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Monday, 3 February 2020

Review: Madeline Miller, Circe

If I was Madeline Miller, I would ask my publisher - rather firmly - to two do things when this book is next reprinted. First, remove all the product endorsements which run to eight sides (including front and back covers) on my copy. She does not need endorsements from the Wall Street Journal or the Daily Mail, from The Lady and Woman & Home, from all the other puffers who get to contribute their two penn’orth. Read enough of their combined puffing and it will get in the way of reading this book for what it is, a considerable achievement as a novel which requires some reflection to appreciate and probably modest prose to express. Second, she should ask for a decent cover, perhaps one entirely devoid of ornament as it would have been if Fitzcarraldo had published the book. But I’d compromise on something a bit less garish. You can’t have everything.

I am probably in the majority as a reader with a sketchy and uncertain knowledge of Greek mythology. I get the general idea and in case I don’t Miller reminds me, though never didactically. Three things are very important: Greek gods are ranked in importance (monotheism got rid of that idea); they mix and mess with humans all the time (something claimed only for Christ among the monotheisms) and, in contrast to mortals, they are immortal and cannot even enter as visitors the underworld of the regular dead (in the monotheisms, either there is one afterlife for all or else Heaven and Hell).

Immortality poses a problem for the novelist. Human mortality maps neatly into the idea that a novel should have a beginning, middle, and end. The immortality of a god poses a problem and it is a problem with which Miller has to cope, since her first-person narrator, Circe, is immortal. The drawback of immortality is that a god’s life can only be a story which unfolds in terms of  and then and then and then. Such stories become boring sooner or later. How does Miller deal with that?

In my edition of 333 pages she situates the rape of Circe at pages 164-165, and it is only the tiniest liberty to call that the exact mid-point. It must be deliberate, to create a turning point.

Circe gives birth to her son,  Telegonus, not quite two-thirds of the way through (page 212). What will happen to Telegonus then becomes the main focus of the reader’s attention for the simple reason that Telegonus, son of mortal Odysseus, is also mortal and immortal Athena threatens his life. A third of the book remains in which we will discover if Telegonus will live or die. And that is not an and then and then and then story. There is a wonderful emotional climax at pages 244 - 47 which plays on the theme of Greater Love in the form of a mother’s love for her child and as the tension from that subsides I thought that the novel could have been brought to an end, the outcome unresolved. But then Miller gives the book a new direction leading to a final emotional climax in which the opposition between immortality and mortality takes centre stage. (I won’t spoil the actual plot line).

There are only a few gags in the book, all of which I think involve some kind of half-anachronism: That’s the worst prophecy I’ve ever heard says Circe at page 86. Otherwise, there seems to be ( but wait for my conclusion) minimal anachronism. 

There is a massive and central play with Greek mythology and specifically Homer’s Odyssey or - perhaps more accurately - the deployment of Miller’s considerable classical learning to create a novel which runs in constant unspoken dialogue with the originals, and much more inventively than, say, West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a very strong novel, very well written by a woman with a woman (or, at least, goddess) as the central first-person narrator. Some reviewers clearly think their job is done when they label it feminist and even MeToo. That’s one reason why I think the eight pages of journalistic puff are a mistake: it leads readers to think that this is a book which will provide another obliging confirmation of what they already believe. But some readers prefer novels which aim a bit higher than that,

Just to be a bit awkward, if there was a moment when I felt the book just a bit too American it was when Circe gazes on an Odysseus initially described as if simply a hunk out of Hollywood (see for example page 188). Circe is a strong woman, no doubt at all about that, and a strong woman needs a strong man. But a Hollywood one? It's true, some disillusionment does set in as part of Circe's own self-discovery. Odysseus is swapped for a younger model, his son.

Less frivolously, there is a narrative thread in which Circe moves from someone who has the gift of very considerable (but rather ad hoc) magic powers -  a goddess-witch - to someone who comes to believe in the power of her own will, as if human. But when it comes to wishing for things which we can’t have, the triumph of the will is something up there with magic and miracles and prayer. We can't always get what we want, however hard we may want it. Human beings are so circumstanced that they cannot always win out over what resists or opposes them, however hard they pray, however hard they wish for miracles, however strong their will. They often need others to help them change the ways things are. Or they just have to wait for things to change,anyway. Circe triumphs as an individual, which is perhaps only right in a novel. But the triumph of the will is both a characteristically American Dream and a trap which has lured whole countries to destruction.

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