Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Some Book Notes

I just finished reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Fagan. He’s a classics professor at Yale, and his four-volume history of that war is apparently the definitive work on the subject. The book that I read is a condensed version that is aimed at the reading public.

For those of you who may be a bit foggy on your ancient history, the Peloponnesian War was a twenty-seven-year-long contest between Athens and Sparta in Greece that began in 431 BC. It was a debilitating contest which virtually destroyed the two city-states. Athens lost the war, but it would recover in time. Sparta won but, though no one knew it at the time, this victory was the beginning of the end for that city-state and its culture.

As mentioned in passing in the book, at the age of twelve a Spartan boy would be introduced into the warrior class, and he would be assigned a mentor. The boy would also be the mentor’s lover. Just the sort of thing that got all those Catholic priests in trouble. It’s not all that unusual among warriors and military types either. The Celts fought on two-man chariots, and the men of these teams were encouraged to become lovers, the theory being that they would then fight harder to protect one another. Winston Churchill said that the British navy ran on rum, the lash and buggery. There’s a long history of the military and homosexuality. So what do we Americans make such a big deal about gays in the military?

The most fascinating character of those times had to be Alcibiades. They don’t come any larger than life than him. He was reportedly an extremely attractive and charismatic man, the sort who would be voted the world’s sexist, but he was also a political force and a splendid diplomat. In addition, he was a relentless self-promoter who made lots of enemies. After certain war plans that were promoted by him ended in strategic failure for Athens, he was framed on charges of blasphemy. Fearing that he wouldn’t get a fair hearing, Alcibiades fled to Sparta and advised them in their campaign against Athens.

He was also instrumental in convincing the Persian empire to join an alliance with Sparta against the Athenians. This alliance was a troubled one and the Spartans decided that he was guilty of treason. The were going to kill him, but Alcibiades escaped to the Persians. The story doesn’t end there though. He was called back to Athens and won a couple of estimable naval victories, only to be disgraced again and forced to flee to an estate that he had acquired in Asia Minor. Could such a figure exist today? No way. The world is just too big and complicated.

I’ve recently read two novels by Frederick Busch. The first one Girls was very good. It’s the story of a guy who works as a campus cop at a college in upstate New York. His life and marriage are coming apart when he notices posters up around the town asking for information about the whereabouts of a missing fourteen-year-old girl. He tries to pull his damaged life together as he tries to determine what happened to the girl. A blurb on the back calls it a literary thriller. That’s inaccurate. It’s a crime novel but it’s more than that in that it’s character-driven. I recommend it. It’s not a must-read, but it’s worth the effort.

I can’t say the same thing for the other novel, A Memory of War. This time the protagonist is a clinical psychologist who practices as a therapist. His life and marriage are coming apart as well, and though Busch has a quest around which he tries to build his narrative, it doesn’t work. The story comes off as diffuse and poorly thought out. There are a couple of reasons for this, in my opinion. Busch has been a writer all of his life, and he’s published around twenty novels. As he says in a short interview at the back of the paperback edition of Girls, “I feel like I have not earned my oxygen and food and water unless I’ve written, and so I try every day to make language - whether or not it’s a successful piece every day.” So, it appears that he’s one of those writers who feels that it’s his job to produce books and once he decides that a book is good enough, he lets go of it and moves. (Interestingly enough, there are blurbs on the back of this book from Ward Just, and Reynolds Price, both of whom seem to work in a similar fashion.) I think there’s another reason as well for why A Memory of War doesn’t work. In that book the protagonist is too much like Busch himself in terms of education, social class, etc. However, in Girls he’s different, a high- school-educated, blue-collar sort of guy, and I suspect that, for that reason, Busch had to put more effort into thinking things through. Of course, that’s nothing more than speculation on my part, and I would certainly like to be a bit more like Busch. I’m too much of a brooder and, as a result, I’m on my third complete rewrite of my current novel.


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