Annabel Lyon: The Golden Mean

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.

The-Golden-Mean

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.

15 thoughts on “Annabel Lyon: The Golden Mean

  1. Trevor says:

    Well, just because it was my favorite doesn’t mean I think it should win the prize. I see its limitations. However, I wouldn’t be displeased if it won either.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before, but it sounds just like my sort of thing. Thanks for your interesting review – I’ve added it to my ‘must buy’ list.

  3. Well Trevor, as a lover of literature who is interested in Alexander and Aristotle, this one is definitely on my TBR list. I’d noted it from Kevin’s blog too, and with your review adding to his I’ll definitely be picking it up.

    I note the reservations that it’s not about more than it’s about (if that makes any sense at all), but even so it sounds fascinating and very enjoyable.

    What a terrible cover though. Is there a big homoerotic element to the book? Was Alexander perhaps just a touch too fond of his horse? It seems a total non-sequitur.

  4. Excellent question on the cover, Max. While there is homoeroticism in the book, it is mainly on the “this was normal for Greek’s of the time” level and doesn’t involve horses and streams. In fact, most of the horse references concern Aristotle’s interest in working with Alexander’s brother, Arrhidaeus, who is “slow” and has been rejected by his family, including his brother. So I have no idea whatever of what the cover designer saw in the book — and as pretty as the picture is it is totally misleading.

  5. Trevor says:

    Kevin has answered the question as well as I could, Max. I think the cover is nice too, but no one rode a horse naked in the book. That said, to me it did evoke the time — a bit — while alluding to the more personal nature of the book.

  6. cbjames says:

    You brought up one of my chief problems with historical fiction. I’m starting to wonder how it will age, too. Looking back at the novels that have become classic, it’s difficult to find much in the way of historical fiction, say books set at least 100 years prior to the author’s birth. The classic I can think of that are set in the author’s past are still within living mememory, the author could have spoken with or known people who experienced the historical events.

    This business of fictionalizing major historical figures in literature seems recent to me. The historical fiction that has survived the test of time, books like Gond With the Wind or A Tale of Two Cities for example, don’t focus on well known historical figures.

  7. Trevor says:

    When I think back on successful classic literary works (as opposed to biographies) that deal with real historical figures — those in Shakespeare, Dumas, and . . . is that all . . . ? — I think they work so well because they aren’t really about the historical character anymore. They’ve appropriated that figure to make something else, and these historical figures become, instead, deep literary characters. I think we distinguish between the history and the literature.

    I suppose if Lyon’s book emerges this year and becomes widely read, we can assume she’s succeeded at making these historical figures interesting literary figures as well. I have my doubts, though, because I think most of my joy with this novel was based on my knowledge of the history, which this novel enriched in its own way. From my limited perspective, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m not saying it isn’t, therefore, good or of value — I think it is both — but I don’t suppose it succeeds with people who don’t like this history.

    That said, seeing it as a finalist on the lists of three literary awards suggests I’m wrong there (it is incredibly well written).

    It’s an interesting topic for discussion. I’d like to hear anyone’s thoughts. Also, what other great works deal with famous historical figures (I’m thinking pre-2009 here, but you can bring up Wolf Hall if you want)? And do they work on their own? Do people distinguish between the real and the literary figures, or do we conflate the two?

  8. Laurence says:

    I got this book last week. Half way through it now, and wondering if I can finish it. I started out really looking forward to it. I havent read much about Aristotle as a man, and know him only through what he has written, and his influence. All the reviews, such as the one here were encouraging.

    I have been thoroughly disappointed. Everytime I read in it, I am left with a sour taste and a sour feeling. I dislike the book on many levels. First I dont agree at all that it is well written. I am not drawn into these characters and am left with little or no concern or caring for them.

    And the sexual references that permeate the book seem to me to be overdone. I get the distinct impression that she probably wrote the book first and then went back and added in all the sexual stuff on every other page in order to spice it up and make it more saleable. Thats what it feels like because there often seems to be no other reason to go there.

    I have no real problem with homoeroticism. However I am not at all convinced that it was as prevelant as she is setting it out to be.

    And the pedophilia is both disturbing and unacknowledged. We are led to believe that these people routinely used children as sexual objects without any sort of awareness at all on the part of anybody that there was anything at all questionable about the practice.

    I guess I will finish it. But for me now the Giller prize doesnt mean much at all. I dont know what people see in this book.

  9. Trevor says:

    Interesting response, Laurence. All of us on the Shadow Giller thought the writing was superb, well controlled, poetic without being flowery and preening. We also thought the narrative moved well. My concern was that people who didn’t know about the time period, especially the impending events that will revolutionize the world, wouldn’t find much to enjoy other than the writing.

    I honestly don’t remember being overwhelmed by anything sexual. Perhaps I’ve put on my retrospective filters, something I always have to wonder about when I recommend books since I don’t seem to recall explicit scenes unless they are completely gratuitous. I don’t recall ever thinking they were gratuitous here. Shocking, yes, but not something inserted for sales — particularly not the paedophilia or the homoeroticism. I think she was being faithful to the history and to the well documented acceptance of such practices. From my studies of the classical era — I’m not expert, though — it was very common for older men to have a young male lover, often as young as twelve or thirteen. Aristotle really was around twenty-five years older than his probably fourteen year old wife. I’m not trying to put words in your mouth by suggesting you disagree with the facts, but I think Lyon’s portrayal of it being routine is spot-on, as is her nonchalant tone.

    I definitely can’t quibble with you on her characters, though. A problem with this type of fiction is that it is anyone’s best guess how Aristotle felt about his wife or how Alexander felt about Aristotle. So my concern with my own praise of the novel was that I filled in the blanks too much with my own knowledge and my own desire to feel that time period. I can’t say, then, how well the characters are drawn as purely literary characters. But I do think that the texture Lyon added to this period in time is tangible and important.

    Good luck if you decide to finish it. I usually quit when I’m halfway through a book and dislike it as much as you seem to be disliking this one. If I don’t like the writing or the characters and am put-off by some of the content, I just don’t see much reason to continue. I’d like to hear your final verdict, though, perhaps especially if it continues in this same vein. Always good to have some alternate views!

  10. While I agree with your assessment, Trevor, I can understand why someone would find The Golden Mean wanting. Lyon does explore a tangent in her work of Aristotle (and she has explained that she did that deliberately because little is known about him) and I can see where some readers would find that frustrating. I didn’t find the sex to be a problem either but again could see where someone who is frustrated by the rest of the book would find it grating.

  11. I’ve also posted on Kevin’s old review of this book Trevor just to let you know that it has finally reached these shores and eventually stranded itself on the golden beaches of my blog. an interesting read, slightly stodgy in the opening 50 pages or so, but with lots of interesting stuff thereafter and a book to be commended not so much for ambition but for making such light work of such ancient history. Readable without dumbing down, intelligent without being mired in research material; Lyon actually comes close to achieving Aristotle’s Golden Mean herself. Dammit, that’s a good line, I should have used it in my review…

  12. Trevor says:

    That is a good line, Lee, but it is good to have them in place other than your blog. It makes you look spontaneously brilliant! And I agree about the book, though I still with it had a bit more going on. For a great example of what I mean when I say that, see John Williams’s Augustus, but I see from you comment on my review of Stoner that you will get there soon enough!

  13. ryan says:

    what pgs were these quotes on?

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