Friday, October 19, 2007

Renault on Alexander

Three weeks ago I posted a shot of my reading material for my week in Barcelona; Mary Renault's four books on Alexander. As it happened, due to a mix up I left The Nature of Alexander behind and took Simon Scarrow's The Eagle's Conquest instead, but that's another story ... In any case, I have now read all four, and should write about them.

I'd actually read very little Renault before this - only her account of the sixth-century BC poet Simonides, The Praise Singer. But she's one of those authors I've always felt I should read more of, especially after last year's rather fine documentary.

There's something about the life of Alexander the Great that, though it makes for glorious biography, resists dramatization. I think it's because it's essentially anti-climactic. His life story builds to a crescendo through the great battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, to which the occupation of Babylon should be a coda. But then he lived, and continued to campaign, for another eight years. These years are filled with episodic incidents, that it's hard to sew a dramatic thread through that. Alter the order of events, and a writer will be castigated for inaccuracy. But try as hard as possible to be accurate, and the writer ends up with a sprawling shapeless account, and the harder one adheres to history, the less dramatic the story becomes. Such issues plagued Robert Rossen's 1956 film, and Oliver Stone's 2004 version (which I discussed here, and a little bit here).* I haven't read the trilogy by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (of whom more in my next post), but Paul Cartledge puts the boot into it in his Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, calling it "unimaginative" (p. 240) and complaining of its "dullness" (p. 312), so perhaps the same problems afflict that work.

How does Renault deal with this problem? Essentially, she sidesteps it, by not really telling Alexander's story. Indeed, to describe the three Alexander novels as a 'trilogy' is misleading, as they do not really link up into a single narrative.

The first time she wrote about Alexander,** in The Mask of Apollo (1966), he is a walk-on, as a fourteen-year old, at the end; this novel is not his story at all. Four years later came her next novel, Fire from Heaven. This is Alexander's story, but it is the story of his youth. It climaxes at a logical point for a climax, at the death of Alexander's father Philip, and his acclamation as king. In her 'Author's note' at the end, she explicitly directs the reader to Plutarch's Life of Alexander or Arrian's Expedition of Alexander for what happened next. The implication is that she had no intention of tackling the later events of Alexander's life herself.

Nevertheless, two years later (and interestingly, at the exact moment that Robin Lane Fox was preparing what remains the best-known academic account of Alexander's life),*** Renault published The Persian Boy, which takes events up to Alexander's death in 323 BC. But it is not Alexander's story. It is that of Bagoas, the eponymous Persian Boy, who narrates the novel. Alexander is a supporting character, albeit the most important one by far. Over a hundred pages pass before Alexander is brought on stage, though his actions influence Bagoas' life long before. In that offstage period are all of the climactic actions of the first part of Alexander's life - the battles, the visit to Egypt, the conquest of Babylon. Alexander is brought on at the beginning of the episodic eight years mentioned above. But it is still not Alexander's story. The dramatic thread is presented by Bagoas' progression, from a novelty at Alexander's court, to his sexual partner, and to eventually becoming Alexander's partner is almost every aspect of his life, accompanying him on his harshest campaigns. Conveniently for Renault, Bagoas' life story is under-reported in the sources, allowing the dramatist considerable scope.

The key crisis of Alexander's later years was the difference between him and his Macedonians over his orientalizing. I have always felt that Alexander saw that he had become the new Great King of Persia, and it was necessary for him to act the role. The Macedonians, on the other hand, saw Persia as conquered territory, and viewed with suspicion Alexander's use of Persians in his administration, army, and his adoption of Persian practices and dress. Renault evidently shares that view. And having a Persian narrator allows her to dramatize that conflict from a Persian perspective, to show how Persians thought it humiliating for Alexander to be addressed in the rough comradely manner his Macedonians used; most historians tend to view this to one degree or another from the Macedonian side, if with more understanding of Alexander's position. (I also think that, wanting to pick up Alexander after Babylon, Renault was more-or-less forced into choosing a Persian central character.)

I also find that it is in The Persian Boy that Renault made the suggestion that has always appealed to me, that when asked to whom he left his empire, Alexander may have said not to kratisto ('to the strongest'), but to kratero ('to Krateros').

Renault clearly found she had more to say about Alexander, but had left herself little room to produce more fiction. So, for the first and only time, she wrote a book of adult non-fiction, The Nature of Alexander,**** which was published in 1975. It is more of a defence of Alexander than anything else - she had already railed against some modern scholars (and the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus) in the 'Author's note' for The Persian Boy. It's a minor work in terms of Alexander scholarship, and blighted by her somewhat blinkered view of Alexander, who for Renault is largely shorn of any possibility of being seriously flawed (though she may well be right about the implausibility of Alexander as alcoholic). But as a means of understanding Renault's attitude towards Alexander, and the way the shadow of William Tarn falls across her, it's a fascinating document.

She put Alexander aside for a while, writing The Praise Singer, before returning to the theme in her final novel, Funeral Games. Again, this is not Alexander's story, though his shadow falls on everything that happens. The novel begins where The Persian Boy ends (indeed slightly before, so that some events are featured in both books), at the deathbed of Alexander. He has already slipped into a coma, and is dead within a few pages. Renault then tells the story of the next fourteen years of struggle for Alexander's legacy. It is a bitty story, due to the nature of the events it describes (and indeed, the struggle for Alexander's empire was not really resolved for another decade after the point at which Renault ends, with the murder of Alexander's son and wife). But there are a number of points of interest. Renault follows the sources in making Krateros a rather shadowy figure, whose actions all seem to take place offstage. And she seems to relish the opportunity of presenting what other people thought of Bagoas, suggesting he is not perhaps as meek and insignificant as he sees himself.

Again, I find myself agreeing with Renault, in this case in her interpretation of the actions of Ptolemy. As the Successors prepared to fight over Alexander's legacy, Ptolemy got himself assigned as satrap to Egypt. Renault gives him what I have always believed to have been his motive; when all the others wanted to take over the whole empire, Ptolemy recognized that none of those with ambitions to rule would accept one of their fellows as their ruler, and without Alexander, to whom they had all deferred, the empire could not hold together. So he identified that part of the empire that could most successfully maintain its independence from the rest (as Egypt often had from Persia in the past), and set about making it his own kingdom.

At the heart of Funeral Games, however, is Alexander's cousin Eurydike. She clearly appeals enormously to Renault. Trained in hunting, accustomed to wearing man's clothes, Eurydike is someone who prefers the company of men, though not for sex, and wishes she were a man. One suspects that Renault herself shared many of those qualities, though she recognizes that Eurydike's failure to conform to what is expected of her is a factor in her downfall.

One last point is to say how much Oliver Stone's film is influenced by Renault, as recognized in an unpublished paper by Shaun Tougher, and emphasized by Stone's participation in the 2006 documentary. He could not have the rights to Renault's novels (HBO and Mel Gibson's Ikon were contemplating a mini-series based on them), but a number of Renault scenes get into Stone's script. Alexander being in his mother's bedroom when his father enters to rape her, is out of Fire from Heaven, and the decision to use Ptolemy's history as a framing device may have been derived from Renault's coda to Funeral Games (though it may also have been a spoiling tactic against the Baz Luhrmann/Dino de Laurentiis Alexander, which was to use Manfredi's trilogy, which purports to be Ptolemy's History). And would Stone have given the limited prominence to Bagoas that he does had the eunuch not featured in Renault's novel?

I'm glad I've read these novels.*****

* There's a typically entertaining discussion of screen Alexanders in Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, pp. 87-135.

** According to the abstract for a paper given by Shaun Tougher, 'Images of Alexander: the case of Mary Renault', he appears in her 1956 novel The Last of the Wine. He is not included in this list of the novel's dramatis personae, but he may be mentioned in the novel's postscript, set a couple of generations after the main action. I don't have the book to hand to check.

*** For all that other academics can sometimes be sniffy about it.

**** She had written a children's non-fiction work in 1964, The Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae.

***** There's another review of the trilogy by Jeanne Reames here: (you'll have to cut and past the link, because something sucks like a sucky thing, and I can't get the HTML to work). She makes some interesting points, but I think she misreads what Renault is trying to do with The Persian Boy.

Edited 23/10/07: A correspondent tells me that the mention of Alexnader in The last of the Wine is that the manuscript that the novel purports to be is being sent to Alexander; so he doesn't actually appear as a character.

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