The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
Vintage Canada, 2010
I own this one.
I have been on a book buying ban for over a year now. That doesn’t mean I don’t fall off the wagon, particularly with books published outside the US. My public library is great, ordering many titles before they are published, but they only purchase books published in this country. So when I read about great books from Canada or elsewhere I struggle with book lust, and occasionally the book wins. This book is an example, I just had to have it.
Annabel Lyon has written an extraordinary first novel, taking a crucial time in the history of western civilization and bringing it to life through the voice and thoughts of one of the founders of western philosophy.
Aristotle, along with his wife Pythias and their entourage, travel to the city of Pella. After a separation of many years Aristotle meets up with his old friend Philip, now the King of Macedonia.
“You refined piece of shit,” the king says. “You’ve spent too much time in the East. Look at yourself, man.”
We embrace. As boys we played together, when Philip’s father was king and my father the king’s physician. I was taller but Philip was tougher: so it remains. I’m conscious of the fine, light clothing I’ve changed into for this meeting, of the fashionable short clip of my hair, of my fingers gently splayed with rings. Philip’s beard is rough, his fingernails are dirty, he wears homespun. He looks like what he is: a soldier, bored by this great marble throne room. From page 13.
Philip asks him to tutor his son, Alexander. Aristotle is torn between the demands of his friend and his own desire to succeed his teacher, Plato, and lead the Academy in Athens. He ponders his past and his future. He helps Arrhidaeus, Philip’s elder son, changed after a severe illness at the age of five. He teaches Alexander, and his companions.
I gather my father’s scalpels from the boys and wipe them slowly, meticulously, as I was taught. “I had a master, when I was not much older than you. He was very interested in what things were. In what was real, if you like, and what” – I gestured at the remains of the chameleon – “was perishable, what would pass away and be lost. He believed there were two worlds. In the world we see and hear and touch, in the world we live in, things are temporary and imperfect. There are many, many chameleons in the world, for instance, but this one has a lame foot, and this one’s colour is uneven, and so on. Yet we know they are all chameleons; there is something they share that makes them all alike. We might say they have the same form; though they differ in details, they all share the same form, the form of a chameleon. It is this form, rather than the chameleon itself, that is ideal, perfect and unchanging. We might say the same of a dog or a cat, or a horse, or a man. Or a chair, or a number. Each of these exists in the world of forms, perfectly, unchangingly.” From pages 91/92.
There are many fine characters in this book and Aristotle has ideas about all of them, from soldier to slave. Combining daily life, philosophy, politics, sexuality and warfare, told by a historic figure at once brilliant and unsure, The Golden Mean is a novel that is intelligent, funny and surprisingly relevant to our own daily lives.
It reminds me of a book I read last summer, Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin. Both take a period in the history of western civilization and daringly write literary portraits of daily life. Both novels feel historically accurate to me, but I am not a classical scholar. Le Guin uses figures from classical literature, Lyon uses figures from history. I loved both of these books. I am in awe of Lyon’s creativity, depth of research, and willingness to take risks with the western canon. I have added several books from her bibliography to my to-be-read list, and hope I will actually get around to reading some of them.
Have you read and reviewed this book? Please leave a comment so I can link to your review.