Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. Travelling through fifth century BC Greece, Simonides learn not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the political intrigue surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the flourish and fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer’s unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable grasp of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.

Review by Jean Cox ( apologies that there’s no podcast yet, the pronounciation is hard!)

If you come to this book thinking it’s another “Persian Boy”, then you’ll be disappointed. This is primarily Simonides’s story, he’s heterosexual and his sexual encounters are given their due. There are homosexual elements, though—integral because of the nature of Greek society at the time and also key to the plot. The cover blurb of my copy states, “Hipparchos’s folly precipitates his murder by Harmodios and Aristogeiton…” and that simple phrase hides a wealth of intrigue and unrequited sexual longings.

You won’t be disappointed by Miss Renault’s writing, however; it constantly amazes me how she can say so much by saying so little—I reread “The Charioteer” every few months and always find fresh nuances.

So too here:

Dark-haired Aristogeiton stroked the horse’s neck; they smiled; spoke a few words, as it seemed about the race; Harmodios gave the groom his orders and handed over the bridle.

I can see that scene clearly as if it were being played out on screen, despite what appears to be a paucity of description. Many writers would have taken a page to depict the same occurrence, and not as elegantly. Less is more, sometimes. Simonides himself might have concurred; one of the running threads of the book is the nature of composition and the most economical use of words in describing something, the learning of old works to recite and the composing of new ones.

There’s also what feels like a “soap opera” thread running through—passion, arguments, tittle-tattle, everyday things mingled among the feasts and festivals. Simonides and his protégé aren’t averse to gossiping like old women, although they’re too wise to do it in public

“But you don’t tell me the (Hipparchos) pays his court on the wrestling-ground?”

“Well, almost. He stands staring.”

If you want explicit sexual scenes, this is not the book for you. Nor is it right if you’re looking for flowery praise or overblown explanations about life “back then”. It does work if you want an intelligent and elegant story in an entirely believable world, the political intrigue, domestic dramas and petty jealousies as fresh and relevant now as they would have been in ancient Greece. This ceases to feel like ‘history’; it’s just life, in all it’s abundance. If you know people who don’t “do” historicals, they could start reading at a much worse place than with Renault.

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7 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I first discovered Mary Renault as a teenager in 1976 and I have yet to find a more elegant writer of ancient historical fiction. I enjoyed The Praise Singer but like you, I too have a favourite Renault novel I re-read every year or so and that’s The Last of the Wine. A wonderful writer.

    Debbie

    • ” have yet to find a more elegant writer of ancient historical fiction”

      Yes, that’s exactly it.

      The Last of the Wine isn’t my favourite of her stories (too heartbreaking, I think) but I’ll be reviewing that here at some point this year.

      Jean

  2. I’ve recently reread all my Renaults and the more I learn about ancient times the more impressed I am with her light touch with the ‘info dump’. With characters like hers she doesn’t have to impress the reader with her research.

    You’re spot on with what you say about ‘less is more’. She leaves so much to the reader’ imagination that one feels very much involved with the story.

    • “the more I learn about ancient times the more impressed I am with her light touch with the ‘info dump’.”

      Me too! Sometimes I learn about a particular historical person (or event, or practice, etc.) and it feels like I recognize them, through already having ‘met’ them in a Renault book. *g*

    • “She leaves so much to the reader’ imagination that one feels very much involved with the story.”

      Seems like everyone’;s putting it a lot more eloquently than I did. :)

      And yes, she deftly avoids showing all her knowledge.

  3. Thanks for this review…I was rereading The Praise Singer recently, so I’ve had it on the brain. I may not reread it as much as some of her others, but it’s still an excellent book.

    I find it interesting how she keeps the concept of sexuality complex, a nuanced mixture of nature and culture. Sim is, as you say, heterosexual–but he seems to assume this partly comes from the facts that he was an ugly boy (and therefore he’s no man’s beloved) and that later, as a man, he does not find youths beautiful, since he came from Keos where his model of masculine beauty was fast-maturing and more adult (and therefore he’s no youth’s lover). So he never chalks anything up to an inborn sexuality, not entirely. Even identifying his young nephew/protege as what we would call a straight person is partly nature (Sim wanting Bacchylides left unbothered by male attention “till he was old enough to decide such things for himself”) but also culture (being glad Bacchylides didn’t draw attention from courtiers because he wouldn’t take it seriously enough, which would cause problems with important people).

    But then you also have characters like Anakreon (I love her portrait of Anakreon!), who, though he wrote the lyric about the “little Thracian filly,” does seem inherently gay, but somehow in a different way than the aristocratic characters like Hipparchos, Thessalos, Aristogeiton, and Harmodios. I keep coming back to the word nuanced…she doesn’t make the big mistake of applying modern categories to ancient times, and she also doesn’t “straight-wash” anyone, but instead shows a lot of different modes and layers of desire.

    • Absolutely. And it’s a skill (art?) she uses in both The Persian Boy and The Charioteer, in two quite different contexts.

      Too east just to apply gay/straight labels or assume that every gay person’s experience, feelings, sexual preferences, etc are the same. There are as many types as there are individuals…

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