Milk and honey, wine and barley are all very well. They are right and proper. They are due. But they are not what the dead want. Now that the blood is soaking into the earth tank, making a rich mud of the floor, the flavour trickles down into Hades.
Last week, Vicky mentioned that she has a slight, instinctive aversion to short books. In many ways I share it. I like the idea of short books - and I read quite a lot of short stories - but very often I'll find myself passing over the novellas on my shelves in favour of something (apparently) meatier. Novels, for me, should be something that I can dig into, get involved in, spend time with. There's always a lingering suspicion, with me, that a slender novel will also prove to be a slender reading experience: interesting, pretty, but not perhaps all that memorable. I've been proven wrong on several occasions, some documented in the lifetime of this blog (although, tellingly, after several minutes' reflection I can only think of those two); but it doesn't stop me seeing short books as, fundamentally, nothing but a quick read.
So Achilles (2001), by Elizabeth Cook, is not really the sort of book I tend to pick up. I can't actually remember, anymore, how it came to my attention, except that I added it to my Amazon wishlist without noticing how short it was, and when fellow Alexandrian Jo bought it for me for Christmas one year, I was surprised by its appearance. Not only was it hovering around the 100 pages mark, it was also more poetry than prose; clearly, the gods of synchronicity had slipped and sent me Esther's book by accident...
Despite these stubborn obstacles, and despite my suspicion that as a reader I'm simply not equipped to get as much from this sort of book as others (e.g. Esther) are, I did find Achilles an intriguing read.
The book is split into three, uneven parts: the first, and largest, centres on Achilles' experiences at Troy (primarily the period covered by the Iliad); the second explores the aftermath of Achilles' death, notably through the eyes of his mother Thetis, and Helen; the third - which, I confess, lost me a bit - breaks out of the Trojan War setting to examine the impact of the story as poetry, as it is read two and half thousand years later by John Keats.
Cook is intensely interested in physicality, both in life and in death. Bodies - what they feel, what they represent, and of course how they are treated after death - are referenced repeatedly. Achilles thinks of the different areas of his life and his identity in terms of "the bodies [he] knows"; the third, literally embodying memory, is his father's:
In his mind he cast a net over Peleus' body. Where the lines joined there were scars. He learned how to spin a story from link to link, from scar to scar. These, the stories of his father's body, were his first.
At every turn, bodies are presented as central to how characters experience their selfhood. In some cases they act as sort of mnemonics: in one sequence, Hector recalls episodes from his past in time with the beat of his feet hitting the ground as he runs, and imagines "his life spread out before him like a great sheet in the sun".
In other cases, the physical experience teaches, and in so doing broadens the character's sense of self. As a youth, Achilles "completes [his] education" by taking on elements of female physicality. Disguised, for his protection, as a girl named Pyrrha, Achilles gradually also develops a feminine identity. He "becomes adept as Pyrrha"; accepted as one of the girls, he explores the meaning of all this through some of the social markers of girlhood, the physical accoutrements:
He borrows Deidamia's dresses, wanting to feel how her body feels - not just to his hands but to herself - when her soft silks drift over it. He uses her sweetest oils in his skin and hair.
Emotional states, too, are expressed and explored through their physical effects. The mourning dirge for Achilles, for example, is not merely heard; rather, it "burns in the veins of all who hear it [...] stronger than unmixed wine". The most dramatic example of this comes when Cassandra is gifted with a prophetic vision of Troy's destruction:
Cassandra is sick with crying; her whole body attempts to extrude what she has seen.
They hold her down; clean up the mess of mucus, vomit and faeces that spurts and dribbles out of her, but her large, shouted words drift away unheard. Helen alone recognises the truth of Cassandra's cries. But she says nothing, her perfect composure the exact opposite of Cassandra's disarray.
Everyday sensations are frequently highlighted by overtly sensual language, with verbs filling in where we might expect adjectives; in a flashback to Achilles' conception, for example, we are told that the nymph Thetis emerges from the sea to lie "slabbed on a rock while the sun licks her dry". While 'slabbed' is expressive of her implacable opposition to men's advances ("No one has shown her one good reason why she should let some mortal enter her"), the lascivious 'lick' of the sunlight on the skin of this woman who believes herself alone, hints at what will soon undermine her autonomy: she is being watched.
Peleus - for it is he - sees Thetis' self-determination as a challenge - "so he stalks her" (the phrase is repeated three times in the space of a page, each time given a line to itself), as a hunter does his prey, until he is able to take her by surprise, and by force: "tip[ping] her back into an arch, hold[ing] her steady while he scabbards himself". She reacts by shapeshifting to get away from him, and again the emphasis is on her physicality rather than her chain of thought:
Her arched back held, she arches more
Her body now one sentient muscle:
Given the importance of bodies, and the ways in which patriarchal power is expressed in the myths upon which Cook draws, rape and sexualised violence are present in the histories of most of the female characters. Amazon Queen Penthiseleia, shortly before dying in a visceral struggle with Achilles, sees her own violation mirrored in the ocean; far from absorbing blows, or being indifferent to them, the sea, too can be physically damaged:
She was watching the sea which today is breaking and breaking in little white waves, each a gash in the sea's body, a wound which heals till the skin breaks open again somewhere else.
Iphigeneia escapes by being sacrificed to the virgin goddess Artemis; her acceptance of this is signalled, again, through physical sensation rather than dialogue: "the way to make fate your choice is to choose it, fearlessly, your lungs drinking the air". Other women are tied the fate of their bodies, or even betrayed by them: Cassandra's helpless vomiting in the face of the truth-telling that will be ignored is one example, but the most pervasive is the figure of Helen, who becomes a target of jealousy and aggression precisely because her body is never marked by what happens to her:
But the lovely tautness of her flesh never slackens. Her skin continues to exhale light. Maybe the albumen did it. Or having Zeus for a father. The fact is that nothing that happens to her - nothing that has happened to her - shows.
And that is enough to make them hate her. Her beauty is like a smooth wall that resists all impressions.
And men do, repeatedly, batter themselves against that wall in an effort to leave their mark, just as - through their presence at Troy - they hope to leave their mark on history. It is not about her beauty, but about displaying their power. For Helen, as for Troy, the effect is disastrous: as a ten-year-old she is raped by Theseus (an upsetting scene, for all its poetic brevity), and later, of course, she becomes the object of a tug of ego war between Menelaus/the Greeks and Paris/the Trojans.
Achilles' funeral - told, strikingly, in second person - is the centrepiece of the book. The preparation for it, and the rituals of which it is composed, are extensive. Here it is the treatment of his body that is the marker of his stature and reputation in death ("Great Ajax staggered under the weight of you"), as well of the dutifulness of the characters left alive: even when they have left their bodies behind, the dead's thirst for the blood of sacrifice is strong. It is a longing that, for Achilles, "hooks into his heart", leaving him no choice but to be "dragged, helpless as a fish".
After Achilles' body has been burned, there is a lengthy, loving tally of his bones, as Thetis "gathers them all and cradles them", noting the weight of each and identifying them closely with the pyre that separated them from his flesh - leaving behind arm and leg bones "like wands of peeled wood", and ribs that resemble "a precious bundle of kindling". The whole scene is a little bit too ghoulish - and languidly beautiful - to be tender, I think, although there is something very touching about the fact that she then mingles Achilles' bones with those of Patroclus, "his beloved throughout eternity".
Not the kind of book I usually read, no; but food for thought, all the same.