Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ancient Eyes: Reflections on Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean

“Scholars will note,” writes Annabel Lyon in the Acknowledgements section of her novel The Golden Mean, “that I have omitted the philosopher Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, who is thought to have accompanied him to Macedonia.”  She goes on, equally formal: “Scholars will note, too, that I have delayed Speusippus’s death for the sake of narrative convenience.”  And then: “Scholars will turn purple over my sending Aristotle to Chaeronea.”

As a novelist myself, I would probably be disappointed if a blogger quoted from my Acknowledgements page, but I started here because the tone is unmistakably Lyon—at once attentive to details of the ancient world but not without a humor that is often funny, frequently witty, and always indelibly in the voice.

The Golden Mean follows Aristotle’s years spent tutoring Alexander the Great.  The premise alone is delicious in the number of great historical figures it implicates.  But where many might shy away from humanizing such larger-than-life men, Lyon not only confidently and clearly re-imagines the ancients, but she does so in the first-person voice of Aristotle himself.  Aristotle comes across as earthy, curious, well-meaning, and plagued by a sadness the great philosopher himself doesn’t understand.  Lyon gives Aristotle these qualities with a light, confident touch that is truly appealing—facts are never belabored; the characters populating Aristotle’s life are vivid and varied; the audacity of going inside the mind of an ancient is never acknowledged but simply done and done well. 

Although I devoured historical fiction in my adolescence (Ann Rinaldi was my favorite), I rarely read it now.  I confess to a bias, inspired partially by the manifesto of the titular character in  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, that I distrust a writer who cannot see the nobleness of her own time and must instead turn to portraying other eras.  I suppose I’ll sound like a narcissist, and a rather pretentious one at that, when I say that I read literature to gaze in the mirror it holds up to life, but the books that feel like they truly matter, the ones with ballast, are those in a realist mode that treat the world contemporary to that book’s author.  While I can’t say The Golden Mean fits this bill, I nonetheless recommend it as a thoroughly and persuasively imagined romp that, at its best, contains a thought-provoking richness.  For example, the Golden Mean is Aristotle’s idea that perfection lies between extremes, and Lyon works this philosophy to good thematic effect. Above all, I didn’t sense that Lyon turned to the ancient world because she can’t see nobleness in our own time but because she sees in the ancients a vibrant humanity. 

If you read and enjoy The Golden Mean as I did, you may want to check out the novel Lyon herself calls “excellent”: Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven, which takes the same premise of Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great but tells it from Alexander’s perspective.  I have yet to read it, but Lyon’s emphasis on the Golden Mean inspires me to want to read an imagined account from Alexander’s perspective so that I might find a Golden Mean of fictions that this famous mentorship has spawned.

Those of you following my preparatory reading for Squaw Valley may wonder why I chose a book by Annabel Lyon, who is not on the faculty of the impending workshop.  The answer lies in Lyon’s editor, Diana Coglianese, who is on the faculty and whose resume of working with literary fiction writers makes me eager to meet her. Less than two weeks left until the workshop starts!  Time to get back to my reading…

No comments:

Post a Comment