Wednesday 30 March 2011

Annabel Lyons - The Golden Mean

From the occasional book reviews department


'The Golden Mean' is an intimate book, as salty and as civet-scented as the men who people it. In it, Annabel Lyons reimagines the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and his teenage pupil, the Macedonian prince Alexander, casting outwards and backwards to Aristotle's domestic life with his wife, children and later his servant-lover; his childhood; his apprenticeship of sorts to his physician father; his early years at Plato's Academy; his tenuous friendship with Philip the King. There is no plot, as such, unless you consider life itself to be a plotline.

Aristotle's philosophy peppers the book. Most obviously, and a little clumsily, it comes through on a lesson for Alexander and his companions that uses a near-dead chameleon to illustrate Plato's theory of Forms. Aristotle then strangles the chameleon and dissects it with the boys, a show-don't-tell moment in which Lyon's introduces Aristotle's own central tenet, of knowing the world through the close study of particular things. At this point in his life, most of Aristotle's heavy-duty theorising lies before him: Lyon's shows us seeds of ideas being planted. He asks the actor Carolus what makes a good tragedy:

"Funny question," he says. "A good death, a good pain, a good tragedy. 'Good' is a funny word."

"I'm writing a book." The response I default to when my subjects start to look at me strangely. And maybe I am, suddenly, maybe I am. A little work to bring me back here when I reread it many years from now, to this rain and this cup of wine and this man I'm prepared to like so much.

The golden mean in Aristotle's philosophy is the desirable midpoint between two equally dangerous extremes, excess and deficiency. Lyon's Aristotle is throughout the book poised between two points, often unhappily. He oscillates between dark melancholy, where he struggles to leave his bed and cries without knowing, and periods of 'golden joy' when thought flows out of his effortlessly. He is between two stints in Athens - he has been bullied by Philip into staying in Pella to tutor Alexander. He is between Alexander - brilliant, charming, terrifying, almost unearthly and his older half-brother, the retarded Arrhidaeus who Aristotle seeks to rehabilitate. Between his refined wife Pythia and the earthy servant Herpyllis, between his Macedonian roots and his Athenian learning, and perhaps most tellingly between thought, which he excels at, and action, on which Alexander challenges him.

Two things in particular struck me about this book. One is the writing - staccato, almost choppy, but not unbeautiful. Often pungent: in a particular favourite passage, Aristotle notes how he is teaching the Athenian Carolus to curse properly in dialect: "His diction is high and elegant and a bit prissy, but he's learning, slowly. "Fuck me" - I taught him that." And

He looks at me like I'm stupid. "Comedy makes you laugh. A couple of slaves buggering each other, I'll have that and thank you very much. How would you say that here?"

I think for a minute. "Ass-fucking," I say in dialect.

He grunts. He likes it.

There's something very human about a normally profane Aristotle. Human is my key word for this book. Human, and 'man' too - this is a book of men. This is the second thing that struck me. Men talking, fighting, fucking, loving, thinking, battling, all with each other. Women are back in their houses, literally and metaphorically - this is a man's world, and sex soaks through it. "It's all sex with you, isn't it" says Aristotle to Carolus lightly, who replies with more seriousness:

"It's in the air, the dirt, the water. It touches everything. ... They celebrate with it, they make people suffer with it, they do their business with it. They run the kingdom with it."

Lyon has done the near impossible, and made personalities so famous and remote they seem abstract into fleshy, faulty, fully fashioned men. Highly recommended.

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