Monday, February 20, 2012

2012.02.38

ALSO SEEN: Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles. New York: Ecco Press, 2012. Pp. 378. ISBN 9780062060617. $25.99.

Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (cconybea@brynmawr.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Re-reading The Song of Achilles this weekend, I was suddenly reminded of Frances Cornford's elegy for her husband, the classicist Francis (F. M.). It begins:

You often went to breathe a timeless air
And walk with those you loved, perhaps the most.
You spoke to Plato. You were native there.
Like one who made blind Homer sing to him,
You visited the caves where sirens swim
Their deep-indented coast.

"To breathe a timeless air" is a romantic notion of what we do as classicists; but there is something delightfully irrational about our attachment to our timeworn field. Isn't it some breeze from that "timeless air" that made us fall in love with the discipline in the first place?

With this novel, we can fall in love again: for Madeline Miller has made blind Homer sing to her. She tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, from their childhoods until after their deaths, in the voice of Patroclus, as a slender outcast unskilled in battle who can never quite believe his luck in attracting the devotion of Achilles. We know the story; we know that it embraces some of the most powerful and affecting moments in the Iliad. But somehow, with an extraordinary charge of empathy and with lean, fresh writing, Miller makes us feel it anew.

How does she do it?

Partly it is that she does not restrict herself to the span of the Iliad; in fact, we are three quarters of the way through the book before we get to the claiming of Chryseis and the consequent plague. Miller also takes the strange myths that accrete around Achilles - the education by Chiron on Mount Pelion, the concealment on Scyros in woman's clothing - and imagines us into them so richly that the boundaries between human and mythical blur.

She imagines the details of the extraordinary: what it would feel like to ride on a centaur's back, to be in the presence of a goddess, to have one's own aristeia; and somehow she tells it so that it is marvelous and vivid, completely real and no less extraordinary.

She has a deft touch with a simile. Achilles smiles, and "the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled like a leaf held to flame". Men eager for news come into a great hall "like a flood after the breaking of the winter's ice". The mouth of Thetis is "a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular".

The love of Achilles and Patroclus is made palpable in this book, but it is always shadowed by the passionate presence of Thetis, equally terrifying as goddess and mother. Here is Patroclus giving way to his fears that she has claimed his beloved companion, her son, forever:

She would take him to the caves of the sea and teach him contempt for mortals. She would feed him with the food of the gods and burn his human blood from his veins. She would shape him into a figure meant to be painted on vases, to be sung of in songs, to fight against Troy. I imagined him in black armor, a dark helmet that left him nothing but eyes, bronze greaves that covered his feet. He stands with a spear in each hand and does not know me.

In that short paragraph is displayed the strength of the novel. It has the magnificence of myth; it has the passions of humanity. Look at the shift into the present reality of the present tense in the final sentence. The ordinary lover fears that his beloved has left him behind - and his beloved is the aristos Achaion.

The sorrow of Frances Cornford's exquisite poetry is that despite her heritage - she was, after all, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin - she always seems to be on the outside, enviously looking in at an intellectual tradition she cannot fully share. Madeline Miller avenges the Cornfords of the past, the girls left behind while their brothers and husbands and sons "spoke to Plato". Her Homer has sung to her, and the result is The Song of Achilles.

For readers in the UK and Australia, this is old news: The Song of Achilles was published there by Bloomsbury in September. Readers in the US and Canada will at last be able to buy the book at the beginning of March.

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