Circe By Madeline Miller – An Alternative View Of Heroes

Circe by Madeline Miller is a modern reworking of The Odyssey, by Homer. This Ancient Greek classic tells the story of Greek warrior Odysseus, who after fighting in the Trojan wars, makes a long and eventful journey home. Circe is one of the characters he meets on the way, a witch living on a deserted island, who uses her magic to turn his men into pigs.

Madeline Miller tells this story from Circe’s perspective. We learn about her childhood as the daughter of Helios the sun god, her aptitude for “phamakos” – the use of plants to make healing and transforming potions – and her banishment to a remote island, for apparently misusing magical powers. In exile, Circe makes a life for herself, developing magical skills, and defending herself from passing sailors who occasionally come ashore looking for food and drink. This is how she eventually meets Odysseus.

There’s much you could say about the unusual woman’s point of view. Circe is traditionally portrayed in the various myths about her, as a predatory woman. She turns trusting men into pigs and seduces travellers. But hang on a moment. What is the likely scenario when a boat load of soldiers, brutalised after a long war, arrive at an island where the only inhabitant is an attractive and lone woman? What might actually happen in this situation? Let’s think. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that from a woman’s point of view, a boat load of heroes looks more like a boat load of vile animals. Now we see that turning those men into pigs is a sensible measure of self preservation, with a metaphorical helping of just desserts.

So the viewpoint is very interesting, and says a lot about the historical portrayal and situation of women.

But I wouldn’t say this book was just about a woman’s perspective on personal power. It’s also about the way people in general try to influence their world and protect themselves. Circe, as daughter of a god, is immortal, which means that all the scars of her trials and tribulations fade away as if they never existed. She realises that in such a situation, it is very difficult to grow, to amount to anything. We also see Circe’s efforts at securing protection rebound on herself. Early in the book, she falls in love with a fisherman, and wanting to protect him from the dangers of his life, transforms him into a god, only to lose him in the arrogant deity she creates. Later, in an effort to protect her son, she gives him a spear tipped with the venomous tail of an ancient sea creature. Inevitably such a dangerous weapon causes an unintended friendly fire incident. These contradictions fill the book, and demonstrate that power itself makes certain things impossible, and security creates its own dangers. By the same token, vulnerable mortals have power and protection that even gods lack.

I recommend Circe. It gives a humane, feminine view of stories which have traditionally been told from a “heroic” male viewpoint. Its nuanced view of power offers a refreshing view of the strength of women. But whether the reader is a man or a women, they can enjoy a fascinating exploration of power and security in general. Circe is like Stonehenge – it has the spirit of something that looks like an ancient fort with mighty walls, but has plenty of space between the stones to allow in the light.

V2 By Robert Harris – Novelists And Rocket Scientists

This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.

So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.

A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.

This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.

Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.

Pale Fire – An Internet Rabbit Hole From 1962

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life.

I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G.

Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea.

If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.