'Golden Mean': Everyday Liveliness In Ancient Greece

Alan Cheuse reviews the prize-winning book "The Golden Mean" by Annabel Lyon. The historical novel tells a story of the Greek philosopher Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great. Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Virginia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Canadian writer Annabel Lyon's latest work is a historical novel about the life of a teacher and pupil. The teacher is the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The pupil is young Alexander the Great. And the book is called "The Golden Mean." Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Here's a story that gives us the classical world with everyday liveliness and narrative force, without ever sacrificing intellectual integrity and historical accuracy.

Annabel Lyon makes this work with a graceful fusion of effective narrative and colloquial language in which kings and philosophers sometimes speak, as kings and philosophers sometimes do, like soldiers and stevedores.

Aristotle, a childhood friend of King Philip of Macedonia, accepts the task of tutoring his son Alexander through late childhood up until the young prince takes over the kingdom at his father's death and marches his army east toward India.

Aristotle, afflicted, as we discover, by an antique version of manic depression, tells in a somewhat muted voice the story of his own childhood and the discovery of his vocation as a philosopher, scientist, literary critic, and of his marriages and daily life as a husband and teacher and writer.

As he says after witnessing from backstage a royal production of Euripides' play, "The Bacchae": I've been giddy all day. I love this vantage point, the play from behind, and seeing all that's gone into it. I love to be on the inside, the backside, the underside of anything and the usually unseen.

That's how the novelist shows us ordinary Greek life and life at court and the personalities of kings and princes and servants, slaves and street urchins. She gives Plato a cameo role. There's talk of philosophy, some conversations between teacher and pupil about "The Iliad" and a sporadic commentary on Aristotle's hope of putting together some notes about tragedy.

This Aristotle, being a plain-spoken guy who loves the ocean and deep pondering of life and good love-making with his wife, doesn't go on very much about the Greek gods. Divinity for me, he says at one point, is that very plume of birds, the patterns of stars, the recurrence of seasons.

To this fine list, I would add: And splendidly intelligent and entertaining novels about the ancient world.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Golden Mean" by Annabel Lyon. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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