:1:First, some thoughts on Madeline Miller's Circe (Lee Boudreaux US/Bloomsbury UK 2018), the follow-up to her internationally-lauded and bestselling debut, The Song of Achilles. That novel retold the story of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus. This new novel casts its net a little wider: Circe is our narrator, but Odysseus’s dalliance with her is only a small part of the tale's larger ambition.
Circe is a book of two halves, of unequal quality. The first is a rattle-bag of Greek myths, from Circe’s birth, fathered by the sun-god Helios, to her witnessing first-hand the punishment of Prometheus, from the turning of Scylla into a whirlpool monster who devours sailors (this metamorphosis is Circe’s doing: Miller follows Ovid 14 quite closely in her retelling here), to Daedalus, the birth of the Minotaur and the building of its labyrinth, to Theseus, and finally—on p.175 of this 340-page novel—to Odysseus's coming to stay. But his time on Circe’s island interests Miller relatively little. Although Circe responds to him as a lover and companion, by page 200 he's buggered off, back on his travels again.
And it’s after it has got this episode out of the way, as it were, that Miller's novel becomes considerably more interesting. Circe bears her departed lover a son (in some versions of her myth she has three sons by Odysseus, but Miller narrows to just the one, Telegonus). Athena tries to kill the lad, but Circe manages to protect him, and he grows to adult independence and sails off to find his father. This meeting doesn’t go well, as you’ll know if you’ve ever come across the fragmentary Greek epic the Telegony, by Eugammon of Cyrene—a poet whose name, it seems, means “good weddings” and not as I initially thought and I can be honest hoped, “a happy pig”.
Indeed, so markedly is Circe a book of two halves, and so much better is it in the second of those two, that I almost wish Miller had just cut the first eight or nine dozen pages altogether. What we get in that opening act is Circe’s first-person perspective on being a sort of outsider goddess, not quite divine enough for the Olympians or the other nymphs, mocked for her various inadequacies, unhappy and unrooted. She falls in love with a human fisherman called Glaucos (Miller’s transliterations from the Greek are, I have to say, not consistent between -os and -us) who is dazzled by her when he’s a mere mortal, but once she wangles an apotheosis for him he loses interest and goes gallivanting after more beautiful goddesses, breaking Circe’s heart in the process. Men, eh?
The problem with the first half is not just that it is bitty—although it is bitty, and indeed tessellates into so many barely consecutive episodes that I wonder how easily a reader unfamiliar with the original myths will follow the storyline. The problem I had was that Miller’s gods are just so underwhelming: so vain and hedonistic, petty and vapid. As characters they are thin as faces printed on gilt-edged cardboard. They glitter, but they lack all deeper splendour, and I think deliberately so.
Now: it’s not that this is invalid as a reading of the Greek gods as such. It’s just that actual Greek myth and literature leavens the shallowness of the gods as subjects with something numinous, something that hovers on the edge of the terrifying. Miller’s gods never really achieve this. Instead there’s a lot of Dallas/Dynasty décor: ‘the floors, the shining walls and inland tables’ ; ‘huge torches carbuncled with jewels glowed from the walls’ ; ‘my father gathered us across the sea in his golden chariot to Minos’ great palace at Knossos. The walls were new-plastered …’ ; a nymph ‘holding her pearls, big as apples, up to my face’ ; Aeëtes sitting ‘serene on his couch drinking from his wrought-gold cup’  ... there is, indeed, a lot of gold (‘golden sandals gleamed’ 79; ‘I set the golden basin on the floor’ 143; ‘her golden eyes pierced mine’ 147 and so on) together with all the bag and baggage of Russian-oligarch or dictator-in-aviator-shades aesthetic kitsch. It’s fun, in its way, but it’s also as depthless as an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
At first Circe is a reporter on the sidelines of this shallowverse, this parade of supernaturally empowered vanity and appetite. But in the second half of the novel the centre of gravity of the storytelling shifts away from the Olympians towards the ordinary day-to-day of Circe on her island, raising her son, cooking and cleaning, getting on with things. What starts as a fable about exile becomes a story about how we make and maintain a home, and when Circe welcomes Penelope, now widowed, and Odysseus's son Telemachus to share the island with her it becomes a story about the solidity of companionship in contrast with the sharper ups-and-downs of the novel's earlier representation of erotic love. What works particularly well here is Miller's expert way with banality. It could have backfired, but somehow it doesn't. After all the gold and monstrosity of its first half, the novel's shift to describing the world in terms of a wet bank holiday weekend by the seaside is surprisingly effective:
I set out lunch and we ate in near silence. The rain tapered off. I could not bear the thought of being shut up all afternoon and drew my son out for a walk along the shore. The sand was hard and wet, and our footprints looked as thought they had been cut with a knife. I linked my arm through his and was surprised when he let it stay. It was only a little after midday, yet something in the air felt dusky and obscuring, like a veil across my eyes. [Circe, 275]The novel ends on a pair of deliberate withdrawals from the world of gods and magic. In the original myth, the fates of Telemachus and Telegonus are bound-up with Aeneas's settlement of Italy and the future glory of Rome (Telegonus supposedly founded Tusculum, and Telemachus, depending on which mythographer you follow, was either the father of Aeneas's future father-in-law Latinus, or the husband of Aeneas's future daughter Roma). And near the end of Miller's Circe, Pallas Athena manifests in a cloud of ‘aureate sparks’ to pronounce to these men their manifest destiny:
Her voice changed, gilding itself. ‘Zeus has foretold that a new empire will arise in the West. Aeneas is fled there with his remnant Trojans, and I would have Greeks balance and hold them at bay. The land is fertile and rich, thick with beasts of the field and forest, overhung with fruits of every kind. You will found a prosperous city there, you will build stout walls and set down laws to hold back the tide of savagery. You will seed a great people who will rule in ages to come. I have gathered good men from across our lands and set them on a ship. They arrive this day to bear you to your future.’ [Circe, 304]But here Miller goes off piste from her mythic sources. Telemachus's unexpected non serviam (‘he did not flinch from her gaze: “I do not desire such a life”’) absolutely infuriates Athena: ‘if you refuse me all glory will leave you ... there will be no songs made of you. No stories. Do you understand? You will live a life of obscurity. You will be without a name in history. You will be no-one.’ Miller's point is that a creature like Athena is simply incapable of comprehending that the conscious acceptance of such erasure is one of the strengths available to mortals.
‘I choose that fate,’ he said. Disbelief shone on her cold, beautiful face. How many times in her eternity had she been told no? She could not parse it ...Though initially shocked, it's not long before Circe herself is also withdrawing from the world of the gods, repudiating her father, sun-god Helios.
‘You are a fool,’ she spat. ‘You are lucky I do not kill you where you stand. I spare you out of love for your father, but I am patron to you no more.’
The glory that had shone upon him vanished. He looked shriveled without it, grey and gnarled as olive bark. I was as shocked as Athena. What had he done? [Circe, 305]
‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonour me.’I liked this ending very much: it reminded me, in a way, of Eliot's beautiful narrative elusion at the end of Middlemarch, where we step away from stories to untold, unhistoric acts and life lived faithfully as a hidden thing that ends in an unvisited tomb.
‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’
His body was rigid with wrath. He looked as though he had swallowed a stone, and it choked him.
‘Give Mother my greetings,’ I said.
His jaw bit down and he was gone. [Circe, 313]
Now, although in one sense (a real consideration, this, I think) this defeats the purpose of the novel as a whole—because the bulk of Circe is in complicated love with exactly the glory and glamour here repudiated—it does at least bring things to a formally appropriate conclusion. After all, the proper business of the novel is the mundane (just as that of epic verse is grandeur and divinity), and that's where Miller eventually steers her ship.
Nonetheless, I finished Circe with a sense of something missing, an opportunity missed. This is, I daresay, my problem rather than the novel's; and what I'm about to say might be thought to miss the very obvious (and very commendable) feminist point of Miller's exercise, to give a voice to a woman otherwise marginalised, to re-centre the masculinist bias of the original mythos. She certainly achieves that. But something of the limitation in her representation of her Olympians seeps into her central portrait too. Circe as the dangerous witch, skilled in potions and a terror to men, is told rather than shown. If Miller's Circe ends up as a homely character that's, in part, because Miller is specifically setting-out to tell a story about a woman who makes her own home. Still: I wonder if Circe becomes just too likeable. Likeability is part of the logic of ‘the novel’ as such, too, I suppose; but it dilutes the force of this work as a whole, I think.
Homer's account of Circe (with which Miller is of course in dialogue here) is the most famous; but it's not as detailed as Ovid's account, in Metamorphosis book 14; and Miller draws on that lengthier and more detailed account for her novel too. By expanding the Homeric episode, and with her fascination with the shining surfaces of things, the aureate gleam of gods' skin, the shifting argent of the surface of the sea, Miller is much more an Ovidian than a Homeric artist, I think. Not that that's a bad thing! But (having read Circe, and thinking about my reaction to it) it has brought home to me something important about my own aesthetic. I like Ovid plenty, I should say; and given how deeply imbued in Ovid our greatest writer was, and seeing what marvels Shakespeare was able to forge out of that source material, owning an Ovidian influence is nothing to be ashamed of. But still: Ovid doesn't reach the depths of me the way Vergil does. Why might that be, I wonder?
Does mentioning Vergil, here, look like a non-sequitur? It shouldn't. Circe also appears, if briefly, in the Aeneid. In book 6, Aeneas visits the underworld, having seen both the punished distorted into tortuous shapes by the consequences of their sinfulness, and the blissful existence of the blessed. Book 7 starts by addressing one more dead person: Aeneas's old nurse Caieta. He buries her on a piece of coastline that subsequently becomes the promontory and town of Caieta. Then he sails off:
At pius exsequiis Aeneas rite solutis,That's my line-by-line translation; and inadequate as it is, it gives some indication of the quality, the vibe, of alluring-terrifying otherness in Circe's presence in the world that Miller's novel, for all its merits, smooths out. The eerie calls of the magically bestialised men, resounding over the moonlit sea; a yearning and strangeness in the very heart of things. Sunt lacrimae rerum is one of the most famous of Vergilian tags, but Vergil's great poem has always struck me as much more about strangeness than sorrow. It understands, on a deep level, how strange it is that newness comes into the world at all: how empires are created anew out of their fall; how widowers, though wholly dedicated to the memory of their beloved wives, nonetheless fall in love again, marry again, have new children. How strange it is that death, which really ought by definition to be the end of things, somehow—isn't. The Latin novitas means both ‘novelty, newness, freshness’ and also ‘strangeness’, and Aeneas's Troynovant is as much Strange-Troy as it is ‘Troy renewed’. More, this is for Vergil all bound up on his apprehension of the weirdness of the ways divinity interacts with the mundane. The strange ways it manifests, the stranger fact that it manifests at all (this also obsessed Graham Greene: a good half of his novels are about what Brighton Rock calls ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’).
aggere composito tumuli, postquam alta quierunt
aequora, tendit iter velis portumque relinquit.
Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonumv
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.
Quae ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes
delati in portus neu litora dira subirent,
Neptunus ventis implevit vela secundis
atque fugam dedit et praeter vada fervida vexit. [Aeneid, 7:5-24]
So pious Aeneas, having performed those last rites,
and smoothed the mound over the grave, as a hush
lies over the high seas, unfurls his sails and leaves the harbour.
Breezes blow through the night, white light speeds them on
a gift of the Moon, the sea glitters with a tremulous radiance.
Soon they are skirting the shoreline of Circe's land,
where the rich daughter of the Sun makes
her untrodden groves echo with ceaseless song;
nightlong her shining palace is sweet with burning cedarwood,
as she drives her shuttle, weaving delicate textiles.
And from far away you can hear angry lions
chafing at their fetters and roaring in the deep night,
and bears and bristle-backed hogs in their pens,
raging, and huge-bodied wolves howling aloud;
these are men who, eating her magical herbs,
the deadly divine Circe had disfashioned into beasts.
To save the good Trojans from so hideous a change,
prevent them from stopping on those ominous shores,
Neptune fills their sails with favourable winds,
and hurries them, sweeping them past the seething shallows.
Poking around online, trying to get my thoughts in order to write this blogpost, I came across the following letter, written by Charles Martindale to the London Review of Books in June 1984, responding to Tom Paulin's (fascinating) review of various books on poetry and translation. One of the books Paulin reviews is Charles Tomlinson's Poetry and Metamorphosis (Cambridge University Press 1983), and Martindale isn't sure Paulin has been quite fair to it.
Tom Paulin, in his interesting if rather churlish review of Charles Tomlinson’s admirable Poetry and Metamorphosis, at times resorts to just that species of urbane cultural waffle of which he seems to accuse Tomlinson. I do not know what it means to say that Dryden’s Virgil is more important than his Ovid because he wrote it for his country’s ‘honour’, or because, ‘perhaps, all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid.’ I do know that the Ovid translations are at once truer images of their original and more alive as English verse. It is hard to find in the Virgil a passage to match the imaginative energies of the englishing of (say) the Flood or Daphne’s metamorphosis into laurel. The reason is not far to seek: however much Dryden may have aspired to be the English Virgil, he was anima naturaliter Ovidiana – the glittering surfaces of the Metamorphoses were closer to him than the numinous opacities of Virgil could ever be. Moreover, Ovid had been a far more pervasive presence in English letters, from Chaucer to Milton, than Virgil, who, as R. M. Ogilvie has remarked, is perhaps too religious for the majority of Englishmen and too little Humanist. (Significantly, it was the Anglo-Catholic T.S. Eliot who, in a potent piece of myth-making, re-asserted the claim for Virgil’s ‘adequacy’ and cultural centrality.)Reading that, the phrase, ‘the glittering surfaces of the Metamorphoses were closer to him than the numinous opacities of Virgil’, went through me like a spear. Exactly! Or to be precise, that's it in reverse: irreligious as I am, the numinous opacities of Vergil speak to me much more forcefully than Ovid's glittering surfaces. And numinous opacity is precisely what's missing from Margaret Miller's otherwise fascinating novelistic dramatic monologue of her not-quite-goddess.