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From Phyllida's Desk

Even Achilles Ate Ketchup

I arrived at this silly title after reading Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Madeline Miller's debut novel, "The Song of Achilles," in Sunday's NY Times book review and filtering it through a recent conversation with a friend about Mary Renault's novels.

Let's start with that conversation. My friend, a gay man in his early thirties, had not heard of Renault's novels. At the time they were published, the late 1950s into the 1970s, Renault's novels were astonishing in their portrayal of the homoerotic sensibility of ancient Greece as not only normal but also profoundly romantic. When I described the way in which Renault, in "The Last of the Wine," told a story of same-sex love within a context of late-Victorian British morality brilliantly superimposed on a civilization that existed 2500 years ago and emotional light-years away from our own, my friend asked: "How did she get away with it?"

My answer was a rather deflating: "By not writing any explicit sex."

Which brings us back to Mendelsohn's review. "Mary Renault would have found this book distasteful in the extreme," he writes, contradicting Emma Donoghue's exultant blurb: "Mary Renault lives again!" What led Mendelsohn to this pronouncement is the way Miller has handled the sex scenes—or perhaps that she includes sex scenes at all. He quotes Renault on the subject of what she once called "inch by inch physical descriptions," as "the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or the diner without a palate."

Honestly, I think this is unfair to ketchup. Before the modern era of processed food, ketchup was as varied and regionally distinctive as any other condiment. Even in its current "insipid" form, for most of us it's still a welcome and necessary accompaniment to a burger and fries. As Mendelsohn admits, "many works of literature are filled with explicit descriptions of lovemaking." It's those "inch by inch," excruciatingly detailed and repetitive scenes that most of us find boring, both to read and to write. An original and arousing sex scene is extraordinarily difficult to create, but it can be an effective way to allow readers to experience the release of tension that has been building between lovers in a well-crafted romance.

The review reminded me of my own sometimes impatient reaction to Renault's work. In "Wine," Renault showed her ideal young men struggling to subdue their physical desires, trying to live up to the teachings of Athens' preeminent contemporary philosopher by keeping their relationship "platonic." As I reread this wonderful novel over the years, so often I wished I had a fictional time machine, one that traveled, not back in real time but into novels set in the past, and could burst in on Alexias and Lysis as they engaged in their theoretical cold showers, and tell them: "To hell with Plato! Life is short! Love each other while you can—in every way you can!"

I don't mean that Renault never allowed her characters to consummate their love—only that they spent a very long time getting there, and when they did, we readers weren't allowed to share it. Perhaps because I'm a woman and a writer of comedy, I can't entirely enter into the spirit of high-minded asceticism that informs Renault's vision. While I adore her books and stand in awe of the way in which they brought a long-gone world to almost palpable, three-dimensional life, I can't help also sometimes wanting to read—and write—depictions of same-sex (and opposite-sex) love that offer readers some nonjudgmental ketchup along with the haute cuisine.

Of the two great themes of literature, sex and death, sex is by far the scarier and requires the distancing method of laughter. Not only does a tragedy end with a death and a comedy with a wedding, but comedies can contain sex and tragedies can't—or at least not good sex. The ketchup that Renault and Mendelsohn disdain, unless it's handled very carefully indeed, is going to splatter all over you; it's inherently funny. Or, as Mendelsohn says of Miller's writing in "Song:" "the swoony soft-porn prose" and the "heavy breathing and soft-focus skin shots … make it hard in the end to take these characters seriously."

The closer their stories to tragedy, the less comfortable we are with imagining fictional characters as physically sexual. The Greeks of Socrates' and Plato's time somehow succeeded with Achilles and Patroclus, heroes of an epic poem that was first sung or narrated centuries earlier. Aeschylus and his contemporaries, living in a sophisticated culture that demanded explicitly homoerotic literature and art, wrote works that celebrated the two men as lovers. Today, only a few fragments of these works survive; all we have is the original tragic epic, a war story concerned with matters of honor and glory, pride and anger. In the Iliad, it's the gods and goddesses, providing comic relief from the harrowing scenes of combat, who enjoy the ketchup of active sexuality.

Miller has taken a huge risk with "Song:" refashioning an archaic, tragic war epic into the most controversial of comic forms, the modern romance. Not all romance novels (or comedies) are laugh-out-loud funny, and their authors usually do a creditable job of portraying the genuine love that motivates the sex scenes between hero and heroine (or hero and hero, or heroine and heroine) while keeping the mood appropriately serious. But many of the best romances recognize the inescapable hilarity of describing two fleshly bodies with their assorted fluids, odors, sounds and flavors, and rather than succumb to "swoony soft-core prose," write sex scenes that keep the reader laughing along with the characters, not at them—or their creator.

When writers create characters, we imagine them as real people, with bodies and bodily functions. Still, we rarely show our heroes and heroines using the toilet; unless there's a major plot point involved, it adds nothing to our understanding of character. Some writers and readers see sex is just another bodily function better left behind closed doors. As Renault said, "If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn't matter."
Mary Renault was a great writer who was also the product of her time and place, one notoriously antipathetic toward sex in all its varieties: early 20th-century England. Today's readers of popular fiction are no longer ashamed of wanting to see even well-realized and lifelike characters making love, of believing that it does, in fact, matter. When I read the Iliad, comic female that I am, it was the love story that held my attention and kept me slogging through the detailed descriptions of speared eyeballs and spattered brains—ketchup indeed! Madeline Miller's recipe may not have all the ingredients in the right proportion, but there seems nothing so terribly wrong in supposing that even Achilles and Patroclus enjoyed the occasional splotch of ketchup on their souvlaki.
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