Friday, December 19, 2008

The legend, the boys, the men: Alexander and Hephaistion

Some of the real ground-breaking fiction that had a gay "aspect" came out in the early 1970s, and it's gone down in publishing history as a classic. It's Mary Renault's "Alexander Trilogy."

I want to look at the first two of the books separately ... because they're so different ... and because the name of this blog is 'Aricia's Gay Book Blog,' I'll probably skip over the third book. The last part of the trilogy certainly ties off the story of Alexander neatly, as it needs to be tied off, but since Hephaistion an Alexander are dead, and Bagoas (the Persian boy himself) is now an old man, there's not enough -- to my way of thinking at least -- in Book 3 to qualify it as a "gay book."

In fact, there's actually not much in Fire From Heaven to qualify it as a gay book, either! But you need to read this if you're going to make much sense of the second one, so you're compelled to plow through it ... so, you might as well know what you're getting yourself into!

Fire... might not be a hot-blooded gay book (and I wish somebody would write one about Alexander and Hephaistion!) but it's still a good book, although I don't rank it among the "classics of modern literature." What hits you between the eyeballs is MR's research. I'm no kind of a specialist, but it seems to me that what she doesn't know about the history, region, people etc., isn't to be known. I've heard that a few of the details are wrong -- but I've also heard that the research was state of the art when the book was written, something like the late 1960s (published 1970).

The first book in the trilogy tells the tale of Alexander's boyhood and growing up. MR gives the youth homoerotic tendencies which will become more apparent in adulthood, but the extent of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion in Fire... is a great fondness between two boys, and Hephaistion's total devotion to Alex. But ... but ... but ... you have to hunt for the characters among an enormous narrative with a cast of thousands and a million details and location shifts and changes of backdrop. Eventually you can't get past the fact that the characters get lost in the panoramic drama. You just go with the flow, and end up using your own imagination to bring the relationship between Hephaistion and Alexander to life.

Fire... is a lot less specific about anything that passes between them than the movie, Alexander, was. This sort of "handle with tongs and talk in riddles" treatment was typical of MR in general. Also typical of the way gay subjects were handled in mainstream fiction at the time. So you really have to use your imagination, fueled by images drawn from the movie with Colin Farrel and Jared Leto.

If you love ancient-world historicals as a genre, you'll enjoy this. If you know a bit about Greek history and religion, you'll also enjoy this -- you don't have to be a scholar, but it's probably a good idea to watch the movie first! The book is fairly easy to read. MR's writing style is plain enough to be readable by modern people, but still has a bit of the poetic flair of classic fiction. The narrative is a long way from what I'd call 'technicolor,' but it's evocative enough to carry the book.

If there's a downside, it's that the characters get hopelessly lost in the scope of the book, and you wish there was more about individuals, esp. Alexander and Hephaistion, who are probably the main reason you're reading it in the first place. There are some very nice "moments" featuring them, but you do have to hunt them down. Also, the book seems to be a lot longer than it is (up to 450pp depending on the edition) for some reason.

But you won't get to the "gay book" part of the trilogy without reading Fire From Heaven, so tough it out, fill in the blanks with your imagination and images from the movie!

Recommended for the research and the fact it puts in the foundations for The Persian Boy; also recommended as a purely historical novel, if you discount the under-written, understated gay aspect. AG's rating: 3.5 stars out of five.

You can get the trilogy under one cover, but if you're looking for a gay read, you can probably concentrate on The Persian Boy and skip the others, so I'm giving the links to get the three separate books at Amazon ... and I'll write about The Persian Boy tomorrow.

There's a couple more reviews on line at these urls, but the reviewers are NOT tackling these books with any interest to the "gay aspect." They're a lot more interested in the historical accuracy and literary merit of the work: