Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Persian Boy!

Our book today is Mary Renault's 1972 novel The Persian Boy, perhaps her masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest historical novels ever written. At its heart is the story of the young Persian eunuch Bagoas, who features as the briefest footnote in the actual historical accounts we have of Alexander (many of which qualify as historical fiction themselves, but never mind ...). Quintus Curtius Rufus mentions that Bagoas, owing to his exceptional beauty, was first the bed-toy of the Persian King Darius and then the bed-toy of Alexander himself, but we don't hear much more of this boy. There's mention that Alexander's Macedonian troops approved of their leader's choice in teenage boys, and there's a story indicating that preference might have made Bagoas arrogant and pettily vengeful toward Persians who had once offended him. Alexander was not besotted with the boy, despite many latter characterizations to that effect (Oliver Stone's ill-starred recent movie, in which the director's biggest mistake was casting Colin Farrell instead of Tom Hardy, being only the most visible) - indeed, both here and in her excellent The Nature of Alexander, Renault makes a strong case that Alexander was only besotted with two living beings in his entire life, and one of them was a horse (the story of his taming of his dangerous mount Bucephalus is lovingly retold, both in The Persian Boy and in Fire From Heaven):
The old beast threw up its head and whinnied loudly; you could see, then, it had been a good horse once. Suddenly Ptolemy, running like a boy, took its bridle from the Mardian, and loosed it. It broke into a stiff-legged canter, all its foolish fripperies jingling; made straight for the King, and nuzzled against his shoulder.

The King stroked its nose a time or two. He had been standing, it seemed, all this time grasping an apple, and with this he fed it. Then he turned round with his face pressed to its neck. I saw that he was crying.

There seemed nothing, now, with which he could still astonish me. I looked around at the soldiers, to see how they would take it. Beside me, two weathered Macedonians were blinking and wiping their noses.

Through Bagoas' eyes, Renault tells the story of Alexander's march ever eastward, of the hard-fought campaigns and perilous desert-crossings, and of the increasing tensions among Alexander's own men, many of whom had signed on to plunder Persia but were less keen about trying to subdue the entire known world. The horrible culmination of those tensions was Alexander's impulsive murder of his life-long friend and general Kleitos on a night when both of them had typically had too much to drink. It's a dramatic moment worthy of a Jonson or a Dryden, and Renault portrays it gripplingly:
"Here's Kleitos!" he shouted. "Here I am!"

He had come back for the last word. He had thought of it too late, and would not forgo it. It was his fate to be given his wish.

From the doors behind him, a guard came in doubtfully, like a muddy dog. He'd had no orders to keep out the Commander; but he did not like it. He stood spear in hand, looking dutiful and ready. Alexander, checking his stride, stared unbelievingly.

"Listen, Alexander. Alas, ill rule in Hellas ..."

Even Macedonians knew their Euripides. I daresay everyone there but I could have completed these famous lines. The gist of them is that the soldiers do it all, the general gets it all. I don't know if he meant to go on.

A flash of white went to the door, and turned again. There was a bellow like a slaughtered bull's. Kleitos clutched with both hands at the spear stuck in his breast; fell and writhed grunting; jerked in the death-spasms. His mouth and eyes fixed, wide open.

It had been so quick, for a moment I thought the guard had done it. The spear was his.

It was the silence, all down the hall, that told me.

Alexander stood over the body, staring down. Presently he said, "Kleitos." The corpse glared back at him. He took the spear by the haft. When it would not come, I saw him begin the soldier's movement to brace his foot on the body; then flinch and pull again. It jerked out, a handspan deep in blood, splashing down his clean white robe. Slowly he turned it round, the butt on the ground, the point towards him.

Ptolemy has always maintained that it meant nothing. I only know I cried "No, my lord!" and got it away. I took him unready, as he had done the guard. Someone reached over and carried it out of sight. Alexander sank on his knees by the body, and felt over its breast; then covered his face with his bloody hands.

"Oh God," he said slowly. "God, God, God, God."

The sheer confidence embodied in that single word 'presently' is amazing to me. Not one author in a hundred would even see that dramatic opening, much less have the wisdom to so perfectly understate it.

Of course, the novel's also noteworthy for its anxiety-free portrayal of homosexual sex and love, something it shares in common with all the rest of Renault's historical fiction set in the ancient world (or even in the present: her novel The Friendly Young Ladies is a remarkably clear-headed portrait of a contemporary lesbian couple - only The Charioteer dabbles heavily in self-loathing and persecution). In this case we're presented with a muted version of that kind of love - since Bagoas is telling the story, we're never directly privy to Alexander's love, physical or otherwise, for his best friend Hephaistion, although we get plenty of deft and even funny sex-interludes between conqueror and war-trophy:
Alexander took a fancy for me that night. The wound [A. had recently received] opened and I was covered in blood; he just laughed, and made me wash in case the guard thought I'd murdered him. The wound felt easier, he said; no physician like love. It is true that when dry they often fester.

Every single page of The Persian Boy shines with accomplishment and crackles with near-perfect storytelling, and I can attest to the fact that it's just as thrilling on the fiftieth reading as it is on the first. Virtually everything this author wrote is fantastic (for the explicit 'theme' of male love, I think The Last of the Wine is more tender and more true than this present book, but it also lacks the epic resonance), they each deserve their own entry here at Stevereads, but this one stands out even in such distinguished company. I can't urge you strongly enough to take it down from your shelf and finally give it that long-intended read. You'll be glad you did.

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