"La Repubblica", 12 maggio 2013
Quando La canzone di Achille ha vinto pochi mesi fa l’Orange Prize, erano in pochi a sapere chi fosse l’autrice Madeline Miller. Tra i finalisti al prestigioso premio c’erano scrittrici affermate come Cynthia Ozick e Ann Patchett, e la candidatura di questa trentaquattrenne nativa di Boston era considerata al più come una novità da seguire con attenzione. Inoltre il romanzo, una rielaborazione moderna del mito di Achille e Patroclo, non aveva nulla di sperimentale, in particolare sul piano del linguaggio, e fu quindi grande la sorpresa quando Joanna Trollope, a capo della giuria, lo definì «originale, appassionato, inventivo ed entusiasmante » e premiò la Miller, dicendo: «Omero sarebbe stato orgoglioso ».
La vittoria ha generato uno dei casi più dibattuti degli ultimi mesi: una parte della critica ha attaccato il libro con violenza e perfino derisione (in particolare Daniel Mendelsohn sul New York Times Book Review), mentre alcuni autori, tra cui JK Rowling e la stessa Patchett, lo hanno elogiato appassionatamente. Cresciuta a New York, e dotata di una solida preparazione classica, la Miller ha cominciato a scrivere La canzone di Achille (Sonzogno, traduzione di Matteo Curtoni e Maura Parolini) subito dopo la laurea a Brown. La scrittura l’ha impegnata per ben dieci anni, nei quali ha rielaborato, ancora prima dell’Iliade, I Mirmidoni, la tragedia di Eschilo, di cui purtroppo non abbiamo traccia, in cui si parlava esplicitamente dell’amore omosessuale tra Achille e Patroclo. La Miller rimase sconvolta quando ascoltò da bambina il racconto dello strazio di Achille per la morte di Patroclo, e del suo rifiuto di seppellirlo per potere rimanere vicino al corpo. E rimase ugualmente colpita dal fatto che Patroclo fosse un personaggio fondamentale per l’evoluzione narrativa dell’Iliade, ma assolutamente marginale per lo spazio che gli veniva dedicato: sentiva la potenzialità di una storia d’amore inespressa, probabilmente censurata nei secoli successivi. Lo spunto è certamente appassionante, tuttavia il libro finisce per essere riuscito più negli elementi di contorno che in quello che sta maggiormente a cuore all’autrice.
La Miller attribuisce un ruolo fondamentale a Teti, madre di Achille, che ne conosce la tragica sorte e tenta con ogni mezzo di opporsi al fato e alla passione dei due giovani: è lei il personaggio più compiuto del romanzo, per l’inesorabilità delle sue azioni, che continuano ad avere, anche in questa rielaborazione moderna, una tragica grandiosità. Lo stesso si può affermare per altri due personaggi femminili: la splendida Briseide, offerta da Agamennone ad Achille, e Ifigenia, sacrificata per garantire la benevolenza degli dei e la vittoria militare. Per il resto, l’indubbia preparazione dell’autrice, unita a una scrittura volutamente semplice, rende il romanzo godibile, ma La canzone di Achille risente gravemente del passaggio dalla dimensione epica a cui è ispirato, e dalla quale nascono i personaggi, a una puramente romantica. Il modello letterario è Mary Renault, ma a differenza di quanto avveniva nei libri dell’autrice inglese, il testo privilegia i sentimenti all’evoluzione psicologica e drammaturgica dei protagonisti, rischiando costantemente la scorciatoia degli effetti.
La rielaborazione di miti classici, e l’idea di trasformare personaggi minori in protagonisti è antica quanto la letteratura, tuttavia nei grandi esempi del passato si è sempre rispettato il genere letterario originale: si pensi, per rimanere in tema, alle Troiane, con cui Euripide raccontava la tragedia delle mogli dei guerrieri della città sconfitta, lasciando intatta la struttura epica. O, solo pochi anni fa, a The Penelopiad di Margaret Atwood, in cui la moglie di Ulisse rimaneva – all’interno di una rielaborazione per alcuni versi rivoluzionaria – sempre la donna saggia, astuta e regale in grado di tenere a bada i Proci e affrontare le sfide più difficili della vita. Questo cambiamento di genere rende La canzone di Achille sentimentale, più che romantico, e genera un paradosso: in un libro che vuole celebrare l’amore, le pagine più riuscite finiscono per essere quelle dedicate all’amicizia. È un peccato, perché la descrizione della differenza di sguardo tra Achille, educato dal centauro Chironte per diventare il più grande tra i guerrieri achei, e Patroclo, dominato dal complesso di non essere all’altezza del proprio destino, ha momenti di narrazione efficace, nei quali l’autrice dimostra di aver compreso l’intimità di due personaggi immortali. Ma poi, nel momento in cui sviluppa la storia d’amore, la Miller comincia a costruire un crescendo di momenti struggenti, che non hanno mai la grandiosità marmorea e l’asciutta eternità dei classici.
LA CANZONE DI ACHILLE di Madeline Miller, Sonzogno trad. di M. Curtoni e M. Parolini Pagg. 384
Mythic Passions: ‘The Song of Achilles,’ by Madeline Miller
"The New York Times"
"The New York Times", April 29, 2012
To the long catalog of odd hybrids that inhabit Greek myth — the half-human, half-equine centaurs, the birdlike Harpies with their human faces, the man-eating Scylla with her doglike nether parts — we may now add Madeline Miller’s first novel, “The Song of Achilles.” In it, Miller has taken on an (appropriately) heroic task: to fashion a modern work of literature out of very ancient stories — specifically, the tale of the Greeks at Troy, one of the oldest and most seminal of all legends in the Western tradition. The idea of recasting the Greek classics began with the ancients themselves; Virgil’s “Aeneid” is, in many ways, both a rewriting of and a commentary on the Homeric epics. More recently, it has challenged ambitious writers like Mary Renault, whose 1958 novel “The King Must Die” brilliantly reimagined the Theseus legend as narrated by the hero himself, and David Malouf, whose terrific 2009 novel “Ransom” invents a moving episode toward the end of the “Iliad.” But in the case of Miller, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in classics at Brown, the epic reach exceeds her technical grasp. The result is a book that has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland.
“The Song of Achilles” does not, in fact, belong to Achilles at all. The not uninteresting conceit of Miller’s book is that it’s narrated by a character who is both central to the action of the “Iliad” and curiously shadowy: Patroclus, Achilles’ highborn companion. At the beginning of Homer’s exploration of “the wrath of Achilles,” the half-divine hero angrily withdraws from the Greek coalition that’s invading Troy after he is grossly insulted by the overbearing commander in chief, Agamemnon. (Agamemnon appropriates one of Achilles’ slave girls, Briseis, after being forced to return a slave girl of his own.) The affront to Achilles is more serious than it might appear to a modern audience: as Miller’s Patroclus observes, in one of the numerous asides that sound irritatingly as if they were lifted from SparkNotes, “wealth and reputation were the things our people had always killed for.” His reputation compromised, the greatest of the Greek warriors sulks in his tent while the Greeks start to lose badly — the demonstration, as he had intended, of his own great worth. It is only after the tenderhearted Patroclus is killed, two-thirds of the way through the poem, that a grief-ravaged Achilles furiously re-enters the fray, finally bringing the war closer to its end.
But who, exactly, was Patroclus, and just what was the nature of his relationship with Achilles? These are the questions that apparently inspired Miller, and the answers, as she well knows, don’t lie in the “Iliad” itself. Apart from having Achilles refer to Patroclus as the “best-beloved of his companions” and adding a few more biographical details — that Patroclus was the elder, that he grew up, an exile, in the court of Achilles’ father after accidentally killing another boy — the epic doesn’t provide a lot of information. For later Greeks, however, it was clear that the two were lovers. A lost play by Aeschylus, the “Myrmidons,” assumes as much, as does Plato’s dialogue “Symposium” (in which characters argued over, basically, who was on top); when Alexander the Great and his lover, Hephaistion, visited Troy en route to conquering Persia, they are said to have sacrificed at the double tomb of Achilles and Patroclus.
So there is a solid classical pedigree for treating the relationship between these legendary heroes as a “love story,” which is how Miller has referred to it. It is, however, a choice that cripples her book.
The problem is one of both structure and tone. The “Iliad” has focus and weight because it zeroes in on what is, despite its length, a very narrow subject (albeit with vast, rippling ramifications): Achilles’ wrath, what it stems from and what it means. (What are honor and glory? Why do we fight and live?) Because it is cast as Patroclus’ autobiography and concentrates on the love affair, “The Song of Achilles” necessarily has to start much earlier and then catch up with Homer. The result is an odd disproportion. There’s a lot of time and energy devoted to adolescent Sturm und Drang (Patroclus’ early years are a bit Judy Blume-ish), but as the action progresses into the territory of established myth — the abduction of Helen, the formation of the Greek armada, the landing at Troy, 10 years of warfare — you often feel as if this or that famous episode is being rapidly ticked off a list. (The sacrifice of Iphigenia is dispatched in two paragraphs: “We were horrified and angry,” Patroclus blandly reports.) And the fact that Patroclus dies before the end of the story forces Miller into an odd narrative corner indeed.
On the other hand, there are some very good things here — nice imaginative flights, small details that pop out and make you take notice. (Among these is the ingenious notion of giving to Achilles’ goddess mother, the sea nymph Thetis — here recast as the nightmare mother-in-law of all time — an appropriate if unanticipated voice: “I had expected chimes,” Patroclus notes, “not the grinding of rocks in the surf.”) In particular, I very much liked the way Miller gives Briseis a personality: here, she is a “kind of aunt,” a quiet but shrewdly intelligent woman who, as the years drag on, makes herself indispensable as the matron of Achilles’ household. It’s a novel touch that gives real emotional weight to the hero’s outrage when Agamemnon snatches her away.
Other touches that nicely underpin the well-known elements of the plot include a moment in the men’s youth when Achilles, a kind of high school prom king to whom things have always come easy, wonderingly listens to the story of how Patroclus killed that other boy. Miller transforms the confrontation, perhaps a trifle modishly, into a case of Bronze Age bullying, during which the much put-upon Patroclus finally stands up to a boy who snatches a toy from him. Achilles hears the story and remarks (and we of course get the irony): “No one has ever tried to take something from me. . . . I think I would be angry.”
The real Achilles’ heel of this book is tone — one made disastrously worse by the author’s decision to metamorphose an ancient story of heroes into a modern tale of hormones. A great problem facing writers who want to update or adapt myth and classical history is diction: how should these people sound? Marguerite Yourcenar, in her marvelous “Memoirs of Hadrian,” achieved a sublime elegance that reflects, you can’t help thinking, that extraordinary emperor’s thoughts; Mary Renault gave her Theseus a voice that is at once boyish and stiff with an archaic richness. (“Helios plumed with rose-red and burning gold.”) Miller unhappily wobbles between “lyrical” overwriting (“his voice wheedled and ducked, like a weasel escaping the nest”) and a misguided attempt to give a contemporary smoothness to Homer’s antique tale. At the end of the novel, as in the “Iliad,” old Priam secretly comes to the Greek camp to ransom the body of his son Hector, whom the enraged Achilles has slain. “I am sorry for your loss,” Miller has him say. You wonder just which funeral home this took place in.
The problem reaches crisis proportions in the handling of the “love affair,” which begins with an embarrassing breathlessness (“My chest trilled with something I could not quite name”) and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation: “He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine. He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals. . . . Our bodies cupped each other like hands.”
Why is this so awful? Partly it’s the swoony soft-porn prose, but in the end it’s something much more significant, something that gets to the heart of why Miller’s book doesn’t swell or ripen into a meaningful engagement with the ancient literary tradition, as any serious attempt to appropriate the classics must. In one of the rapturous blurbs accompanying this novel, Emma Donoghue declares that, in it, “Mary Renault lives again!” In fact, Renault would have found this book distasteful in the extreme. “If characters have come to life,” she wrote in the 1984 postface to an early novel of lesbian love, “one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter. Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or by the diner without a palate.”
It’s an extreme and, to be sure, arguable position — many works of literature are filled with explicit descriptions of lovemaking — but the worry behind it is surely valid. “Classics is serious business,” the professor from whom I learned Greek once told me. Even more than the “Dawson’s Creek” psychologizing, the heavy breathing and soft-focus skin shots in “The Song of Achilles” make it hard, in the end, to take these characters seriously. Renault’s reference to cheap condiments is, come to think of it, apropos here. The “Iliad” begins with a preoccupation that wrenchingly underscores the difference between bodies and souls — one that points, finally, to its great theme of who we are and why we act, and what of us remains after we die. The wrath of Achilles, it declares, “hurled headlong down to Hades the sturdy souls of many heroes, but makes their bodies into feasts for birds and dogs.” Too often by far, “The Song of Achilles” makes that feast into fast food.
Daniel Mendelsohn, an author, critic and translator, teaches at Bard College. His new collection of essays, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” is forthcoming.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:Correction: May 13, 2012
A biographical note on April 29 for a reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, gave outdated information about the publication schedule for his forthcoming collection of essays, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” It is now due in October, not August. (The publisher rescheduled the date after the section went to press.)
A version of this review appeared in print on April 29, 2012, on page BR18 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Mythic Passions.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES, By Madeline Miller, 378 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers