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[Mary Renault: A Biography] (By: David Sweetman) [published: July, 1994]

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | [Mary Renault: A Biography] (By: David Sweetman) [published: July, 1994].pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    David Sweetman(Author)

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  • PDF | Unknown pages
  • David Sweetman(Author)
  • Harcourt Brace International (July 31, 1966)
  • English
  • 9
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  • By Edmund Marlowe on January 20, 2015

    Mary Renault is my favourite author thanks to her eight novels set in ancient Greece. I have read The Last of the Wine and the two about Alexander more times than any other books and their sheer beauty still brings tears to my eyes as easily as when I was a boy. Partly it is the subject matter: apparently like her, and for all its faults, I find ancient Greece more inspiring than any other society, certainly including today’s. Partly it is because no kind of creativity fascinates me as much as the authentic recreation of past societies presented on their own terms without shabby compromises to modern sensibilities. The admiration she has elicited from leading classicists is testimony to how successfully she accomplished this. Partly it is the emotional power, charm and clarity of her prose. And it is many other things besides.Sweetman writes about his subject with an appealing sympathy that does justice to his name. The other side of the coin to this is that his book has the faults of an authorised biography, which it more or less is, since much the most important sources appear to have been Renault herself and Julie Mullard, her lover for nearly half a century. It is informative rather than critical or analytical, but given that this was the first biography of her, it is information that matters much the most. This is presented amply, but without tedium. I find the first half about her life in England a more compelling story, even though my main interest is in the background to her novels written later.There are no footnotes or references to sources, which would be ruinous if the subject were controversial or dead long before writing, but does not matter here where the sources are personal or self-evident. Far more worrying are a number of inaccuracies and confusingly sloppy statements, which would surely have annoyed such a stickler for accuracy as Renault. For example, having been born in 1905, “she decided to write her first novel just before the end of the war, at the age of eight.” Renault’s life changed suddenly in 1947, when she won as a prize for one of her novels “a sum quite beyond belief” that enabled her to emigrate to South Africa with Mullard. She told Julie it was “£ 150,000, over £ 37,000 at the time.”(?) Before emigrating, however, she went on a spending binge probably more than she belatedly discovered she would have left over after paying 97½ % wartime tax. So, are you clear as to how easily she was able to finance her new life?I had vaguely intended to read this biography for years, but in the end it was one of those books I was driven to read by the opposite of a recommendation: criticisms which convinced me I would like it, encountered in a review by another distinguished historical novelist, Hilary Mantel. “It is odd and unfortunate”, she says, “that by the end of [Sweetman’s] book one admires his subject less rather than more.” Not so; her reasoning made me suspect the opposite, and thus it turned out; it was Mantel whom I admired less in the end. Elaborating on this disagreement seems a good way of conveying why I think Renault was admirable and her life usefully spent and well worth reading about.The gist of Mantel’s disapproval seems to be that Renault was politically incorrect, which conveys nothing to me about her personal quality other than to reassure me she had the independence of mind and courage to express it that are keys to my respect. The title of Mantel’s review was “Homophobic.” As neither she nor Sweetman himself say anything about him that could be so construed, I presume this refers to Renault, bizarre as it is to refer thus to one whose writings brought self-accepting relief to thousands of homosexuals in an age when it was still rare and courageous to express understanding of their feelings. Renault has apparently disappointed some homosexual activists by her dislike of their politics, which she dismissed as “sexual tribalism” and personally self-limiting, and though Mantel admits “there is something very wise and humane in her recognition that sexual identity is fluid and mutable,” she seems annoyed that Renault would not identify herself as a lesbian. It looks though that what really draws Mantel’s ire was Renault’s unfashionable expressions of admiration for men and her wish that she had been one. Mantel is deeply disappointed that her motives in writing as she did were not political: she should have written sympathetically about homosexuality because that is correct rather than because she admired it, and she should have been miserable rather than at ease depicting with sympathetic understanding such an overtly masculine society. In effect, Mantel feels cheated by Renault having chosen to write about a civilization she was in tune with, though her doing so is the key to how she was able to write as utterly convincingly as she did. Here we approach the essence of the gulf in mentality between those driven by political considerations and those driven by higher ideals.Asked by Sweetman what she would like to be remembered for, Renault replied “As someone who got it right.” That is just how I remember her.Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander’s Choice, the story of a boy inspired by Renault’s novels,

  • By Michael T Kennedy on December 21, 2008

    I have read and enjoyed Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece since The King Must Die: A Novel came out in 1958. It got me, like many other of her fans, into reading Greek history. I kept JB Bury's A HISTORY OF GREECE to the Death of Alexander the Great. on my bedside table for years as evening reading. Her other books as they came along, went into my library and have been reread over and over. I don't think anyone has touched her except Steven Pressfield and Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae. I have a few differences with the biographer. I started Charioteer but, perhaps because I am a flagrant heterosexual, I could not get interested. I began the novel assuming it was one of the Greek series. I do think that The Mask of Apollo: A Novel is a wonderful picture of homosexual love for heterosexuals. I can't think of another such sympathetic portrait for the general reader.The biographer also describes The Praise Singer as an unsuccessful novel, coming as her last effort. I disagree and it is my favorite after The Mask of Apollo. The picture of her life with Julie and their experiences as nurses in England in the 1930s are very well done. Only in the novels of AJ Cronin is one likely to find such a good description of pre-war English medicine and the rather grim picture of nurses' lives in that era. I agree with one reviewer who laments the severe cuts in Last of the Wine. It's too bad a restored version could not be published.I do take exception to one reviewer's criticism of her reaction to South African racial policies. She was a writer, not a political figure, and she did what she could to protest government policies. It is always easier to criticize from a distance. I also disagree with the review that said the biography was not very readable. I spent the weekend with it and did not put it down until it was finished. Her life was her own private affair but she did do as much as anyone could to reduce prejudice against homosexuals and to oppose Apartheid. Her fiction is another huge achievement. Hers was a very full life and the biography is a pleasure to read.

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