Friday, September 30, 2011

The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. The novel tells the story of Aristotle's life, focusing particularly on his relationship with the future Alexander the Great. It's told from Aristotle's first-person perspective, and for me, this was the chief interest of the book: imagining what it might have been like to be Aristotle. We see him disagreeing with his former teacher Plato's ideas about the nature of reality, developing his ideas about tragedy as a genre, and thinking about the danger of extremes and the importance of the middle way. We also see him dealing with a complicated relationship with his wife and facing disappointment in his career. He runs into political trouble because of his association with Athens at a time when he was living in Macedonia, Athens's enemy. All of this makes it possible to conjure up an image of life as it might have been so long ago and to think of Aristotle as a real person with regular-person worries and needs, when generally I think of him as nothing more than a brain and a set of ideas.

I found the book disappointing, though. Like Stefanie, I thought it was a little dull. The main problem is the lack of narrative tension. I don't need an exciting plot, but I do need some kind of tension to pull me through a book, or, failing that, I want some interesting ideas, beautiful writing, and/or characters I enjoy spending time with and thinking about. I didn't find enough of any of these things. There are interesting things to think about, the tension between being a warrior and a scholar that many of the characters experience, for one. I was also intrigued by the way the first person perspective makes Aristotle come across as a sympathetic human being, one who treats the mentally disabled with tremendous compassion unusual for the time, but who also owns slaves and assumes that women have limited capabilities and value. There is something fascinating about getting into the mind of a person who thinks about the world in such a fundamentally different way than we do today.

But the ideas don't seem to lead anywhere in particular. I was interested in Aristotle in a general and vague kind of way, but I wasn't worried about what would happen to him -- he was clearly going to get back to Athens eventually -- and his thoughts and observations weren't interesting enough to keep me happily reading. I think I would have preferred the book in the third person with some more insight into the culture of the time from an external narrator's point of view. The advantage of first person, of course, is getting to see the world through Aristotle's eyes, but perhaps an exterior view would have helped bring his character into sharper focus and would have allowed more commentary on the social and political values of the time. In the abstract I like the idea of historical fiction that doesn't get bogged down in explaining all the details of the time and place -- where the author isn't showing off her research on every page -- but in this case, I wanted a little more guidance.

At any rate, I started off the book with high hopes and did well at first, and then found myself less and less eager to pick it up. Other people have enjoyed it very much, though, and you can read Lilian Nattel's very positive review here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Liberties Were Taken with the Facts

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is narrated by Aristotle and tells the story of his time spent teaching Alexander soon to be "The Great." In the process we also get some flashbacks of Aristotle's boyhood and how he came to be the great philosopher.

As with all historical fiction one must remember this is, well, fiction, and not history or biography. Curious about Aristotle's real life, I checked out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a fantastic and reliable resource by the way). In the novel liberties are taken with Aristotle's timeline and just how close his relationship with Alexander was. According to the encyclopedia, Aristotle was 38 when he became the teacher of 13-year-old Alexander (my math on Aristotle's age) and taught him for only two or three years, though some scholars dispute this and say it was as long as eight years. But we do know that by the time Alexander was 15 he was already going out on campaigns with his father, Philip II. The book takes what seems to be the eight-year number approach.

In the book Aristotle sees himself as providing a balance to the martial education Philip is providing Alexander and insists that to be a good ruler, Alexander must find the "golden mean," the balance between extremes. Aristotle is presented as a pacifist of a sort, but some sources I read in addition to the Stanford article, indicate that Aristotle encouraged Alexander to conquer Asia. Whatever the case, little concrete information is known about what Aristotle actually taught Alexander and what kind of relationship they had.

A very curious change was made to one real historical figure in the book, Alexander's half brother, Arrhidaeus. In the book he is made to be severely mentally disabled and Alexander hates him. In the book Aristotle takes Arrhidaeus under his tutelage, treats him like a person, teaches him letters and music, how to ride a horse, essentially lifts him up from being an animal into being the mental equivalent of a young boy with the body of an adult. However, in reality, Arrhidaeus had only a mild mental disability and Alexander lover him dearly. On Alexander's death, Arrhidaeus became Philip III of Macedon. Granted, he was more a figurehead than anything and neither his life nor his reign lasted long, but why the big change about this in the book? It really doesn't serve any purpose to have written Arrhidaeus and Alexander's relationship to him so very differently.

Ok, so like I said, The Golden Mean is a novel, fiction, it doesn't have to adhere to reality. But even forgetting all of the historical transgressions, I didn't much like the book. When I was still in the first third of the book a coworker asked me what I was reading lately and I mentioned The Golden Mean and what it was about. She commented that it sounded interesting. I replied that I had thought so too but that it was actually a boring book. If it weren't for the fact that I read it for the Slaves discussion, I would not have finished it. It got marginally better by the end but I still didn't enjoy it. Nothing happens in the book, which isn't a bad thing, but if nothing is going to happen in a book it needs to have interesting characters. The characters should be interesting, I mean Aristotle and Alexander, but they are not. Nor is their relationship. Nor are there any secondary characters or relationships that are interesting.

Nonetheless, when I finished the book and read all the glowing blurbs on the back cover I feared I had missed something. I mean, it was a bestseller in Canada, published in six languages, was nominated for the Giller prize and won a few other prizes. Maybe the book was better than I thought? But after I did a little research on Aristotle and Alexander I began to trust my reaction a bit more. And then Rebecca didn't give it many stars on Good Reads and suddenly I feel much better about my take on the book.

But it is my take. Lots of people in Canada liked it so not everyone who reads it will come away with the same experience I did. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone though.

Cross-posted at So Many Books