Mar 25, 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a sort of retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, an exiled prince and the lover and companion of Achilles, the “Best of the Greeks”. I say a sort of retelling because the novel doesn’t just concern itself with the Trojan War: instead, it begins with Patroclus’ childhood and then follows his love affair with Achilles from its inception to its final days. Madeline Miller’s novel, then, mainly deals with the unexplored pockets and unaddressed possibilities of a well-known story, which is just what I like my retellings to do.

The Song of Achilles has received a lot of praise, mainly for the writing and for the beautifully told same-sex love story. There’s no denying that Miller does a super job of bringing Patroclus and Achilles’ love affair to life: the story is narrated in the first person, and the intimacy of Patroclus’ voice invites the reader to closely observe Achilles-the-beloved-object, as well as to experience Patroclus’ near constant longing – a longing that is sexual, but not just. I don’t think I’d read an evocation of passion this powerful since Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith a few years ago, and that’s saying a lot.

And yet. And yet there’s something to be said about the fact that this is one more addition to a long tradition of lgbtq love stories with tragic endings – stories that make our hearts beat faster, that invite us to empathise and cry, but where the characters are safely removed at the end. I know what you’re thinking just about now: ‘Ana, The Song of Achilles is based on The Iliad. There wasn’t exactly much room for puppies, rainbows and happy endings.’ Which, yes, is absolutely true. Not only that, but the very final scene suggests the possibility of hope; of an in-world reunion based on the novel’s mythology. That’s not something to be discounted, although it doesn’t erase the fact that at its core this is a tragic story.

So, to make it absolutely clear, I don’t think that the tragic pattern of The Song of Achilles, which mirrors that of its source material, is a flaw with the novel. I also don’t think we ought to limit the range of stories we tell about underrepresented groups by demanding that no writer ever go there, even though certain tropes are undeniably troublesome. What I do think is that there are interesting and relevant conversations to be had about why these are the stories we repeatedly shower all our praise and attention upon. This isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty for enjoying this book (it case that wasn’t obvious before, I really did as well) – but the dangers of a single story are always worth thinking about.

Speaking of Miller’s source material, I really liked the fact that The Song of Achilles raises questions about the notion of heroism and glory while still adhering closely to a war narrative. Take the following excerpt, for example:
Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from”.
“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. “Or your brother? Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”
“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said. “He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?”
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we were twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.
This refusal to uncomplicate war and the roles individuals play in it is one of Miller’s greatest triumphs. The introduction of moments such as the one above makes Achilles more than a killing machine, as does the portrayal of the side of him Patroclus explicitly tells us he wants us to remember. The stories that survive, the ones that are repeatedly told, and often stories that dehumanise and oversimplify people, and Patroclus’s narrative is one that actively resists that.

Most of the action of The Song of Achilles takes place in the world of boys and men, and because the setting is one where war and education were gendered segregated affairs, I can’t exactly hold this against the novel. There are moments where Patroclus seems to actively flinch away from the world women inhabit, but not, I think, wholly without sympathy for their circumstances. Take this observation about Deidameia, for example:
Confinement. I heard the bitterness in her voice when she said it. Some small house, at the edge of Lycomedes’ land. She would not be able to dance or speak with companions there. She would be alone, with a servant and her growing belly.
“I’m sorry”, I said.
She did not answer. I watched the soft heaving of her back beneath the white gown. I took a step towards her, then stopped. I had thought to touch her, to smooth her hair in comfort. But it would not be comfort, from me. My hand fell back to my side.
And yet, as before, there’s another angle to consider: is this vague and soon forgotten sympathy enough to make up for the fact that none of the women in this novel are as complex and fully developed as the men? Not only that, but their roles are fairly fixed: Deidameia is beautiful, jealous, childish and spoiled; Thetis is fearsome and cold; Briseis is the self-sacrificing woman who shields the male lovers from external scrutiny at the expense of her own feelings. None of this was a deal-breaker for me, mostly because, as I discussed above, there was a certain feminist sensibility to Miller’s descriptions that softened the blow; and also because the novel was doing enough other things that I loved that I was completely under its spell. But everyone’s mileage will vary.

Bits I liked:
Later, Achilles sleeps next to me. Odysseus’ storm has come, and the coarse fabric of the tent wall trembles with its force. I hear the stinging slap, over and over, of waves reproaching the shore. He stirs and the air stirs with him, bearing the must-sweet smell of his body. I think: This is what I will miss. I think: I will kill myself rather than miss it. I think: How long do we have?
*sob*
As we swam, or played, or talked, a feeling would come. It was almost like fear, in the way it filled me, rising in my chest. It was almost like tears, in how swiftly it came. But it was neither of those, buoyant where they were heavy, bright where they were dull. I had known contentment before, brief snatches of time in which I pursued solitary pleasure: skipping stones or dicing or dreaming. But in truth, it had been less a presence than an absence, a laying aside of dread: my father was not near, nor boys. I was not hungry, or tired, or sick.
This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp pricking until I thought I might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.
Big hat tip to Jodie and Clare, who shared their smarts and helped me brainstorm many of the ideas that made their way into this post.

They read it too: Necromancy Never Pays, Rhapsody in Books, Eve’s Alexandria, The Sleepless Reader, Booklust, The Book Smugglers, Chasing Bawa, Page 247, Iris on Books, Buried in Print

(And more – so many more. If yours is one of them, let me know and I’ll be happy to add your link.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

24 comments:

Marg said...

I am glad to say that I will be finally be reading this book soon. I fully expect to be fully engaged, and now to be emotionally drained too!

Heather said...

Great review. I fell in love with this book, and it will definitely be a re-read in the future.

Siobhán said...

I really liked this book. I thought the writing was beautiful and it really put a new spin on the traditionalist telling of the myth. I especially liked how Achilles was humanised in it - before I'd always thought of him as you say 'a killing machine', a stereotypical hero. I like how Miller opens up the myth to story and personal interpretation - a good genre to pursue! Enjoyed your review :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

First, thank you so much to the link (in a new window!) to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - what a great talk! I keep forgetting to check Ted.com, even though every time I go there I love it! gaaaa - too much to read!

Secondly, I have mixed feelings about your (and her) point. I hate hate hate when people derive their understanding of history and culture from just one source, especially if it is a Hollywood vision. But. Is the problem the one artistic rendition, or is it the fact that people are willing to accept the one thing they read or see as the entire truth? I suppose what I'm saying is that I (quixotically) would rather repair the education system than require all writing and viewing to have "positive" messages or ANY particular message. Now I know you don't mean to "require" anything of anything, and I also know that I have disagreed with myself in the past, because I *do* know the deleterious effects of one reading. Gaaaaaaaah.

And finally, I think I would say that I reacted to this book less as a lgbtq love story than as a retelling of The Iliad that added more nuance and thoughfulness (just as the passage you quoted about the morality of war). So now that this comment is maybe longer than your post... LOL

mdellbrady said...

What a wonderful review. You manage to point out problems without blaming the book and author. Keep up the good work.

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

I don't disagree with what you say about tragic stories and I think there's a necessity for happier ones. I also think a love of tragic love stories is sort of an across the board thing--people just like them. So there will be some LGBTQ ones as well. I guess my question is whether or not the relationship ends/meets its tragic demise because it's a same sex relationship or for other reasons. (I don't really know the source material sorry!, but basically tragic is always treated as more serious and praise worthy than anything light from my experience)

But you know, you do have me thinking. I just read another book that also was very tragic when it came to the lesbian character. I loved the book and certain handlings of things in it, but since that's the most recent one I've read, I can see how this is def a hard trend.

It kind of makes me see why Six Feet Under worked so hard to resolve things between David and Keith even though I felt like David could have had different boyfriends and i'd have been fine with that lol.

picky girl said...

Gorgeous review and examination, Nymeth. This is a book I desperately want to read, but I don't have a copy, and I have too many other books jockeying for favor at the moment. I think I'll wait for the summer when I have a bit more time to read and can really savor this.

Mythology has always been some of my favorite reading, and I've heard such interesting perspectives on what this writer has done with her story.

Charlie said...

I've read a lot of reviews for this book, but this one is particularly good. I'm going to have to keep your thoughts in mind when I finally get round to reading it. To me, the quote about Deidameia sounds like there's a big focus on women and writing them well, so reading what you've written about it it sounds an interesting sort of mix to consider.

Ali said...

Interesting points, especially about the tendency toward tragic endings in GLBT love affairs in literature. Maybe because I read (and respect) so much YA lit, I haven't noticed that as much. I agree with Amy that the tragic ending in tends to be seen as having more depth, or stating something meaningful about the human condition.

Your point about the treatment of female characters is well taken, though I think I disagree with you regarding Briseis. The difficulty Miller was faced with is that Briseis has to be a pawn, in order to stick to the original story. Given that parameter, and the culture in which the tale is set, I thought Miller did try to give her depth and growth as a character, without changing her so much that the ending wouldn't have made sense.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I just reviewed this today! It actually inspired me to dive into half a dozen Greek mythology books because I was enjoying it so much. I see what you mean about the tragic endings, though you're right, it couldn't really go any other way in this book since it's a retelling.

Zibilee said...

I am listening to this one right now, and finding it very intricate and lovely. I also love the love story in it, and feel like it is done with an excellent gentleness that I am really enjoying. I can't wait to see what happens next! Need to make some more time for listening!

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Marg: Yep, definitely emotionally draining - keep a box of kleenex at hand when you get to the final section!

Heather: I think I will as well. I also wonder if Miller has more retellings in her!

Siobhán: Thank you! And yes, I think that was one of the most accomplished aspects of the novel.

Jill: I suppose what I'm saying is that I (quixotically) would rather repair the education system than require all writing and viewing to have "positive" messages or ANY particular message. Yes, absolutely. This is what I meant when I said that I saw no point in limiting the range of stories we tell about under-represented groups. It's also why my solution to these things is always Tell ALL the Stories: we need more stories, more representations, more endings of every kind imaginable, rather than establishing more limits and creating more rules. This makes me want to dig up an old unfinished draft I have of a post about cultural criticism vs literary criticism, because I think the distinction is important in cases like this. Drawing attention to the pattern of tragic stories is me engaging in the former rather than the latter, because I really don't think it's a problem with this (or any) particular book. It's not an artistic flaw on Miller's part. It's only when I focus on the forest rather than on any particular trees that these questions begin to give me pause.

mdellbrady: Thank you so much!

Amy: I also think a love of tragic love stories is sort of an across the board thing--people just like them. This might well be the case, yes. It's just that like I was telling Jill with straight couples you have so many other stories to counterbalance that, whereas with l&g couples there are so few that have cultural prominence to begin with. We need more of everything for these problems to go away.

picky girl: Thank you - though half the credit goes to the bloggers I had the chance to discuss the book with beforehand (and this is why I love our little community). I've a big mythology fan too, especially of Greek mythology, so I was pre-disposed to love this from the get-go.

bermudaonion said...

This book is getting raves and I feel like I should want to read it but the mythology aspect is holding me back.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Charlie: I think Miller wrote her characters with definite care - that's what I meant about the feminist sensibility of her descriptions. The only "but" is that they don't get enough screen time to move beyond being stock figures and become three-dimensional people. But really, your mileage may vary, and this reading is not the one true answer :P

Ali: I definitely think it's possible to read these characters more generously, and I certainly see your points about Briseis. When I read reading the novel I actually really loved her; it wasn't until a friend pointed out the stereotype of the "beard" to me and I read up on the way it's used in literature that I could see how she too could be read as belonging to a fixed type. So now I can see both sides - on the one hand, I believed her as a character; on the other hand, I also see a trope with a troubling history.

Melissa: Heading over to read your review in a minute - I'm looking forward to comparing notes :D

Zibilee: I absolutely agree about the gentleness, and I can't wait to hear what you think!

Kathy: Please don't let it! Miller makes it all so accessible - you don't need to be a mythology geek like me :P

Debi said...

Okay, I'll just straight out ask it and expand your knowledge of my ignorance :P ... what if I haven't read The Iliad, or don't really know much about it at all? Obviously it would make it a different read for me, but would I be missing out on too much?

Clare said...

Aw, shucks!

As you know, I had a lot of problems with this, simply because I'm so immersed in LGBT narratives that it rubbed me the wrong way that a fairly traditional tragic story was getting a lot of attention when I feel like we–or, at the very least, I—have moved past that. My review's going up Wednesday.

But, gosh, that's some beautiful prose.

Jenny said...

I have to admit I wasn't expecting too much from the lady characters in The Song of Achilles. Mary Renault, to whom Madeline Miller is constantly being compared, never writes any interesting women either. Even in her modern novels they're pretty boring. I love her but I always have to regulate my expectations about woman characters when I'm reading her books.

SHE IS STILL AWESOME.

(I don't know how this all became a Defense o' Mary Renault all of a sudden. I just love her so so so much.)

Sarah Reid said...

I've been meaning to read this for ages! It's not really something I would usually read but have heard so many good things. The classics teacher at school loved it too and has been sending his students to us to borrow it.
Sarah

Jeanne said...

I think we forget that women in Patroclus' day were rarely educated as well as the men, and this did make many of them less interesting. It's the rare individual who is a true auto-didact.

Tasha B. said...

Didn't The Iliad itself question the notion of heroism? IIRC Achilles observes at one point that they all wind up dead. Idk, the whole hero thing is kind of crazy.

jessicabookworm said...

I really want to read this book!

Aarti said...

Wow, fantastic post, Ana. I see your point about the one-dimensional women in the book, but I wonder if that was done purposely to show their limitations- that Thetis, for example, was so desperate for Achilles to ascend to divinity to make up for the misery of her own rape and the sacrifices she made on his behalf. Yes, she was horrible and cold, but she also had no control over the course of her life, so wanted to control that of her son's.

sakura said...

I didn't read this so much as a lgbtq love story than just a love story between two people and thought it was beautifully rendered. But I do know what you mean about the female characters however I assumed this was because the focus of most ancient literature is usually on the men (cue Margaret Atwood who totally subverts this in The Penelopiad).

Bookgazing said...

I've been meaning to comment on this for ages! Thanks so much for being brave enough to put an alternative opinion against the 'single story' of much of the reviews that have come out about this book (not that they're not making good points too, just ALL THE POVs). As you know I just couldn't do it with this book. And well done managing to balance everything (your love and concerns) so elegantly and approaching the potential problems of this novel reinforcing larger trends with such generosity.

Also: 'This makes me want to dig up an old unfinished draft I have of a post about cultural criticism vs literary criticism, because I think the distinction is important in cases like this.' - this, we should have this :)

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