The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is terrific. I’ll start with that and recommend that you go out and buy it.
This is a novel about Aristotle before he became Aristotle. He isn’t a young man when the book begins. He is 37 years old and is inspecting his wife’s vulva and vagina out of intellectual curiosity. His curiosity is great and he covets knowledge of all things.
The story follows his experiences for the next 7 years or so, while he is the tutor of Alexander the Great before he became the Great, still just the kid of King Philip of Macedon. The capital city, Pella, is a rough and tumble backwater. Aristotle longs for Athens, where he will, beginning in middle-age, found an academy and write the works that will influence science and thought for the next 1500 years or more.
The story is told in the first person and it’s very much an interior journey. There is no overarching narrative, no through line of plot, but it held my interest throughout because it’s so very well done. The voice of Aristotle, his thoughts, his feelings, his perspective and reminiscences are compelling. I know that this is one of the buzz words of blurbs (along with tour de force), but in this case the word is the right one. The historical period is brought vividly to life, not in external details, but through this perspective.
Aristotle is a nerd in a world of jocks, an intellectual among uncultured warriors whose king wants to put some shine on his court. Aristotle is both respected and mocked, seen as effeminate, and yet oddly valued. A king’s friend, he is aware of his precarious position. He is a man of great mental powers and at the same time, a man of his period, shocked when his wife experiences sexual pleasure, not especially kind to women or slaves, but more considerate than some.
Of necessity, since ancient Greece restricted women’s movements, especially upper class women, the story is mostly about men, but Lyon conveys the poignancy of this restriction effectively. One moment stands out for me especially, when Alexander’s mother comes to visit him at school, and pays dearly for it because she is not supposed to leave her quarters. I also enjoyed the character and voice of the slave/midwife Athea.
(As an aside, I liked her so much I was thinking that if I was writing the book she would be my main character and then laughed at myself, because of course I did that in The River Midnight, albeit set in a later historical period.)
This must have been a hard book to bring to a conclusion because there isn’t a narrative arc. There is no resolution, just another stage in the journey. I say this because my only quibble with this book, and it’s a small one, is at the end. The last few pages are, like the rest, terrific. But just before that there is a conversation between Aristotle and Alexander that sums up their relationship, and I just couldn’t picture it as real. But then it’s over, the author returns to Aristotle’s voice, which has been so–yes I’ll say it again–compelling throughout. Aristotle leaves for Athens. He is about to become Aristotle.
Interior, first person stories are not my favourite form. It has to be excellently executed to hold my interest, to impress and stay with me. The Golden Mean did.