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

Friday, July 26, 2013

2013/24: The Element -inth in Greek -- Alison Fell

On the basis of something she can’t yet define, she feels a strong affinity with the place. No amount of scepticism can diminish the sense of being brushed by microscopic vibrations from the past, as though atoms of ecstasy have been stamped on the very air. [loc. 4363]
Ingrid Laurie, Scottish archaeologist, is working on a biography of linguist Alice Kober, who died at 43 before her monograph, The Element -inth in Greek. was published. That monograph laid the basis for the decipherment of Linear B: it also, for Ingrid, reveals ancient goddess-worship practices in Crete.

Ingrid is in Crete to progress her research: she's untroubled by the unspoken disapproval of the locals. ("The Sheely Valentai. This is what they call them now, these women without family, belonging to no one. Women with dyed hair who wear the bright revealing clothes of the young. Women who come to Greece to look for men. "[loc. 268]) She encounters local policeman Yiannis Stephanoudakis, who's investigating a curious death. The body of a young man has been found on the hillside, naked, opium-drugged, covered in honey, crawling with bees. Ingrid's knowledge of pre-Minoan Crete casts surprising light on the man's death, and on the activities of the commune up the road.

This is a difficult novel to encapsulate, because it has so many levels. There's a murder mystery, though not an especially straightforward one; there are discussions of misogyny (including some mockery of Freudian therapy: Ingrid's been told that she smokes because she "want[s] to bite and tear at the penis" [loc. 4112]). There is the biography of the real Alice Kober, and a subtle comparison of Kober with Ingrid's difficult mother, Greta. Themes of sensory deprivation and excess, sex versus intellect, the joys of philology, imagination in archaeology, the sudden prickle of the hairs on the back of the neck, bulls and bees, goddesses and eunuchs, the labyrinth and the thread ...

Alison Fell's prose is gorgeous. I frequently found myself staring into space, turning over a single sentence in my mind. (On a child's experience of learning to read, connecting the letters C-A-T with the beast: "...quite suddenly, like the sun, an animal entered the room, graceful, four-footed, and entire." [loc 158].) Substance isn't sacrificed to style: the novel is pacy, the threads of the plot knitting together to make a coherent, intelligent (and intellectual) whole.

I could, however, have done with a Greek dictionary whilst reading: I don't think it's necessary to know what 'eniautos' or 'tavrokatharpsia' or 'melipnois' or 'kerinthophagia' signify, beyond what's clear from context, but it would have been useful to understand the modern Greek words with which the dialogue is sprinkled.

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