Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault Pantheon, $7.95
Her way is more dramatic but no less dedicated than that of Edith Hamilton’s; in her six novels, four of which have been selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Mary Renault has aroused our emotional interest in the great actors (The Mask of Apollo), the great gladiators (The Bull From the Sea), and the great rulers and warriors (The King Must Die) of the Attic world. In her latest and most ambitious book. Fire From Heaven, she tells the story of those two irrepressible Macedonians, father and son, King Philip and his golden boy, Alexander. Alexander is steel where Philip is iron: both have the ruggedness of their mountain ancestry, but the son has something more, endowed by the gods and in part by bis mother, Olympias, a foreigner from Epiros and some say a witch: men love him as they never could his battlescarred and crafty father, and will follow him to their death.
The story opens when Alexander is four, precocious and quick, his mother’s pet, and already aware of the deepening hatred between his parents as the king consoles himself with younger loves.
King Philip had come to manhood as a hostage in Thebes, where he had acquired his knowledge of war and his fondness for boys; sensitive to the fact that Athens rates him a barbarian, he is determined that Alexander shall have Greek schooling, reason, civility. The boy learns his Homer by heart; Leonidas, from Sparta, teaches him endurance; he learns to play the kithara and to sing so well that his father denounces him as effeminate; and from Aristotle, who is imported to set up an academy for him and Iris companions, he learns natural science and statecraft. As he matures, the mystery of his birth taunts Alexander: is Philip really his father? If not, who? And as he matures, the coming war for the mastery of Greece draws him closer to his father’s power and away from his mother’s spell. The magnetism of this bright, handsome youth, and the attraction and repulsion to which he is subjected, are most skillfully realized. “How shall I be anything, without learning war?” he cries when Olympias strives to hold him.
He learns war from talking to the palace guard, from visits to the barracks, from questioning the foreign envoys who come and go, from reading, but mostly from his father, whose confidence be gains as they prepare for the campaign in Thrace. The father-son relationship, a major theme, is handled by Miss Renault with subtle changes of tempo. Philip admires bis son’s prowess, as when Alexander subdues his black charger, Boukephalas: he admires the boy’s daring capture of the gatehouse at Doriskos and his leading of the cavalry charge that secured Philip’s great victory in Boetia. The son in turn admires the king for his discipline, his shrewd judgment of bis enemies, and his determination to build an enduring alliance in Greece. Both take courage for granted, and each is prey to suspicion: Philip, even after Alexander shielded him in the mutiny, is made envious of the army’s loyalty to the younger man, who at sixteen is a commander to be feared. The loyalty which binds father and son when they are campaigning and in danger is contaminated by Olympias and turned to mistrust in those interludes when Philip is relaxed, and drinking heavily.
As the date for Philip’s invasion of Asia approaches, Athens is plotting the king’s assassination, Alexander is in disgrace, and at this point the intrigue and the motives for revenge become too intricate. The story ends in a spectacle, with Philip dead and Alexander, turned twenty and eager for conquest, taking the kingship into his own clean hands.
In an author’s note, Miss Renault explains that all records of Alexander by his contemporaries have perished and that her novel is structured on what was written about Philip and on histories compiled three or four centuries later. The verisimilitude with which she depicts Alexander in the beauty of his young manhood, with the magic of his leadership, is a work of skill and invention. But there are three points of major importance which she does not clarify with conviction: the clues for the killing of Philip, and the questions of both Alexander’s parentage and his homosexuality. The motivation in each instance is clouded. Alexander’s “emotional commitment to Hephaistion,”Miss Renault writes, “is among the most certain facts of his life.” To explain the prince’s reserve toward women she describes his calf love for the comely Gorgo, which was cut short by the king, who meant to seduce the girl, and then by her own foul-up at the Aigai Dionysia. The Dionysia was a rite by now so murky that one had to guess at what happened; my guess is that only those “virgins” attended who were ready to exchange one reputation for another. Alexander might well have been disgusted by what he saw, but surely there were other attractive young women.
My Father’s Son, by Frank O’Connor Knopf, $6.95
It has long been the practice of Dublin newspapers to set aside a considerable sum for defense against the libel suits which they know will be leveled against them each year. No capital, large or small, harbors so much personal abuse as Dublin. The true source of contention lies deep in the Irish character, and the play of mischief, slander, and malice has become a national pastime.
Into this state of affairs walked Frank O’Connor at the age of twenty-three, not long out of the internment camp where he had been imprisoned as an Irish revolutionary, and keen to get a toehold on the ladder of literature. As a librarian in Cork County he had lived on £250 a year, in a furnished room, with his Morris chair and typewriter, a print of Degas’s dancers, a gramophone, and a few records of Mozart and Beethoven. His love went, not to a girl, but to poetry, for his imagination, as he says, “was strictly conditioned to the inner life.”
In Dublin all this was to change, and it is part of the charm of O’Connor’s posthumous memoir, My Father’s Son, that he has recaptured so naturally the innocence, the eagerness, and the attraction of his friendships with the older men of the Irish Renaissance who took him up. They saw in this country boy integrity and talent groping for expression; they gave him encouragement and accepted his candor even when it hurt. George Russell (“A.E.”) was the first to publish O’Connor’s poems. Osborn Bergin, the crotchety scholar, helped him in his mastery of the ancient Irish lyrics, and Lady Gregory. Sean O’Casey, and William Butler Yeats provided almost imperceptibly the stimulus which led to his discovery as a storyteller.
My Father’s Son is in essence a story of friendships, abetted and sometimes maligned by Irish perversity. O’Connor adored his mother, though he knew that in Dublin he must break the natal cord. His lather, a veteran of the Munster Fusiliers, forever rubbed him the wrong way; the old soldier had wangled two pensions from the British government, one for long service and the other for a nonexistent disability, and as a sidewalk superintendent he wandered about town watching others labor until it was time to take to the bottle.
To O’Connor the pec king order on Olympus was a source of constant delight, and as he was blessed with a memory which recalls the: lilt and savagery of any insult, his pages sparkle with quotable bits from Bergin, who hated Yeats, and George Moore, who was bored to death by “A.E.,” and Yeats, who could be a pitiless bully, and F. R. Higgins, who delighted in “embroiling mutual friends. But one and all they liked O’Connor, and since he could be trusted not to repeat (not at least until they were gone), they confided in him when their minds were hot and came back to him afterwards, as Yeats did, in moods of repentance.
O’Connor caught the pathos of Russell and appreciated the fiery soul and solid intellect which dwelt beneath the idiosyncrasy. He fell in love with Mrs. Yeats, although he never told her, and his most troubled times with her husband began when he accepted the directorship of the Abbey Theatre. Through the banter and insult, through the feuds and recrimination of this excitable circle, through the squabbles with the Church and the efforts to revive the failing light of Lady Gregory and Synge emerges a self-portrait most likable in its honesty. But there is a surfeit to such bickering, and it is a pity that the book should close with a dreary struggle of temperaments in the Abbey Theatre instead of the sprightly contrast of his first years in America which he never had time to write about.
Only One Year, by Svetlana Alliluyeva. Harper & Row, $7.95
The difference between Svetlana Alliluyeva's Twenty Letters to a Friend, which made the headlines, and Only One Year, which is the better book, is a difference in time, place, and exposure. It is also the better because of Paul Chavchavadze’s sensitive translation. The Letters were written in Russia in 1963, before she met and fell in love with the Hindu Communist Brajesh Singh, and years before she had summoned the courage to think of leaving the Soviet Union. Only One Year was composed in America after her lover had died and after her mind had been liberated,
I think the first quality in Svetlana’s writing to strike the reader is her genuineness. This comes out in the remembrances of her girlhood and married life in Russia, and of that singular immurement to which she was subjected as Stalin’s daughter; it comes out with fresh emphasis in her encounters in India, Switzerland, and America, a freer world than that in which she had spent forty years.
Only One Year opens with a touching account of her love for Brajesh Singh. They first met in a Moscow hospital, where each was recuperating, Singh from one of his throttling attacks of emphysema. He was her senior by many years, a scholar and translator as wise as he was ill. She had come to the end of her second marriage and for fourteen years had been living with her children in a modest apartment on a pension supplemented by what she earned at the Institute of World Literature. On his second visit to Moscow they wished to be married, but Premier Kosygin would not permit it; so, during their last year and a half together they shared the warmth of her apartment.
Singh had become disillusioned with Communism, and in his gentle way he opened Svetlana’s mind to reality and made her English come alive. When after his death she was permitted to carry his ashes back to India, she was a troubled, wondering woman, and the welcome she received from Brajesh’s family in the old rambling palace overlooking the Ganges— Dinesh Singh is the present Foreign Minister of India—prompted her to postpone her return to Moscow. She had brought with her the manuscript of the Twenty Letters; if she decided to seek sanctuary elsewhere, it would be her immediate means of support.
Both before and after her fateful decision her thoughts went back to her children, her friends, and the loyalties she would lie sacrificing if she left. In her professional career she had joined a circle of intellectuals, some of whom had been sentenced to Siberia by her father, and released alter the Twentieth Congress, men and women devoted to books and to art who tried to avoid the C.P. In these friends as in her uncomfortable dealings with the men in the Kremlin, she makes clear the split in the Soviet Union between “the Party of Memory” and “the Party of Hope.” She and her friends belonged to the latter, and she shows how their hopes were dashed by the hawks in the Politburo after Khrushchev was ousted.
It may be wondered if her renunciation of her father recurs too often and too long, and I should say no. Her recollection of her mother and of the cruelty which her father visited upon them both is for history; her remembrance of life in the Kremlin and the life of the Russian people, and her account of the degeneration ot the Party, are full of revelations which are genuine and well expressed.
The Philosophical Fisherman, by Harold F. Blaisdell Hough ton Mifflin, $6.95
Harold F. Blaisdell is one of those fortunate Vermonters who can fish whenever he pleases, and has been doing so since the age of five. The fly rod is his favorite weapon, and he admits to a preference for the dry fly when the conditions are right; but his father gave him his first lessons with a cane pole and a hank of green cotton line, and Mr. Blaisdell today is just as much a perfectionist with garden tackle as he is with a more aesthetic lure. To his angling he brings vast experience, patient observation, and a wry sense of humor. Trout are his darlings; salmon, whether landlocked or sea-run, his second choice; but he also has a weakness for smallmouth bass and northern pike, and his chapters on bait fishing are among the best in his new book, The Philosophical Fisherman. No fisherman can fail to find value in this delightful volume, and most will go back to it for cogitation when the ice is thick and for practical guidance when the streams run clear.