This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out on 20 March 2017; RRP $29.99 (C-format paperback).
This is a tale about Medea, which makes me happy she is definitely one of the more intriguing of ancient mythical women. Kerry Greenwood wrote a take on her ages ago, which I remember enjoying, and she featured in Robert Holdstock’s remarkable Merlin-and-Jason series (hmm… did I ever finish that? Must check). For the modern writer there must be a challenge in trying to understand what could compel this woman to leave her homeland, kill her brother, and eventually kill her children, and a tension is deciding whether to stay true to the “original” (HA) story, or to put a different spin on it – keep the children alive, for instance. Do you play Jason as a helpless fool or an arrogant one, Medea as loving and betrayed or as cunning herself, and perhaps still betrayed – or the witch that she’s sometimes regarded as? Lots of interesting possibilities.
… and I guess those are some spoilers if you don’t know the Medea story.
Vann chooses to set his version properly far back in time, the 1300s BC; there is reference to Hittites, and Ilium, and Egypt. There are no Greeks; Jason and his Argonauts are the Mynae. Intriguingly, his descriptions of the voyage of the Argo back to Iolcus – which is more than a third of the book – is based on Vann’s own experience of traveling on a recreated ship of Hatshepsut’s time, with archaeologist Cheryl Ward, for a French documentary Building Pharaoh’s Ship.
First, let me mention the language. The copy describes it as ‘poetic prose’, which is apt. Bluntly it means there are lots of incomplete sentences and a few extended ones, and lots of adjectives and time spent on description. The gorgeous reality, of course, is not captured in that summation. For example:
Her father a golden face in darkness. Appearing in torchlight over the water and vanishing again. Face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage. (p1)
The sail not a god itself but only the tracing of a god, a more responsive form of temple. Like fire to reveal Hekate. How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping only the sign of a god? Wind itself a sign of something else, and even fire, and white hides behind them? (115).
I’m not accustomed to reading quite such flowery language (which I mean positively), so it did take me longer than expected to read the book. It is wonderfully evocative and enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. And the other thing that I appreciated you can see in that last quote – Hekate. Korinth. Kreon. It’s also Iolcus and Colchis so I’m not sure if that’s annoying inconsistency; some Green scholar will have to let me know.
There are lots of threads that Vann is tracing through Bright Air Black (words from a translation of Euripides – the gods “turn the bright air black” in frustrating mortals). One is the role of gods, or lack thereof. Medea frequently calls on Hekate, who sometimes appears to answer in the form of fortuitous weather; but at other times Medea despairs of her goddess and appears to be at best agnostic. There is no magic here (probably); there is luck and poison and human trickery and the use of power. There’s some commentary on the role of those things in developing human society and how men (as a rule) keep power.
This being Medea there is also commentary on the nature of feminine power. Medea has always been a weird girl, going off into the forest and not being afraid of the night; she plays on that and develops her reputation for fearlessness through her familiarity with the unfamiliar and inhuman – forests, the sea, the night. And then she leaves her family for a foreigner. Medea herself ruminates on the power of women versus the power of men; this includes thinking about her own family, and the complicated genealogy whereby it’s unclear exactly who her mother and grandmother are – are they the same person? No one much cares; it’s the men that matter.
This is a pretty straight retelling of Medea’s story – if you know Medea, you know what’s going to happen. Vann has added motive and explanation, an investigation and justification of some events and a whole lot of description. It’s a great addition to the oeuvre of Greek mythological retellings.
A number of reviews over on goodreads seem to have two things in common: the reviewer hasn’t read the source material, and they didn’t particularly enjoy this collection. I applaud someone for stepping out of their comfort zone, but I really don’t understand bagging something when the fundamental context isn’t understood. Because this really, really doesn’t stand stand with knowledge of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and it doesn’t pretend it even wants to.
I adored this collection, and I am fantastically thankful that I happened to pick it up a few years ago at the closing-down sale of my favourite bookshop (which has since reopened!). I’m not an author, but I would suggest that anyone who wants to write short fiction – and who has the background – should read this, because it does the short form in glorious, scintillating ways.
The Preface claims that this set of 44 stories translated from variations to the standard Homeric tale found in Oxyrhynchus. I’ll admit that for the first couple of stories I actually half-wondered whether this might possibly be true – I’d never heard of such a find, but Oxyrhynchus has been an incredible literary treasure trove; it’s not like I work consistently in the field so it’s feasible I might have missed hearing about it. I fairly quickly decided that this wasn’t the case, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I feel that Mason has stayed true to the core of the mythology, and what more could you want?
Some of the stories presented here are vignettes, others are more substantial stories. Most of them take aspects of The Odyssey and… shift them. Sometimes subtly, sometimes extravagantly, but almost always with that kernel that means it feels basically plausible to an archaic Greek mythological milieu. There are a few that stray beyond those bounds, but even those are wonderfully well written, so I don’t mind. They too help to build up sense of shifting possibilities, what-ifs and could-have-beens. There are a few stories that take aspects from other parts of Greek mythology and tie them, in convoluted but logical ways, to the Troy story; and just one or two that could feasibly be set outside of the 13th century BC, but not with any firm proof that they do so.
A review of all 44 stories would be tiresome and, in some cases, impossible without ruining the sheer pleasure of the reading act. Suffice it to say that Penelope gets some attention, Athene a bit more, and Calypso and Circe a lesser bit. Most of them involve travelling, which is naturally appropriate; some are in Troy and some on Ithaka. Sometimes Odysseus is triumphant, other times a coward, and occasionally seen through others’ eyes – like Polyphemus (sorry, bad joke). Once, Paris is Death. Occasionally, the reality of a two-decade absence is hinted at. Tragically, Hektor does not feature in any meaningful way.
This collection is wonderful and glorious and I loved it very much.
This is a set of three novellas, set in very distinct times, about the goddess Ishtar. Despite having the same theoretical focus, the three vary greatly in tone, style and actual focus. There are, nonetheless, a couple of clear threads that link them. The first is, of course, Ishtar herself. This is no Botticelli-esque Venus, no whimsical romanticised Aphrodite; all three authors present an Ishtar who is very clearly goddess of war and goddess of love/sexuality, and who embodies the struggles that each of those aspects brings – not to mention the way they work together. Coexistent with this is an attitude towards men that could perhaps be described as contempt, although that may be too harsh; disdain may be closer. Aside from Ishtar, the three stories are all categorised by a general sense of dread, of pessimism and darkness. These are not cheery tales.
I love a fiction book that comes with a bibliography, and Ishtar does just that. I suspect most of the research went into Kaaron Warren’s opening story, “The Five Loves of Ishtar” – although looking at the titles of the articles I can see resonances with the other two stories as well. Warren, though, in opening the set, has the task of placing Ishtar within her original context: ancient Mesopotamia. I know only a little of the history of that area; it certainly feels to me that Warren has captured the sense, if not of the historical area itself, then of how the area might have perceived itself in myth <i>and</i>history. Because Warren sets Ishtar within a place that feels real, where the gods and heroes do walk the earth and do interact with mortals. And she tells of Ishtar and her five loves through five generations of washerwomen, at once a domestic and lowly, yet also incredibly intimate, position. Ishtar’s loves come and go, from Tammuz the Green One in 3000BC to Ashurnasirpal in 883BC. There are some similarities between the five: jealousy, and a love of power, and a lack of understanding of Ishtar herself. To some extent, though, the men are just there to be foils to Ishtar – to provide evidence of time’s movement, since Ishtar changes little; to give Ishtar a canvas on which to act. Ishtar’s involvement with women is of great moment, and I think reveals more of Ishtar’s self. Her interactions with women giving birth, and with her washerwomen, shows a complex character that isn’t entirely comfortable in the world, but doesn’t really know how else to be. There are poignant moments of vulnerability (a goddess concerned about her appearance? unsure of whether she wants a child?), as well as startling moments of horror (the casual brutality of death and war, the creation of a horrific army). This is a complex story as befits a complex character and a complex history, too. Warren does it justice, and sets up the next two stories beautifully: after all, if this is Ishtar in the far ancient world, what might she be like today, let alone in the future?
Deb Biancotti has the task of placing Ishtar in the modern world, and actually for much of the novel Ishtar is not a physical presence; she is a rumour, a hidden force, a menacing shadow. “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” takes place today, in Sydney, and is essentially a police procedural. Adrienne is a detective, and she has a rather nasty case to work on: several men found dead, with their bones smashes to smithereens, who all appear to have been sex-workers. Just the sort of trend that gives police headaches – especially when the cause of death is almost impossible to explain. In searching for clues, Adrienne reconnects with an old friend who used to be involved in the sex workers’ union; meets a priest and a gigolo-cum-witchdoctor type; and comes across a rather odd goddess cult, who are waiting for their goddess to reappear. All of these people give tantalising clues as to what might be going on, where ‘tantalising’ can also be synonymous with ‘frustrating’ and ‘hair-pullingly-ambiguous’. The reader, of course, might have some idea of what is going on – surely Ishtar has to turn up or be involved at some point – but that really doesn’t make a difference to the story itself. Adrienne is a powerful, compelling protagonist, into whose personal life the reader gets just enough insight to understand that while policing is of fundamental importance to her, it’s not quite all she is. She verges on manic sometimes; her determination and dedication is by turns admirable and somewhat frightening. The supporting cast is solid: Steve, her partner-in-policing, is different enough to riff off, with a family to be concerned about and a bit less narrowly focussed; Nina, the prostitute, is the old friend who can say pretty much anything to Adrienne and provides a wildly different perspective. This novella is the most straight-forward of the three, because of its police procedural nature; there is a mystery which must be worked out, and it seems bizarre and unlikely but then clues fall into place. It is the easiest and least demanding to read (which is by no means a slight on Warren or Sparks, or on Biancotti either), but don’t assume that makes it pleasant. Or that it has a nice ending.
One mythological, one mystery… and a post-apocalytpic tale on which to end. Cat Sparks rounds out the set with “The Sleeping and the Dead.” It starts in a blasted desert with a mechanical bull going mad, and really just continues in that trend. Exactly when and where this story takes place is unclear; I presumed it was Australia, but it doesn’t have to be, and it’s sometime in the future of Adrienne’s Sydney – probably within a generation, but that’s just my guess from a few hints here and there. The focus of this story is Doctor Anna, who lives in said desert with a bunch of very weird, fairly crazy nuns with a seriously disturbing ossuary. When one day some men come calling – well, crawling like dehydrated possibly-hallucinating men are wont to – things change; whether it will be for the better or the worse depends entirely on whose perspective you take. Where Warren’s story has an ancient world annals feel to it, and Biancotti’s is a straightforward novel, Sparks’ piece at times feels something like a dream. The narrative is basically straightforward but the links don’t always immediately make sense; and Anna’s obsession with Thomas doesn’t entirely make sense; and time doesn’t always seem to flow in the proper, ordered way it ought. The place of Ishtar in this story is the least obvious of the three; it does make sense towards the end and, credit where it’s definitely due, Sparks does a good job of tying her Ishtar back to Warren’s. I’m not sure how deliberate that was, since I have no idea how closely the three worked in developing their stories, but it certainly felt cohesive.
This is a really impressive set of stories, and they are most definitely worthy of the award nominations they’ve been receiving. I expect this to be a collection that I keep revisiting and, perhaps especially in the past and future Ishtars, I expect to keep finding new nuances and details cleverly hidden away. It would have been so easy to sanitise this goddess and make her palatable; I am so glad Warren, Biancotti, and Sparks had the vision to be true to what I think is the general vibe of the original mythology.
This was a lecture given by Patrick Geary, from UCal, on Feb 7th. My notes, my misinterpretations….
– Matthew and Luke genealogies don’t agree?
– Davidic lineage? [Not really sure what this was referring to, obviously something biblical..]
– Matilda of Tuscany [hmmm… some sort of mythology around her I guess…]
*Interest in memory currently:
– end of the Cold War: how to remember, especially in Warsaw Pact areas
– death of WWII survivors – Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, soldiers. Who has the right to tell about the past?
— This is really about the present and the future (what was – what is, and what should be [sounds like a Led Zeppelin song…]).
*Around the fifth century BC, and following, interest in genealogies increased – but generations of men. So where were the women?
– the first man involved no woman; sprung form the earth.
– first woman ismade, not generated
—Problem: to be a citizen, have to have father and mother as citizens….
*Herodotus’ story of the Scyths
– mother is semi-divine, or semi-monster…
— Byzantium liked Herodotus, and used this story.
— Amazons –> Scythians –> Goths
*Sarah and Hagar: Hebrews and Arabs
*More important to look at audience than possible matriarchal origins (at least in some cases). [I’ve always thought matriarchal ideas were feminists grasping at straws, which I thought was sad both because they thought they had to and because I thought that it was unlikely that society has ever been much different in its shape over the last several thousand years].
*Medieval historians/genealogist (most of whom were clerical, so had no children, but put themselves in the family begun by a virgin mother…):
– women are in the mythic pre-history of people/nations; their disappearance is necessary for the beginning of ‘real’ history (only men)
– not incorporated satisfactorily into lineages
– writers are aware/ambivalent of current women leaders
– fail to reconcile rension between the ideal and actuality.
*Why didn’t the men just write the problematic women out? There must have been something in the tradition….
I can’t really pretend this is an unusual thing anymore – once again, I am flicking between Video Hits and Rage. But that’s not the point of this post. No: the point is Britney Spears, and not even her ‘music’. The ad was for her new perfume. Basically, I think she’s heard the story of Artemis and Aktaeon, and got it mixed up a bit in her head. In the ad, she (the goddess, of course), is being pursued by a hunter, who has fallen in love with her; he shoots her with a ‘magic love arrow’ or somesuch (so maybe Aktaeon and Eros have got mixed up in her head… who’s to say?), and they live happily ever after. Very curious. And all of this, of course, takes place in a forest… very primal.
Not mine, Jeanette Winterson’s. In the same series as Atwood’s Penelopiad, it’s the re-telling of Atlas and Herakles’ story (I was very glad she called him that, not Hercules, although she spelt it with a ‘c’. Anyway). It’s very different from Penelope’s story, because Winterson has put herself into the story to some extent, talking about the changes and boundaries and re-telling stories from her own perspective. The story is mostly told from Atlas’ point of view, although some is from Herakles, which was also interesting: he is totally the thug, which of course he was when you cut to the bone. Atlas came across as very gentle; Winterson gives him a curious back-story: living on Atlantis, giving a reason for the war against the gods….
It’s good. Sometimes I don’t really understand why people who write seemingly serious literature insist on having sex in their books, but there you go – guess I can’t have everything my way.
This was one of the books Mum got at the Walkerville Libarary/Council book sale – more about that later. She bought it on Saturday; it’s a little book, and only 170 or so pages on that lovely thick paper they used to use, so I read it all that day. It is one of the funniest little books I’ve read in a long time… and that edition was published in 1925! And it said it was the 28th impression! It’s by a guy called John Kendrick Bangs, which is hilarious in and of itself. The premise of the book is conversations between people in the ‘good’ part of Hades. Think Shakespeare, Napoleon, Nero (?!), Dryden… it was actually laugh-out-loud funny, which is fairly rare for me; Mum got a bit sick of me reading out the great one-liners before she got a chance to read it. I think the funniest bit I remember is Nero saying that the only thing he hadn’t murdered was the English language – and that directed to Dr Johnson. HA HA HA. I thought it was funny.