Sunday, 10 June 2012

Top 10 Classics-Inspired Books

I haven't yet read Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles (it's on the list) but I'm thrilled beyond belief that it has won the Orange Prize.  YEAY for Classics and a whole generation of people getting excited about the Iliad.

Besides being a kick ass novel in its own right, Ms Miller's book stands in the proud tradition of fiction that reinvents myth.  Greek Myth, to be precise.  It's a genre I grew up on.  So when I saw in the Guardian that the talented Ms Miller had listed her top ten classical books, I was excited.

Only, as it happens she was listing actual classical books ie Oedipus Rex.  Now don't get me wrong, I love the originals too and the Iliad, the Aeneid, Euripides' Medea and the Bacchae and the fragments of Sappho would all feature on my list.


But what I wanted to read was a list of classics-inspired books, people who've reinvented myth for their own generation.  So in the absence of a list from Madeline, here is mine - in the end I focused on books inspired by Ancient Greece (my first love).  In no particular order:

1. Electra by Henry Treece

This is a darkly powerful retelling of Elektra's story, and one which captured my imagination and which continues to inspire me now.  You can see its influence in the snippets about Daughters of Leda which abound on my blog. I've been fascinated by Mycenae ever since I first picked it up.

2. Myths and Legends by Anthony Horowitz

One for the younger generation, this is one of the best collections of myths and legends around.  Dominated by Greek Myth, it also features stories from China, Scandinavia, West Africa and beyond.  It was my first introduction to the Judgement of Paris.

3. Mythological Monsters of Ancient Greece by Sara Fanelli

One for the even younger generation (pre-school), I first came across Sara Fanelli's book when I had my daughter and was bought it as a present.  Simply told stories with incredible, imaginative illustrations that have captured my four year old's heart and mind.

4. The Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault

Okay, so this is a cheat, but if I took each Mary Renault novel in turn, they would take up an entire list themselves.  Her novels are absolutely wonderful, utterly convincing reimaginings of the world of Ancient Greece.  Comprising Fire from Heaven, Persian Boy and Funeral Games, the Alexander Trilogy traces the life of Alexander the Great.  My favorite of the three is the Persian Boy, which explores the deep personal connections in Alexander's life, including his love for Hephaistion.

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I didn't love The Secret History, because I found all the characters fairly unlikeable but I admired it hugely.  Furthermore I do love Euripides' Bacchae and Dionysiac ritual is strung through this book with ingenuity and skill.  It's ambitious, ingenious and compelling.  Well worth a read.

6. Pyrrhus (also known as An Arrow's Flight) by Mark Merlis

An incredibly original book, Pyrrhus brings together two world's simultaneously - the world of Homer's Iliad and a postmodern 1980s world of go go bars and hustlers.  Hard to imagine, difficult to pull off but Merlis manages it.  I've never read a book quite like it.

7. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

A light-hearted romp of a romance, Phillips book takes the Olympians and transposes them to a relatively seedy house-share reminiscent of 1990s classic series This Life.  Dionysus runs a nightclub, Apollo is on the telly.  As a book it amused me, as an idea it pleased me.  There's an ingenuity to it which kept me flicking pages until the end.

8. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Witty, poignant and dry as a bone, Atwood retells the story of the Odyssey from the point of view of long suffering Penelope, now a shade in Hades.  It's a treasure of a book, written deep in Penelope's point of view with a clever, gossipy tone and using some of the devices of Greek drama (a Greek chorus features throughout).  Outstanding.

9. Autobiography of Red and If not, Winter by Anne Carson 

If not, Winter strictly speaking doesn't belong in this list.  It's not a re-telling, it's a translation.  But it's a beautiful, stark and unforgettable translation that should be shouted from the roof tops.  I used it at University and had to buy my own copy.  It blew my mind with its sheer charm. Autobiography of Red is another beautiful, startlingly evocative work - this time dealing with the myth of Geryon.  Buy both. And her other stuff. She's the finest poet alive today.

10. The "Theseus Novels" (The King Must Die / The Bull from The Sea) by Mary Renault

The second entry for Mary Renault on this list (note I've actually snuck five books in).  This pair of novels deal with the life of Theseus, his period as a 'bull leaper' at King Minos' court and his subsequent kingship.  What I love most of all is the way Renault captures a culture vastly different from our own, weaves in myth and magic but preserves the real humanity and tragedy of her characters.  A great author.


And on to the Romans....  I haven't done a top 10 of Roman-inspired books.  There are lots of good uns out there, but my thing is Greece.  So, with apologies to Allan Massie and many other fine authors, here are my top 3 Roman-inspired books:

1. The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

Outrageous and audacious, The Emperor's Babe is written in loose verse and tells the story of Zuleika, daughter of Sudanese immigrants. It's funny, tough and imaginative, hooking you into Londinium 211 AD with a freshness rarely found in this type of literature.  Absolutely brilliant.  So brilliant I have to include a quote:

One minute it’s hopscotch in bare feet,

next you’re four foot up in a sedan in case

your pink stockings get dirty.  No one

prepared me for marriage.

2. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe

I read the Eagle of the Ninth as a child and loved it to bits.  Following the story of Marcus Flavius Aquila who is trying to find out the truth behind his father's disappearance, it is a wonderful adventure story with great battle scenes but also a story about friendship and loyalty that is as good today as it was when I read it twenty years ago.

3. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Of all the Roman novels I have read I have never yet found a single novel which matches up to I, Claudius (although Augustus by Allan Massie is pretty damn good) . Graves apparently didn't rate his Claudius books, and wrote them purely from financial need.  Well thank goodness he did, because I Claudius is outstanding. Written as the 'autobiography' of Tiberius Claudius it's a funny, wryly observed history lesson with a central character who is flawed, likable and entirely believable.

So over to you - what and who would you have on your list?  Where are my glaring oversights?  Who am I missing? 


Lena Corazon said...

Ooooh, I shall be sure to add all of these to my TBR pile. I haven't read many mythological adaptations, although memories of Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Firebrand" has stuck with me since I read it back in high school. I don't like it as much as "Mists of Avalon," but I did enjoy it (at least as far as I can remember!).

Meg McNulty said...

I haven't read the Firebrand, but I LOVE the Mists of Avalon. One to add to MY list!

Sophie Moss said...

Thanks for sharing your top ten Greek Myth retellings! I'm excited to read these. :) I'm embarrassed to say I have not heard of any of them. I did read a fun, lighthearted retelling of Psyche's myth this past fall called "Destined" by Jessie Harrell. I really liked it and would recommend it.

Meg McNulty said...

@Sophie you have to read Anne Carson - would appeal to your Selkie heart!

Jo-Anne Teal said...

Meg, I'm late to this post but I'm so glad I didn't miss it! A wonderful list to be sure and your words are encouragement to me to return to reading classic works. This is particularly so because I have been swept along by your flash fiction and wondered about the classical bend.

Thanks for sharing this list!