No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2013/16: The Flowers of Adonis -- Rosemary Sutcliff

...thinking of what might happen if Agis did not come back, thinking of what might happen if he did. The lamp flame burned blue at the heart as a hyacinth flower; the turnover of the wick wa sparked and seeded with red in the way that foretells rain. [p. 104]

One of Sutcliff's relatively few novels for adults, The Flowers of Adonis is an account of the last 11 years of the life of Alcibiades, from 415BCE to 404BCE. Disclaimer: I wouldn't have appreciated this novel as much as I did if I hadn't recently taken a course in ancient Greek history.

The Flowers of Adonis has multiple narrators, though we never hear the voice of its central character. Nobody, including Alcibiades himself, has the whole picture: nobody except the reader. The characters are referred to by profession or defining quality, rather than by name: The Citizen, The Seaman, The Rower, The Queen, The Dead -- and, problematically, The Whore. I would much have preferred 'The Flute Girl', which is more apt: but The Flowers of Adonis, first published 1969, is of its time, and is peppered with casual racism and sexism in a way that might be less authentic than anything else about the novel.

The identities of the narrators, and the connections between them (aside from all loving and / or hating Alcibiades in some way), are gradually revealed over the course of the novel. The Seaman is Antiochus, the closest Alcibiades has to a friend; the Whore is Timandra; The Rower, Theron, and the Citizen, Timotheus, are old friends. Each has a distinct voice, and an interesting perspective on the story of Alcibiades. Sutcliff, in her Afterword, offers what she describes as "a possible explanation for Antiochus's insane foolhardiness when left in command of the Athenian Fleet, because Thucidides's bald account is so unbelievable (unless one assumes that both Antiochus and Alkibiades were mentally defective) that any explanation seems more likely than none." (But none of the characters are privy to this explanation: only the reader, who is given the necessary pieces of the puzzle.)

The Flowers of Adonis brings to life contemporary accounts of Alcibiades' trajectory, and weaves in mythic echoes of Adonis. Some knowledge of this period of Greek history is definitely an advantage, and helped me appreciate scenes such as the Spartan flute-girls playing at the destruction of the Long Wall. But Sutcliff's gift for evocative detail (a lamp-wick sparking red, presaging rain), and her ability to convey the sheer charisma of a flawed hero, is enough to carry the novel without any prior knowledge of the events described therein.

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