Discovering: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

What I liked first about this novel, was the opening paragraph.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

This is the voice of Briseis, a captured Queen, who ‘heard him before I saw him’, because she and the rest of the women from Lyrnessus were shut in the citadel as Achilles attacked their city.

We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields…

The story of the battle for Troy has been told many times. I can’t remember whether I first met Helen, Paris, Agamemnon and the rest of them in a book or a film, or when. Maybe it was textual references in different genres… So many writers have used Helen, Hector or Paris as a reference point for their characters that it’s probable I first heard of them intertextually.

A gauge I use for judging the popularity of an icon is when it turns up in comedy. In his 1948 novel, Uncle Dynamite, PG Wodehouse gave us Lord Ickenham. At one point, he tells his niece, Sally, ‘You look like Helen of Troy after a really good facial.

Perhaps I’ve always known these characters. They could be part of that collective unconscious identified by Carl Jung. It would explain why they feel so familiar, and it excuses me for having lazily accepting the romantic version of what the characters stood for, and therefore, who they were.

On the other hand, the story has too often been served up in segments that present the point of view of a single key character, or event. In those tellings, secondary characters like Briseis were necessary, but disposable components: moments of pathos interspersed between the big dramatic scenes. When the atrocities happened, the focus was too often on the emotions and actions of the key witnesses, rather than the victims.

After all, the women of this time were passive. Values were different. To judge the events around Troy as a love story (as we understand the meaning) is to apply alien motives to the way society was structured.

In presenting this novel largely from a female perspective, Barker re-sets the story.

We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel… Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace…

The blood and confusion of battles are not ignored, or reduced. They’re vivid and bloody, but either off-stage, or witnessed from a distance.

…hearing the crash and splinter of wood breaking, I ran up on to the roof, leant over the parapet and saw Greek fighters spilling through a breach in the gates. directly below me, a knot of writhing arms and shoulders advanced an then retreated…

The main part of this story is set in the Greek camp, after Lyrnessus has been sacked. Briseis, restricted by her gender and her tenuous position as the ‘prize’ of the fight, awarded to Achilles, puts a fresh slant on the Greek heroes, even as she accepts her role.

What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even… Something in me died that night.

I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. that’s what he did to me. He tried me out.

Nineteen year old Briseis had been married, at fourteen, to a man she had never met. This is not a story of love. It is about necessity, and survival. Her gender may have placed her in a passive role, but she is an impressively active narrator.

For me, the heart of this story is about levels and layers of bravery. The women of Lyrnessus are slaves, without autonomy. Their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have been slaughtered. How do they cope? Take Tecmessa, has lived with Ajax for four years.

Ajax had killed her father and her brothers and that same night raped her, and yet she’d grow to love him – or so she said. I wasn’t sure I believed her. Admittedly, I didn’t want to believe her. I found her adjustment to life in the camp threatening – and shameful. But then, she did have a son, and her whole life revolved around the child.

In passages like this, Briseis foregrounds the parts of the Troy story that have fleetingly unsettled me, and made me think about the significance of just who gets to tell any story. No wonder I’ve found myself thinking back and back to it in the four weeks since I read it.

Fragment of a tapestry probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier of Tournai

Date: ca. 1470–90 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Forgotten novel – Headless Angel by Vicki Baum

A British news story, this week, reminded me of a novel that at one time was high up on my list of favourites for re-reading.  Somehow, over the last few years my copy has moved up my bookshelves and out of my eye-line, but evidently not out of my consciousness.

baum, vickiHeadless Angel is a romantic adventure that begins in Weimar and moves to Mexico.  It could have been a sentimental mess, like so many of the other cheaply bound novels I borrowed off my grandfather’s shelf as a teenager.  Instead it has a feisty heroine whose narration begins:

Now that September is blue and hazy upon the land, I like to walk up to my grave in the early afternoon and remain there until in the slanting sun the shadow of my tombstone grows long and lean and begins licking the hem of my skirt.

I can still remember the fascination of that first line.  What was this going to be, this plain boarded novel?

If ever I want to discuss what a narrative hook is, here’s a great example.  The pacing of this novel is exemplary.  Vicki Baum was a writer who knew how to intersperse action with description with back-story.

The Prologue is an exercise in lures.  Here’s the voice of an old woman, ‘in the good company of my memories’ who is supposed dead.

But what a life it must have been.  Who is this Albert, who has made a tomb for her and writes songs and poems about her?  Does he know who she is?  Why and how did she cross the Cordillera and live in ‘the wild mountain fastnesses of New Spain’?

Secrets are implied in the contrast between Albert’s reverence for classical art, and Clarinda’s pleasure in earthly satisfactions of simple food and views.  Promises are implied in the juxtapositions of Clarinda’s observations:

In a small way my grave has become one of the sight-seeing places near Weimar, and quite often travelers round out with a visit to Helgenhausen their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where Goethe and Schiller lived.

And how clever is the connection she makes?  It tells me that these are not false promises, she has mixed with interesting people.  Look how comfortable she is with Goethe, telling us that he slept in one of the bedrooms ‘a few times’, carved his initials on a tree, and drank water from the spring, using a tin cup.

Should we trust the word of a woman who is believed to be dead?

…the tin cup from which Goethe is said to have drunk the spring water…is an open fraud, for Goethe was here for the last time in 1818, much too careful and ailing an old gentleman to drink of the questionable liquid; and no doubt Babette has furtively replaced the old tin cup with a new one at regular intervals in the twenty-two years since.

Ah, so she’s willing to reveal the secrets, the truth behind the illusions.  That alone would make for an interesting read.  But the icing on the writing for me is summed up in the description she gives of the angel that Albert had carved and placed beside her grave:

It is a rather attractive angel, gracefully lifting a torch skyward in one hand while pouring with the other a flood of stiffly arrested marble tears from a marble urn down upon the little mound; unfortunately, my pretty angel has lost its head.  Poor Albert assures me that the resemblance of its face to mine was truly remarkable.  However, during the stormy days of 1806, after the Battle of Jena, when Wiemar was ransacked by Napoleon’s soldiers, a platoon of them bivouacked in our yard, used the angel’s face as a target in a friendly contest of marksmanship, and blew it to pieces.

That’s my kind of humour.  I’m already thinking up an excuse to cover settling back down with my old friend Clarinda…

Baum, viki