I was definitely wary before beginning The Golden Mean (2009). It is a historical fiction told from the first person narrator Aristotle. But that also made me very excited. Obviously such an ambitious book could be a major flop, but if done well . . .
Incidentally, I am surprised at the indiscreet Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement on the cover, but let’s get into the book.
This book picks up in about 343 B.C., when Aristotle is travelling to Pella, the capital of Macedon, with his very young wife Pythias. They have just left Atarneus, where Aristotle had founded his first philosophical school under the patronage of Hermias (Pythias’s father, probably). Lyon does an exceptional job subtly introducing some of the region’s impending doom. Aristotle is couriering a treaty from Hermias to Philip of Macedon, who is just beginning his campaign to take over the known world. Atarneus lies frighteningly close to Persia, so Hermias was hoping to get Philip’s protection in return for Hermias’s loyalty.
When the narrative begins, Aristotle has already stopped by Stageira, his birthplace (in Macedonia), to witness for himself the destruction brought about when Philip destroyed the town. We get a great sense of the time when we meet Philip and Aristotle humbly submits himself to him. In The Golden Mean Philip and Aristotle were friends in youth — at least as close to friends as one can become with the future king. This is possible since Aristotle’s father was Philip’s father’s chief physician. Consequently, they have an interesting relationship in The Golden Mean now that both have grown up, Aristotle in Athens building his mind, Philip in Macedon building for war.
The Golden Mean‘s central story line is the relationship between Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great, who is at the time first in the precarious line for the crown. Alexander is a genius, though a bit unruly, a bit extreme. Thus the title of the book, Aristotle’s famous theory of balance. The narrative tension builds when it becomes clear that Philip’s army will have to war with Athens, Aristotle’s ideal city. Despite being a Macedonian by birth, not to mention the prince’s tutor, Aristotle is not trusted. Indeed, mocking him becomes a way of mocking the enemy. But when Aristotle attempts to become the leader of the Academy in Athens, he is rejected: “I’m Macedonian to the Athenians and Athenian to the Macedonians.” Seeing the tension and the politics and the personal relationships played out in narrative form is a great experience.
Now, let me explain where I’m coming from as a reader of this book. I love classical studies, and, as a student, I took as many of them as I could while not being a classical studies major. I am enough a lover of this time period to have gaped in envy when Aristotle sees the original Tiresius’s mask for the original production of Oedipus Rex. However, though I’ve studied this era as well as the works of Aristotle, I’m not versed enough to say how well Lyon hits the mark here. So, as a layman with a nurtured love for this time period, I was very pleased with this book.
I didn’t think I would be. All too often I feel like authors just mess things up when they try to fictionalize history, particularly a historical person like Aristotle. There’s just too much to get wrong. And even if they don’t get it wrong, they are often unbearably pedantic, slamming the reader over the head with historical fact that has no place in the narrative other than to show off. They mistake this kind of pedantry with making the book accurate. Why not leave the task to the historians? Just as happened in The Disappeared, our author shows just how self-conscious she is of the potential pitfalls with this narrative — here is Aristotle:
I’ve been working on a little treatise on literature, the literary arts. Tragedy, comedy, epic. Because I’ve been wondering what’s the point? What is the point of it all? Why not simply relate such history as it has come down to us in a sober manner, not pretending to fill in the gaps?
Lyon answers the question in the book on the next page; however, much more resonant is her answer wit this book as a whole. Though I’ve studied this time period several times, I’m all too often satisfied with factual statements, like this: Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor. I think, wow, that’s neat! But I fail to feel out what that means. But in The Golden Mean Lyon gives these familiar facts a most wonderful texture, something we can really rub our fingers across, something that in recreating the history solidifies it. Obviously, this is problematic, because there’s simply no way she got it all right. But neither did Shakespeare. And neither will any historian today since we are too far removed to know what really happened.
I’m not saying that Lyon is Shakespeare, but this is a solidly written narrative, filled with moments of insight.
The palace is quieter now with the army gone. In the Macedonian tradition, the king must be present at battle to win the favour of the gods. Tiring for Philip, no doubt, and eerie for those of us left behind. It’s hard not to feel like a child left alone when his parents have gone to an important dinner and will be away all night. The familiar rooms echo differently, somehow, and time turns to honey.
All that said, I’m wondering how well this book would travel with a lover of literature uninterested in Aristotle or Alexander the Great. Though Lyon isn’t being pedantic, there are plenty of inside references that might not hit home with most people who aren’t at least minimally versed in this the brink of the Hellenistic Age. Unlike Shakespeare’s Histories, this is much less a study in human nature and much more a straight historical narrative. The characters are wonderfully realized, the prose is strong — indeed, of the four Giller Prize shortlisted novels I’ve read so far, this is the most solid in terms of consistent narrative technique and balance. Lyon has excellent judgment. However, to me it didn’t seem to strive to be much more than a well written story. The reader is left with a wonderful rendering of a fantastic time period, but there’s not much else to wonder about in the end. I would have liked some more analysis of the characters and not just masterful characterization. Still, to me this is an accomplishment we can all take pride in. It’s not surprising to me that Lyon has made her way as a finalist in all three of Canada’s major literary awards this year.