Thursday, January 07, 2016

Another Country

Over Christmas I read, with increasing enchantment, a lucky find in a charity shop - a 1970s Penguin edition of Mary Renault's The Bull From The Sea. Which I first read it more than forty years ago in my school library, where I also discovered the novels of The Lord of the Flies* and The Lord of the Rings. It's the sequel to Renault's The King Must Die, taking up Theseus's story after he returns from Crete and inherits a kingdom after his father, believing Theseus to be dead, commits suicide. Its first-person narrative is vivid and vital. The action -- and there's a lot of action in a story that encompasses the rise and fall of Theseus's reign -- is spare and swift:
The Kolchians kept a good watch and saw us landing, though there was no moon; but it did not give them long enough to get their goods up to the Citadel, and they left a good deal behind. We fought in the streets by the light of the burning houses; and the men of Kolchis giving way before us we caught up in the mountain road with the mule-train that had the gold.
The episodic narrative does sometimes feel that Renault is ticking off boxes as she covers the rest of her hero's life. But the storytelling, omitting everything that isn't essential and framed through Theseus's restless, pragmatic eye, is masterful and relentlessly propulsive, and with sharp economy effectively conveys a rich sense of its antique world. Not for Renault baggy descriptions of every room and every minor character, or discursive sidebars on the sewerage system of Athens or the pantheon of her Gods; instead, much of the sense of the world is conveyed through action -- by what Theseus does, or what he thinks about the people and situations he encounters, and the problems he must solve. It's a paradigmatic example of how worldbuilding serves the story, rather than vice versa. It's also (something rare these days) a story square in the tragic mode, as Theseus chases the unattainable carefree days of his youth, and loses, piece by piece, everything he loves. Not Renault's best novel, but better than almost everything else.

*The Lord of the Flies was pretty much a mandatory text in English schools at that time, but as far as I was concerned, it wasn't set at O-level, and at A-level I moved into the science stream, so was able to read it unencumbered by the feeling that I was doing some kind of work. Later, I helped to organise a showing of Peter Brook's adaptation at the school cinema club.** The teachers grew increasingly quiet and still as anarchy deepened, but perked up when the naval officer appeared.

** It was a county grammar school with the pretensions of a minor public school; I was a bright kid from a poor family who shamelessly benefited from its facilities.


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