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Knowledge not lightly worn
on 19 May 2011
I can't understand how such a badly written book should have acquired the reputation of being something of a classic. The style is often stodgy, elliptical in places, with loose pronouns galore; the transliterations of many names are deliberately different from the ones we are used to (Kyros for Cyrus, for instance). An Amazon reviewer writes that the author "is erudite without being earnest or overtly scholarly": erudite she certainly is, and good at describing the physical settings of her story - terrain, draughty palaces and so on; but not only is she overtly, indeed ostentatiously scholarly: she also expects a lot of knowledge from her readers - of the names of objects (a glossary would have helped; so would a page of dramatis personae of the immense cast of characters), of places mentioned but not shown in the map at the beginning of the book, of Greek legends. She often uses the device which I always find unconvincing of conveying a lot of the historical information in dialogue form: people don't talk to each other like that. Eighty pages in, I nearly gave up - the story had still not taken off. The subsidiary characters had scarcely come to life, though the unusual character of Alexander the Great as a child had been quite well brought out, and we had got a sense of what his parents - the grizzled, hard drinking but otherwise shrewd king Philip and the rancorous Olympias - were like. The story of the relationship between Alexander and his father is one of the best things in the book. In my opinion Philip is its best-drawn character.
After the first eighty pages, as Alexander becomes older, the actual story becomes more interesting. The homoerotic love between Alexander and Hephaistion is handled well: Hephaistion tormented but accepting that Alexander will not consummate it sexually - though, characteristically, Mary Renault's language at crucial points is so ambiguous that one can never be quite sure; and the Author's note at the end suggests that she wanted to leave it open to the reader whether there ever was a consummation or not. What is clear in the novel is that Hephaistion was often wiser than the gifted but headstrong Alexander. There are some fine set pieces, like the description of Alexander's first kill in battle at the age of twelve and of the events leading up to it; his mastery, at the age of thirteen, of the mighty steed Bucephalus; the dramatic events around the wedding feast when Philip took on yet another additional wife. The battle scenes are also well done, even if the complex and ever shifting politics around them are poorly described and hard to follow. And the writing of the plotting that leads to the climax at the end of the book is once again as murky as the plot itself.
The novel ends with Alexander's accession. There is a dramatic and glittering career ahead of him -but I have no wish to follow it in the next volume.