are like the theatre – but Niko is wry and a little detached, and it seems natural.  This I liked, when he’s speaking with one of Plato’s students, a woman called Axiothea:

“The philosopher is the pilot.  He knows where the harbor is, and the reef; he knows the constant stars.  But men still pursue illusions.  Their prejudice will not be broken till such a man takes the helm and shows them.  Once he has saved them from the rocks, that will be the end of guesswork.  No man will drown if he sees the remedy, will he?”

She paused for a feed-line, as philosophers do – just like comic actors, though one must not say so.

Other bits I liked:

“A man more precious than empires, both to us and to men still unborn, with who knows what wisdom yet undistilled in him.  He is clear of all misjudgement, except his faith in me.  He had not seen Syracuse for twenty years; Dionysos he had known only as a child who rode upon my shoulder.  For no living man but me would he have gone again to Sicily.  And I sent for him – for this very thing which has made and broken all: his charm that can make discourse beautiful and catch the soul through the heart.  Was Oidipos himself more blind?”


There’s always one more war to win, or one more election, before the good life; meantime they wrangle about the good, those who still believe in it.  So we dream.  Of what?  Some man sent by the gods, first to make us believe in something, if only in him, and then to lead us.  That is it.  We have dreamed a king.

I will now stop raving over Mary Renault.  I love her.  This book was wonderful and I love her.  Internet, read more Mary Renault!  I love her!  I am giving this book five shiny sparkly stars, and I feel like I want to go read every surviving ancient Greek play right now and imagine Niko playing the roles.

Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault

I will preface this by saying that I can understand how you might not like Mary Renault’s writing. But I like her a lot, and this, the first of her books about Alexander the Great, is the first thing I ever read by her. It takes us from Alexander’s childhood through to Philip of Macedon’s death, and it is a damn good book. I love how Mary Renault makes silence and implication work for her: how something will happen, and you don’t think anything of it, and then the characters react in a way that makes you go back and look at it again, and reassess. To me this is very pleasing.

After rereading Fire from Heaven for the first time in a while, I am beginning to suspect that I was not paying any attention to it any time that I read it before. There are so many things that I didn’t remember ever reading! In past readings, I got that Alexander was fierce and loyal and awesome – still definitely true, incidentally. Mary Renault’s Alexander is one of my favorite characters ever, partly because I think Alexander the Great was cool and partly because Mary Renault does an excellent job on him. I always think it must be so difficult to write a character with charisma like a cult leader or a great general, so you really believe people would follow them, and it must be even harder when it’s a real historic character. And Alexander in this book is so great I would almost follow him to war and I am a pacifist. So.

The relationships with the other characters, I definitely picked up on that – his friendship (etc) with Hephaestion (they’re sweet), the initially simple love/hate split for his mother and father, respectively, that gets more complicated as he gets older. I love how we see this change for Alexander. As a child, his mother means security and his father is a threat. When he gets older, he develops a certain level of respect for his father in war, and finds his mother’s constant demands more and more difficult. (And more and more, if I am remembering The Persian Boy right.)

The politics though? I would say the vast majority of the political machinations going on in this book were new to me on this reread. As a younger reader, I managed to pick up on nearly all the character moments while completely tuning out what was going on around them. Like how Philip was conquering things, and how he wanted to use the Thebans to get to the Athenians, and the Thebans took him (but not Alexander!) off guard by throwing in their lot with Athens. And how an old lover was responsible for Philip’s death. Total shock to me this time around.

I was so in the mood to read this! Maybe I will get crazy and finally read The Mask of Apollo as I have been meaning to for quite some time now. I like Mary Renault. Her heroes are heroic, and the ancient times act real in her books.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

Ah, yes, The Charioteer. By the matchless Mary Renault, my love for whom cannot be expressed in strong enough terms, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which I read as a kid and have never stopped loving. The Charioteer is one of her earlier novels, set more in modern times (World War II), at an army hospital as it happens.

Basically the main character, Laurie (called Spud because his last name’s Odell, bless him) is wounded at Dunkirk and falls madly in love with a conscientious objector who is an orderly at his army hospital. And their chaste romance continues apace, because Laurie nobly fears that he will ruin everything for innocent Andrew if he tells him about homosexuality. I am not a big fan of Andrew’s, to be honest, because he gets all noble and offended about everything, which makes me tired, and plus it crushes me when Laurie’s all tense and snappy due to unrequited love. So meanwhile he is reunited with this guy he admired when they were in school together, before the guy got expelled for being a big gay, and they get along gorgeously and Ralph is rather sweetly gallant. P.S. I like Ralph better than Andrew, and if I were Laurie, I’d be like, Huh, now with Ralph I have a future that contains good conversations, good sex, and no hiding shit, whereas with Andrew it’s just the good conversations and endless mental torture, and the decision would be easy, but Laurie spends a lot of time agonizing over it.

I can’t explain what makes this book so appealing to me. One thing is that they really do have good conversations. Mary Renault writes these beautiful dialogue sequences that are just impossibly eloquent with the things they’re saying and the things they’re not saying. I go green with envy reading it because I will never, ever be able to pack that much meaning and intensity into a line of dialogue, ever. And overall, it’s just such an understated and melancholy book, and I really do like Ralph an awful lot. He’s such a dear and he loves Laurie so much.

I will add this caveat: There’s a fair bit of unpleasantness with the more effeminate gay characters. They all have idiotic names like Bim and Toto and Bunny, and they are all gossipy bitchy people trying to screw up everyone else’s lives by telling lies and reading diaries and making half-assed manipulative suicide attempts. Not very nice in Mary Renault and not incredibly defensible even though she was writing about people that actually existed in a certain environment to which she had been recently, and to her detriment, exposed.