Thursday, 11 May 2017

The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller

 
published 2011
 
 
Song of Achilles 1
 
 
We arrived in Phthia the next day. The sun was just over the meridian, and Achilles and I stood looking at the rail.

‘Do you see that?’

‘What?’ As always his eyes were sharper than mine.

‘The shore. It looks strange.’ As we drew closer we saw why. It was thick with people, jostling impatiently, craning their necks towards us. And the sound: at first it seemed to come from the waves, or the ship as it cut them, a rushing roar. But it grew louder with each stroke of our oars, until we understood that it was voices, then words. Over and over, it came. Prince Achilles! Aristos Achaion!

As our ship touched the beach hundreds of hands threw themselves into the air, and hundreds of throats opened in a cheer. All other noises, the wood of the gangplank banging down on rock, the sailors’ commands, were lost to it. We stared, in shock.

It was that moment, perhaps, that our lives changed. Not before in Scyros, nor before that still, on Pelion. But here, as we began to understand the grandness, now and always, that would follow him wherever he went. He had chosen to become a legend, and this was the beginning.


 
Song of Achilles 2


[later in the book]

‘You are bleeding.’ The bandage has soaked through.

‘I know,’ I say.

‘Let me look at it.’ I follow him obediently into the tent. He takes my arm and unwraps the cloth. He brings water to rinse the wound clean, and packs it with crushed yarrow and honey.


 
commentary:  What a good year this is proving to be for books. Song of Achilles is not new – it came out in 2011 – and hadn’t really hit my radar, although I do like historical novels dealing with classical events.  I picked it up after JK Rowling recommended it in an interview (years ago, I came late to that too) and you can see why she liked it: it’s a story of myth and magic and of friendship and personal loyalties.

The astonishing thing is that Miller has made the story so fresh, while sticking to the usual sources. Achilles and Patroclus are key figures in Homer’s Iliad, and then Shakespeare uses them in his Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan War. The Shakespearean version of Patroclus is not a good one, nor is the relationship between the two men shown in a good light: it’s a hard, unforgiving play in general, and Patroclus gets a rough ride.

Miller has rescued him – her Patroclus is a warm and understandable character, something of a klutz, destined always to be the sidekick. But he is the beloved of Achilles, the golden boy. Their relationship is beautifully and deftly done. She does the impossible: shows life in ancient Greece, a time and place we cannot understand, but gives us a couple that we can completely understand, without getting too 21st century about it.

Knowing the outline of the story is helpful, so you can see how she fits the pieces together. I think she does an amazing job of portraying the different characters from the stories: Thetis and Odysseus are particularly well drawn. The book is narrated by Patroclus, and if you know the story you think there will be a problem at the end, but Miller overcomes it beautifully, and the final pages are immensely touching.

The obvious comparison is with Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, another great favourite of mine, a book I have read many times, one of my comfort reads. I can’t offer greater tribute to Song of Achilles than to say it would join Persian Boy in my personal pantheon, along with the magical I Am the Great Horse, the story of Alexander through the eyes of Bucephalos. (Alexander was himself very taken with the story of Achilles and Patroclus.)

This marvellous book deservedly won the Orange Prize. I very much hope the author will write the story of Odysseus next – his personality in this one is crying out to be given the full treatment…

I looked up some amazon reviews of this book. One critic considered that the words were too short, and the sentences didn’t have enough words in them. Apart from the sheer weirdness of using this as a measure of a book’s quality, I would say you would have to have a tin ear not to respond to the beauty of her writing: the prose is stunning.

Departure of Achilles: illustration taken from a vase in the Louvre, NYPL. Achilles bandaging Patroclus is from a drinking cup in a Berlin museum, picture from Wikimedia Commons.


























18 comments:

  1. Short sentences seems perfectly right for a story about ancient Greece - I tend to think of Greek translations as being almost staccato, their imagery summarised in a few words, so I didn't even notice it here. As a verbose guy at the worst of times, I really appreciate it when someone tells a good story, well, and briefly.

    I always think of the time I tried reading "What Maisie Knew" and just got bogged down with Henry James's stunningly perfect prose, every sentence flawlessly constructed, perfectly structured, etc.... and completely, utterly, totally, boringly unreadable.

    Every time I say this, some grammar snob always gets their undercrackers in a twist, going on about how, if I think it's well-written, I ought to like it, but I say it's like an average Chanel suit, you can see it's good fabrics, well cut, beautifully made, but it's the same old, same old, irremedially dull. I'm not going to coo over something just because the artist knew what they were doing.

    And I have to say, some of my favourite ever reads really wouldn't win any literature prices, or are looked down on by anyone with any pretensions to knowing what's good writing, but... the authors tell the story well, and well, end of story, that's where a good narrator takes you.

    (Ooh, I must remember those last words....)

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    1. At some point I need to give Maisie another go. I do really like The Turn of the Screw and I thought The Aspern Papers was remarkable, it was difficult to believe it was the same author who did Maisie. Everything else by James I tried had much the same effect on me - dull, dull, undeniably beautifully done, but dull, I can't even remember where I left some of them as when a book is that boring, I tend to leave it on the train or the bus or wherever without even realising until maybe three weeks or so later, when I suddenly go "oh yeah. Wasn't I reading....?"

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    2. I am a massive fan of henry James, but I have always found Maisie difficult. I loved much longer books of his! Did you see a very weird modern version of the story, moved to 21s C New York, with Julianne Moore?
      I love your comparison with average Chanel. Well you would think like that wouldn't you? ;)

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  2. I think you've hit on something really important here, Moira. These stories work best when the author gives those classical characters real personalities and real, everyday lives. And it sounds as though that's what Miller does here. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

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    1. Yes, and I think it would be a great entry point if anyone wanted to find out more about classical times. I imagine an intrigued teenager would love it...I would have adored it at that age.

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  3. I came to Song of Achilles at a Madeleine Miller book event in 2012..then rereading it as a young ya book group choice .. The narrative is wonderful..I have since kept wrapped copies of TSoA at hand in book gifting stashes..

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    1. Oh good for you, that's a great idea. I have just sent someone a copy as a birthday present. I think it is a book I will read again.

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  4. Sounds wonderful. I can't believe I've gotten to my advanced age without ever reading "The Persian Boy." An oversight I keep forgetting to correct.

    Have you read Aliette de Bodard's books set in the time of the Aztecs? I found them completely absorbing and remarkable for making the whole world understandable and not off-putting -- considering all that blood.

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    1. The Persian Boy is probably one of the books I have read most (I must make a list some day... ) - I don't quite know why I love it so much, but I do.
      No, new author to me, must go and find out!

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  5. In a funny way I've always found the Ancient Greeks and Romans more relatable than, say, people from the Middle Ages. I read some translations of Classic Greek poetry, and there was a poem where the writer said something to the effect of "I've lost my shield and spear, but never mind, I can always steal them from somebody else!" This sort of jaunty cynicism reached across thousands of years. Like good translations, modern versions of ancient stories and absolutely vital. There's a D H Lawrence poem where he talks about how people put life into the things that they make, and that life goes on through transferred touch down the years "...warm still with the life of the forgotten men who made them". It's true of stories as well. We read them, process them, and maybe tell them again, making them anew with our own vision.

    Oh, and I love that Amazon review. It reminds me of that bit from AMADEUS where the Emperor gives his criticism of Mozart's latest opera "There are far too many notes, my dear Mozart".

    ggary

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    1. Yes, I do know what you mean. I hated Latin at school, then discovered the Greek authors later and fell totally in love. I learned (some) Ancient Greek, and I remember the tutor telling us that the language was closer to modern Greek than, say, Middle English is to today's English. And that seemed to sum up exactly the point you are making - I found the Greeks free and to my taste!
      That's a lovely quote from Lawrence.

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    2. I studied Russian, and the instructor said that Old Church Slavic (very early Russian) would be more understandable to non-native Russian speaker than Old English would be to a native English speaker. And I'd believe it!

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    3. "Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. "
      Winston Churchill

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    4. Paula: I love the idea of that continuity in language, something we don't have in English.
      And Shay: love that quote. I couldn't believe how much I loved Greek, and how (comparatively) easy I found it, I wonder how many others are blocked from it because of their dislike of Latin? It really is a treat, such a beautiful language.

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  6. The extract is very good. But I will let you read this one for me.

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  7. Life's too short to be reading books like this I reckon.

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    1. ... and that's what you're here for Col, to give the other side's view...

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