Archive for August, 2010
It is all rather improbable. In 2003, Annabel Lyon, a quiet 32-year-old piano teacher from Ottowa — she’s written two collections of short stories and a children’s book, but still thinks of herself as a piano teacher — starts to write a novel. It is set in Ancient Greece, portrays the coming of age of Alexander the Great, and is narrated by Aristotle. Yes, Aristotle. Not a stylised, “marble statue” Aristotle (as Lyon puts it); a base, flesh-and-bile Aristotle who is preoccupied with cunnilingus, dismemberment and buggery. Who, for example, compares his wit to excrement (“My wit was as dry as mouse droppings,” and “dry little droppings of wit”). Who drinks his own “warm piss”. Who talks in Americanisms and lavishes his narrative with profanities such as “ass-f***er”, “ball-breaking” and “piece of shit”.
Seven-and-a-half years later, The Golden Mean is complete. After a string of horrified rejection letters from publishers, Lyon — who by now is 39 — finds a Canadian publisher willing to take a punt. Months later, when The Golden Mean hits the shelves, it becomes a No 1 bestseller in Canada. The critics love it, hailing Lyon as the heiress to the legendary national treasure Alice Munro (who was shortlisted for the coveted Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2009. Annabel Lyon won).
The Golden Mean is out in the UK this month. On the day that I am to interview Lyon, an e-mail slips into my inbox from none other than the Booker prizewinner Hilary Mantel. It is full of praise for The Golden Mean, calling it a “quietly ambitious and beautifully achieved novel” that is “one of the most convincing historical novels I have ever read”.
Lyon no longer thinks of herself as a piano teacher. “Oh, I haven’t taught music in a while now,” she tells me from her reassuringly messy novelist’s study. “I’ve moved on a bit. But it’s quite the exaggeration to compare me to Alice Munro. I’m a mouse in the elephant’s shadow.”
Come to think of it, Lyon is a little mouse-like. Hers is one of those faces that alternates between seriousness and — when she smiles — unalloyed delight. “I’m a somewhat obsessive person,” she tells me. “When I was younger I was consumed by playing the piano, then I transferred all that passion to long-distance running. After that, my writing took over.” The common denominator here is solitude. “I could never have been a violinist,” she says, “I wouldn’t have wanted to play with other people. Things like running suit me. Running and writing.”
It is striking that such a modest person would choose an audacious idea like this for her debut novel. Was she not daunted? “What drove me was my passion for Aristotle,” she says. “I knew that to write about Aristotle, Plato and Alexander would be viewed as egotistical. But if it makes people more interested in Greek philosophy, it’s worth it.”
For all Lyon’s enthusiasm for Aristotle’s work — she majored in philosophy at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia — she knew that if her novel was to be a success, she would need to put the man at the centre. “Aristotle’s philosophy pervades the novel, but it’s not obtrusive,” she says. “For example, I wrote it adhering to the principles of his Poetics.” Such as in the battle scene, where the action takes place off stage? “Exactly,” Lyon says drily. “You’re not the first person to notice that.”
So we have Aristotle the human, in all his pissing, shitting, scratching glory, who at one point strangles a chameleon (“I open the top of the cage, reach in with both hands, and grasp the leathery throat”).
“People have been shocked,” Lyon says. “One woman took the book back to the shop when she encountered the word c***. But that was how people were in Ancient Greece. It was a brutal life, a warrior culture. They didn’t say drat or bloody hell. They said things like bineo.”
“Ancient Greek for f***.”
There is a lot of sex in the novel. Particularly homosexual sex, about which Lyon — a heterosexual woman — writes with particular élan. “To me love is love, and sex is sex,” she says casually. “The gender doesn’t make much difference. It wasn’t a big deal for me.”
The content is complemented by a prose style that is — as the jacket blurb puts it — “sensual and muscular”. These two epithets may be horribly overused, but are perfectly apposite here. “The rain falls in black cords,” writes Lyon in the voice of Aristotle, “lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey.” This is sinewy stuff, sharpened by a dedication to economy. “My prose was influenced by my father,” Lyon says. “He was a journalist and loves Hemingway. When I was small, he wasn’t teaching me hockey. He was showing me how to write like The Old Man and the Sea.”
Lyon’s use of modern language enhances our absorption in the period. “I realised that using too much authentic terminology — using chiton instead of dress, for example — would distance the reader,” Lyon says. “Modern language can, paradoxically enough, be more transparent.” It is for this reason that she never mentions Aristotle’s name. “I didn’t want to remind people of his mythological significance,” says Lyon. “I wanted to avoid the barrier of his reputation.”
For the most part, her approach is effective. Occasionally she oversteps the mark — such as when Philippos II of Macedon says “may you f***ing the f*** get on with it” — but on the whole, the evocation is surprisingly successful.
“It was clear to me that Alexander suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Lyon tells me. “His regular headaches, bouts of rage and heavy drinking are well documented. He was essentially a child soldier.” As for Aristotle, well, he was bipolar. “To me, it is obvious,” Lyon says. “His obsession with the golden mean between two extremes sounds like someone who has suffered these extremes and is looking for a way out.”
Although historians may pall at such speculation, it adds depth to Lyon’s characters. Alexander and Aristotle’s neuroses are counterpointed beautifully at the Battle of Chaeronea. Aristotle begins to mutilate a corpse out of a manic thirst for anatomical knowledge. Later, Alexander dismembers the same body in an episode of post-traumatic febrility. (Aristotle never went to Chaeronea, by the way; this is a rare instance of Lyon’s manipulation of the facts.) All this amounts to a cornucopia of vivid impressions of the ancient world. Upon finishing the novel, I was struck by a feeling of emptiness, loathe to close the door on Lyon’s time machine. But luckily, she’s working on a sequel — and this time she will resurrect the voice of Aristotle’s daughter.
In case you hadn’t noticed, a much-hyped single called Choices is released this week. Written by the mildly irritating English-Swedish pop outfit The Hoosiers, it is a record-breaking 43 minutes long. As if one gimmick wasn’t enough, the band invited fans to write some of the verses and appear in the music video. But even though Choices is a pygmy of a tune compared with the iconic songs of previous eras such as All You Need Is Love, Purple Haze and Smells Like Teen Spirit, The Hoosiers’ new single might one day rank among them as the song of this generation.
The reason? It’s the lyrics, stupid. “Stop giving me choices. Stop giving me choices,” whines Irwin Sparkes, the elfin lead singer. “I’m the victim of this day and age, I’ve forgotten how to feel, I’ve forgotten how to change.”
According to Harriet Bradley, professor of sociology at the University of Bristol, this is an apt summary of the way things are. This week she published the results of a ten-month project looking at how people in the UK deal with choice. The report, State of Confusion, presents the results of a study of 6,000 people from across the UK. The conclusion is resounding: Britain is a “nation crippled by too much choice”. Read the rest of this entry »