Friday, 30 October 2009

Mary Renault: The Mask of Apollo (1966)

Edition: New English Library, 1968
Review number: 1389

The Mask of Apollo is one of my favourite straight historical novels (using the word "straight" to distinguish it from crossover historical crime novels, which seem to have taken over fiction set in the past since the sixties).

Set in the fourth century BC, the narrator of the novel is a notable Athenian actor named Nikeratos, who travels to Syracuse (then a Greek city) and accidentally becomes involved with the city state's turbulent politics. Syracuse was ruled by a tyrant, Dionysius, who is dying as Nikeratos approaches the city from the sea, fresh from a triumph in Athens with a play written by the ruler himself. The problem is with his successor. Dionysius had a son, also named Dionysius, but kept him from any semblance of power during his lifetime , leaving him lacking in both judgement and confidence. He also has a nephew, Dion, who is highly respected and who was given many privileges by his uncle (including the right to appear in his presence armed, something no one else was allowed to do). But even so Dion is not likely to be named as the successor over Dionysius' own son, nor (with his suspicious involvement with the foreign "sophist" Plato) popular with other powerful figures in the Syracusan court.

The combination of theatre and politics works well. Renault makes Nikeratos a character based on ideas of what an important actor manager would be like in the twentieth century, a Terry or someone from that kind of acting family. I don't normally like the use of characters with a modern outlook in historical novels, but here it works well.This is partly because nothing is really known about what an ancient Greek theatrical production was like backstage, and it seems likely that the concerns of actors then were similar to those of actors today: gossip about other people in the profession, upstaging and working together, the audience's lack of understanding, and, of course, sex. And in other ways, the character is not at all contemporary. Nikeratos is a proper pagan Greek, who believes that an old fashioned mask of Apollo given to him by another actor is periodically inhabited by the spirit of the god, and treats it as a kind of shrine.

The Mask of Apollo could be considered an archetypical historical novel. It is narrated by an (imaginary) character at the centre of a series of interesting historical events, who knows people the reader may well have heard of (Plato, Dionysius father and son, Dion; Aristotle and Philip of Macedon - the father of Alexander the Great - are also mentioned). Nikeratos isn't interested in politics, and becomes involved with the Syracusan power struggles unwillingly - and this is useful to the story, because he constantly needs things explained to him which would not be needed by a more involved politician but are going to also be unfamiliar to many readers. The history of Greek Syracuse is probably not terribly well known today, but it is eventful and has fascinating characters, so makes an excellent choice of subject for a historical novel. It also balances out the much better known Athenian characters (Plato in particular, as someone whose influence on the development of European culture is immense), even though Nikeratos is himself from that city. And even in the parts of the book set in Athens, Renault manages to combine the relatively unfamiliar with things which are much more likely to be obscure or unknown to a modern reader.

The background is meticulously researched yet made accessible to the reader without becoming a series of lectures on the ancient Greek way of life. In fact, I would say that the novel is one of the very greatest of its type, not just one I like personally. Renault does not indulge in the kind of literary games which can be seen in The French Lieutenant's Woman, almost contemporary, but still achieves a literate power without this postmodern slant.

One of the themes explored by the novel is the nature of personal pagan religious feeling. Nikeratos' attitude to the mask is one of several examples of devotion to a god or goddess to whom an individual worshipper feels a particular affinity. This is striking as it is a major difference to today's largely secular western  world, where even those who attend places of worship tend to separate off their everyday life from their religious observances; the chosen deity was a major part of the worshipper's daily life, with an idol (like the mask) as a focus for the relationship. Evangelical Christians talk about a personal God, but the very fact of monotheistic belief makes this God seem much more remote and unconcerned than who is a patron of your profession, or shares your name; and the Protestant history of deism (a God who is relatively uninvolved with His creation) in their theology makes this remoteness even greater. Ignoring the issue of whether or not either the pagan or Christian gods are real, this seems to me to be less appealing to the imagination.

So The Mask of Apollo is interesting, readable, thought provoking, well researched, and has good characters. I would rate it at 9/10.

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