When Aristotle taught Alexander
Annabel Lyon’s startling first novel, “The Golden Mean,” reimagines the relationship between the ancient world’s most famous philosopher, Aristotle, and the boy who would become one of its most celebrated soldiers, Alexander the Great, when Aristotle became Alexander’s tutor. Through Aristotle’s eyes, Lyon presents a remote world in such vivid and intimate detail that this alien terrain becomes uncannily familiar. A Canadian bestseller, “The Golden Mean” has won several major literary prizes and is being published in six languages. Lyon, author of the story and novella collections “Oxygen” and “The Best Thing for You,” spoke from her home in British Columbia.
Q. Did you hesitate to make your first novel a historical novel when some critics (and one editor I know) regard historical fiction as a somewhat bogus genre?
A. I didn’t have a choice; the subject chose me. I wrote short stories before this, and I’m more comfortable with that form. The novel, to me, was terrifying and difficult. But, strange as it sounds, I didn’t think about the period as I was writing. I wanted to create characters that felt very contemporary; I didn’t want a sense of distance. And historical fiction is no more bogus than any other genre, in my view. Within it you find novels that rely on clichés and then something like “Wolf Hall,” which is staggering at every level.
Q. And why Aristotle?
A. As an undergraduate I was interested in Aristotle and in his “Nicomachean Ethics” in particular. With the ancients you get that excitement of seeing people approach things for the very first time. And the subjects that Aristotle contemplated feel very important still. What is a good person? How do you live a good life? One of the times, for example, that I picked up “Ethics” again was after 9-11 when everything seemed so chaotic. Fiction didn’t seem weighty enough. And there was Aristotle asking: “What is extremism?” “What is it to be a good citizen?” I started writing this novel a couple of months later.
Q. In choosing Alexander, were you conscious of the shadow cast by Mary
A. I knew that if I read her novels I would never finish what I was doing. And I’m glad that I kept them on the shelf until I finished writing because she’s wonderful and I would have been completely psyched out. Her characterizations to me are just remarkable — so adult and so subtle.
Q. You mentioned “Wolf Hall.” Like Hilary Mantel, you use contemporary dialogue. Why?
A. When I began writing, I found myself slipping into a British diction — “Good Lord,” that kind of thing — and I realized this was because everything we read about the ancient world tends to arrive in a British voice. But as a Canadian woman in the 21st century this is my cultural inheritance too, and I wanted to use my voice. I also decided to represent the difference in dialect between the Athenians and the Macedonians by giving the Athenians a more British diction and the Macedonians a more North American diction. I think there’s also an echo in how the Athenians regarded the Macedonians — as young, powerful, vulgar, nouveau riche, borrowing all their culture — and how Britain has traditionally looked at the United States and Canada.
Q. You also project contemporary psychological maladies onto your characters. Is that a bit of a stretch?
A. I’m certainly open to the accusation of anachronism there. I imagine Aristotle suffering from what we call bipolar disorder and in young Alexander I see someone with the beginnings of what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. But I didn’t start the novel planning to impose these disorders. There’s strong evidence for both cases. Alexander was the most difficult character to write. It took me seven years to complete the book and the last six months was spent nailing down his character. I wanted him to be a bratty kid, not the archetypes history has made of him. But I couldn’t square the adult Alexander with the teenager I created. Then I read a New Yorker article about an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. All of the symptoms he had — alcoholism, headaches, blackouts, nightmares — Alexander had too. In Aristotle’s case, he himself writes about the link between melancholy and the creative temperament. When he says that the best form of human behavior is the mean between two extremes, that sounded to me like someone who suffers those extremes and is desperate to find that mean.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.