For the larger part of the Orange-Prize-winning Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I wondered whether I was reading the same book as everyone else. I’d seen nothing but glowing reviews about how wonderful it was, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading an – admittedly very well written – YA novel. If I’d had a teenage daughter, I’d have been pressing it into her hands. And I admit I was a bit concerned that a prize for women’s fiction had been given to a retelling of the Iliad that took a war-mongering masculine classic and domesticated it into a rather soppy love story. But happily my experience was redeemed by the last 50 pages, when the emotional train wreck Miller has been working up to coincides with the magnificent awfulness of the Iliad. Those last 50 pages were about as powerful as anything I’d ever read, though they are a bit of a sobfest. But still. In a story where honor is so very important, I was relieved that honor was restored to this version by the end.
So The Song of Achilles is actually about Patroclus, an exiled prince who becomes Achilles’ lover and steadfast companion. Patroclus is an awkward sort, a geeky, gangly boy who’s not much good at games and lingers on the edge of life, alienated. When he kills a boy by sheer accident, he is cast off by his parents and sent to the small island of Phthia, whose king, Peleus, is known for taking in orphans and training them up for his army. His son is the half-god Achilles, a fearless, golden youth to whom everything comes easy, and who knows he is destined to be Aristos Achaion, the greatest fighter among the Greeks. By a small miracle (for Patroclus) the two become friends, though Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, is against it from the start. She is an over-possessive, overbearing mother with the divine power to back it up. But luck favours the pair, who are sent to Chiron’s crystal cave in the mountains for training, a place protected by the centaur’s divinity from Thetis’s intruding gaze. Here, they grow into young men and become lovers. When Helen is stolen by Paris and taken to Troy, Thetis intervenes, hiding Achilles away in the hope she can prevent him from fighting in the war and fulfilling the prophecy (which comes with a galling sub-clause, as prophesies tend to do). But Patroclus finds him, and before long the Greek kings do, as well. The Iliad will not be denied, after all.
Well, so far it’s been like a really good episode of Hollyoaks or Dawson’s Creek. The reader is invited to cast the young Brad Pitt in her mind’s eye as Achilles, with someone slightly scary like Cher for Thetis. Hmm, a gorgeous young man who looks marvellous in a tunic, with a domineering mother to whom he is too bound…. Is it just me, or does that invite a certain stereotype of homosexuality? And poor old Patroclus is the misfit loner of this particularly glamourous high school. The real mystery – of why Achilles should fall in love with him at all – is left entirely enigmatic. I desperately wanted there to be a reason, some quality that Patroclus could call his own, but he’s stuck with the girl’s part of embodying nurture and devotion. I can’t figure out if that’s a win for political correctness or not.
However, once the war gets going, the tone becomes darker and more serious and some necessary growing-up is done, by Patroclus if not by Achilles. I won’t give any more details away, but the ending is absolutely heart wrenching. I’d been worried for so long with this novel that it would be about nothing but a love affair. And that seemed thin and insubstantial when compared to the heavyweight Iliad, which is about why we live and why we die, and honor and pride and sacrifice and tragedy, and so much else. But by the end, love had taken its proper place, as the best and the worst reason for acts of heroism. And that did seem like a worthy union of a feminine perspective and a deeply masculine tale.
This came in as a search engine query a week or so ago, and it made me laugh. And then I liked it as an idea and began to wonder what the properties of a ‘cool’ book would be. There are all sorts of definitions of ‘cool’ beyond ‘neat-o’ and ‘awesome’, wikipedia even offers a potted history of its incarnations across the globe, but for this list, I stuck with books I thought were timelessly sophisticated, innovative and authentic. And I tried to think which books would engender most respect in me, if I saw someone reading them in a café. This is only a bit of fun, though, not intended to be in anyway definitive, and indeed I could have come up with about ten lists, there are so many cool books. Frankly, I think it’s cool to see anyone reading in a public place, particularly if it’s a real book with a cover that will satisfy my curiosity!
Kerouac and the Beat generation of writers epitomised cool in their era and produced work of sufficient quality to last the test of time. Kerouac’s genuine passion for creativity and innovation is what does it for me. I own a group biography that’s entitled The Typewriter Was Holy, which about sums it up. The group’s cult of drug use and the latent sexism was not cool, however, let us be clear on that point.
The Roads to Freedom trilogy by Sartre, or anything by Beauvoir (or Camus)
The Existentialists were the great proponents of cool in 20th century Europe. No movement had as much influence or produced as many great works. I’m easy about throwing Camus in the heap with them, although not everyone is. Of course, it’s really cool if you know that Camus isn’t always considered an Existentialist. It’s even cooler if you know that The Roads to Freedom was intended to be a tetrology but Sartre never got around to writing the last book. But if you’re lugging Being and Nothingness about your person, you’re either trying too hard or an extremely assiduous philosophy student.
Complex, demanding and absolutely enormous, this book has to represent a certain intense commitment to the purest spirit of the literary. I confess I began this one and didn’t finish it because I knew I was not in the right place to devote the sort of concentration and focus to it that it needs. One day I’ll get around to it. Though I doubt I’ll be caught reading it in public, as carrying that brick in a shoulder bag is a good way to acquire an osteopath. I’d probably add David Foster Wallace and his Infinite Jest in this same category.
Just about any ancient classic
These are read by so few people these days that to know about them and to enjoy them has to represent a real cherry-picker’s mentality to literature and a certain independence of spirit. Personally, I’d be more likely to strike up a conversation with someone reading one of the funner options, like Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or The Odyssey. For Plato’s Republic, see my thoughts on Being and Nothingness. And that will probably unleash a stream of comments telling me what an amazing hoot The Republic is.
Anything by Kafka
Why is Kafka cool? I have no idea, but he just is.
I think it’s extremely cool to see anyone reading poetry. If pressed, I’d probably think it even cooler if the volume in question came from someone who’s really good but not particularly well known, like George Seferis or Anna Akhmatova. But hey, really, any poetry.
The NYRB editors really have their collective finger on the pulse of cool. The authors are just obscure enough, but the work often unjustly overlooked. Plus the design of those books is wonderful: understated, elegant, instantly recognisable.
The work of Zora Neale Hurston
I’d happily include Alice Walker and Nella Larssen along with Zora Neale, all of them women who overcame many cultural obstacles to produce wonderful writing that inspired others. To read them is to buy into that spirit at some level, I think.
It’s what the teenagers consider cool reading these days. As regular visitors to this site will know, my son is not a reader. But he devours these and then passes them around his group of friends who are all equally keen. Zombies always have a certain counterculture cool about them, don’t you think? It seems, though, that Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation has overtaken Plath’s The Bell Jar as the adolescent depressive’s book of choice.
Anything by Virginia Woolf
And finally, that darling of the Modernists and Queen of Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf. Sophisticated, innovative, authentic, yes all these boxes can easily be ticked when it comes to Woolfie. And it’s a delight to think of this polite and terribly well-bred woman gender-bending and messing with the serious genre of biography and writing about politics and joyfully subverting conventional narrative. Very cool indeed.
I was so sad to reach the end of The Eustace Diamonds on audio book that I rushed to spend my next audible credit on a 20-hour BBC dramatisation of the full Barchester Chronicles. And then because of a sale that was on, I splashed out on Can You Forgive Her, the first of Trollope’s Pallister series. That gave me nearly 50 hours of listening pleasure ahead, thanks to the combination of Trollope and Timothy West who read the book with such excellent timing that I felt I got a great deal more out of it than if I’d tried to read it myself. And then, buoyed on that wave of grateful desire that only books can provoke, I bought du Maurier’s Rebecca in the audible sale and Francis Durbridge’s spy thriller, Tim Frazer Gets The Message. I love audio books, but I am picky about what I’ll listen to: classics and classic crime are what work for me.
Nineteenth century classics in particular are so much better for me this way. I admit I am an impatient reader; I like to know what happens next. Your average 20th century novel, which hovers around 250-300 pages is just about right for this Goldilocks. As soon as I get into chunkster territory, it takes a special book indeed to keep me reading. I admit I stumbled over the start of The Eustace Diamonds, in which Trollope takes about 40 pages to introduce the three main characters – characters with whom we will then spend another 600 revealing, incident-packed pages. This is an indication of how much publishing has changed. No editor today would permit an author forty pages establishing characters and I see the sense in that. I nearly gave up on the audio book. But as soon as the story kicked in, I was completely hooked.
Lizzie Eustace has lost her first husband after a brief marriage. This suited her very well; she knew he was dying when she married him, and she now has the title, the connections, the Scottish estate and the diamonds that she wanted. However, the Eustace family lawyer, the tenacious Mr Camperdown, is determined to get those jewels back off her. They are an heirloom, he claims, belonging to the family and not to Lizzie; no husband would give his wife a present of a £10,000 diamond necklace so lightly and she must return them. Lizzie is determined to do no such thing, and the lengths to which she will go to keep them, the trials and the tribulations that hanging onto the diamonds cause her, will form the spine of the plot. For Lizzie is a feisty heroine and a bad lot: she knows she is lying about her husband’s intentions, but she wants those diamonds. Like most manipulative people, she believes she is fundamentally a victim, and this provides her with sufficient justification to lie, cheat and scheme. Lizzie also needs a new husband and she fences with three distinct possibilities; an uptight aristocrat who is too wimpish to deal comfortably with her, her attractive cousin who is inconveniently engaged to a friend, and a society rogue who is her equal in double-dealing. The plot turns over like a Rolls Royce engine, and the lengthy digressions and explanations that seem so intrinsic to the 19th century narrative fly by when narrated by a clever actor.
One particularly length digression amused me – a whole chapter entitled ‘Too Bad For Sympathy’ in which Trollope bemoans his readers’ desire for only good people to appear in books as it is not at all true to life:
Our own friends around us are not always merry and wise, nor, alas! always honest and true. They are often cross and foolish, and sometimes treacherous and false. They are so, and we are angry. Then we forgive them, not without a consciousness of imperfection on our own part. And we know – or, at least, believe – that though they be sometimes treacherous and false, there is a balance of good. We cannot have heroes to dine with us. There are none.’
And he goes on about this at length – even more than I do! But it was entertaining to realise that nothing much has changed about some readers in 150 years, even if editors have altered beyond recognition. Ah but how I enjoyed this book! Listening to it was the key – if I’d been reading it, I would have had far less pleasure.