EDMUND MARLOWE'S ALEXANDER’S CHOICE REVIEWED BY BURNT OFFERINGS
Alexander’s Choice, a love story set at England’s most famous boarding-school, Eton College and written by old boy Edmund Marlowe, was published in December 2012.
A Foreign Country to Die For *****
13 September 2014
L.P. Hartley famously observed that 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' It's certainly a fitting observation for Edmund Marlowe's coming of age novel, 'Alexander's Choice.' Pederasty in ancient Greece was not so much DONE differently as SEEN in an unrecognisably different light. What's seen today as sub-human and in need of extirpation was then seen as honourable, inspiring and enlightening.
Pederasty in ancient Greece is not a difficult subject to research. In fact it's a far easier research assignment than investigating the practice today. The basic model of relationship pursued by men and boys in ancient Greece has been well-documented by scholars such as Kenneth Dover. Mary Renault has given life to these bare facts in her historical novels, albeit a slightly chilly life, as stark as a Greek kouros in its meticulous depictions.
Marlowe, on the other hand, achieves a remarkable synthesis between intellectual explication and warm - and at times hot - blooded romance. Ancient Greek pederasty informs and comments on the central relationship between the boy Alexander and his teacher Damian, but never in a forced or anachronistic way. The beating heart of this novel is a love story to die for.
One of the many intricately-woven delights in the novel is the thirteen year-old hero's name: Alexander. Shakespeare's Juliet may have had a change of heart if she'd been able to ponder what was in this beau's moniker. This sweet rose could have no other name. It works as talisman and conduit, constantly rippling back and forth between the ancient past and today, allowing a free and fruitful discourse between the two lands.
A particularly sweet moment: Alexander bristling with a surge of well-born pride when a state-appointed counsellor-cum-inquisitor tries to text-book bond with the lad via a chummy 'Alex'. Not in this lifetime, Ms, nor in any going back to the Great one a couple of millennia ago.
Camille Paglia, in 'Sexual Personae', says the beautiful boy is 'one of the west's great sexual personae...an adolescent, hovering between a female past and male future.' This certainly holds true for Alexander, both at the level of his physical beauty and at a deeper thematic level: the thirteen year-old boy's self-discovery and character-development can only go forward as his connection with a mythical and more nurturant past deepens. Alexander's is a process of knowing thyself worthy of our fearless, free-thinking ancestors.
The book gives frank descriptions of the way each lover appreciates the other's body: Alexander's pubescent beauty engenders poetry and mentorship while Damian's manly strength inspires confidence and growth. It shows clearly that their relationship isn't a modern gay one, nor a perversion of a straight one. It is a pederastic relationship, a relationship that has its own mode of expression and adds its own gifts to the individuals involved and to the greater culture.
Perhaps Marlowe's greatest intellectual achievement in the novel is to show in some detail how the psychosexual mechanics of a man-boy relationship work. It's not THE model, anymore the Romeo and Juliet is THE heterosexual model, but it contains the basic elements that any man-boy relationship worth the name will include. In this particular relationship both the man and boy are heterosexual, but both discover a bisexual responsiveness as their friendship deepens into love. Marlowe uses explicit sex and deft psychological commentary to give clarity to the complex dynamic, but never demeans the mystery by 'solving' it. It is love, after all.
For the majority of the novel's span, the real world doesn't overly impinge. English boarding schools are famous for their being homoerotic worlds unto themselves - at least to outside observers. But while the novel makes clear the authorities have scorched this formerly vibrant homo-terrain, Damian and Alexander's relationship flourishes - secretly - with no real interference. Until, that is, Julian, an older student with a character flaw reminiscent of the Lord of The Ring's Gollum, brings the real world crashing in upon the story's idyllic foreign land.
The story's ending does take on a gruelling, polemical note. Perhaps unavoidably so. It leaves the reader reeling with an urgent and as yet unasked question: What are we doing? Today. Right now. Why is this wholesale destruction of innocent lives going on unchallenged and unquestioned? It's interesting to note that the major reviews of this novel, in the London Review of Books and elsewhere, don't mention this question, preferring an anachronistic attempt to have some jolly winks and nods at those posh English school boys being rather English, what.
But the question will be asked. Whether it be one year from now, or ten, or a hundred. And when it is asked, Alexander's Choice will be a major rallying point and starting point for a culture to begin lifting the darkness, repairing the damage, stopping the violence - and perhaps even more importantly, to once again celebrate the love that proudly bears its pederastic name.
Review originally posted on amazon.com.
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