- Karen Connelly (Author)
Burmese Lessons. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Annabel Lyon (Author)
The Golden Mean. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Grekul
In her highly-decorated first novel, Annabel Lyon takes on the risky subject (as more than one reviewer before me has noted) of Aristotle, focusing specifically on his years spent tutoring Prince Alexander (who would become Alexander the Great). Karen Connelly’s newest work, an autobiographical exploration of her time spent in Burma during the late 1990s, is no less risky (though arguably more “risqué”). But for readers of The Golden Mean and Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, there is no risk involved: these books, while obviously very different in terms of form and content, are equally rich and rewarding.
Anyone unfamiliar with Lyon’s previous work—her collections of stories (Oxygen, 2000) and novellas (The Best Thing for You, 2004)—could not have missed her novelistic debut. Winner of the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, The Golden Mean was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, a regional (Caribbean and Canada) Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Amazon.ca/Quill and Quire Best First Novel Award. Evidently, the gamble of attempting to say something “new” about Aristotle—to construct not only a fresh narrative perspective on the philosopher himself but also to offer a believable, book-length glimpse into his world, so far removed from our own—paid off. With seamlessly incorporated research and a deftly “humanizing” approach to character, Lyon focuses, to her credit, less on the specifics of Aristotle’s work than on the nuances of his personal life, including his battle with (it would seem) depression and his uneasy sexual relationship with his wife.
Beginning in 342 BCE, and narrated by Aristotle himself, The Golden Mean traces the philosopher’s seven-year stint in Pella, teaching Prince Alexander, the son of King Philip of Macedon. By choosing to move to Macedonia, along with his reluctant young wife (Pythias) and nephew (Callisthenes), Aristotle delays the advancement of his career at the Academy in Athens and becomes unwittingly embroiled in the political dramas of both Philip’s court and family. While he goes to Pella at the behest of and as a favour to the King (his childhood friend), Aristotle receives little loyalty from Philip in return. He struggles, too, with the business of tutoring both young Alexander (as acutely observant and innately intelligent as he is politically savvy and increasingly hungry for power) and Alexander’s mentally challenged brother, Arrhidaeus. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Aristotle’s primary challenge is to teach Alexander lessons never learned by Philip: lessons about moderation and balance. In one pivotal scene in the novel, as Aristotle juxtaposes “the extremes” and “the middle,” obviously privileging the latter, Alexander is incredulous. “You can’t mean,” says the Prince, “to prize mediocrity.” Aristotle, noting that “[m]oderation and mediocrity are not the same,” asks his pupil to “[t]hink of extremes as caricatures.” When Alexander tellingly suggests that Aristotle/Philip and Alexander/Arrhidaeus are examples of such “caricatures,” he lays bare the dilemma with which Aristotle himself must contend. Has the teacher found a “golden mean” between thought and action, philosophy and life? Or has he, in polar opposition to Philip, lost himself in “abstraction[s]” and “empty concept[s]”?
Not unlike Lyon’s Aristotle, Connelly—author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction—confronts existential crises in Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, some intimately related to her status as an author. Initially, Connelly’s travels in Burma are motivated by her desire to interview dissidents, most exiled in Thailand, and to publicize, via her writing, both the horrors of Burma’s military dictatorship and the struggles of the regime’s resisters. But as she falls deeply in love with Maung, leader of a guerilla army, and befriends numerous other Burmese dissidents, she finds herself questioning her “calling” and its efficacy vis-à-vis the cause. As she “guiltily” confides to one activist, “writing a book [isn’t] enough”; “[m]aybe,” she ponders, “I should join an NGO and do real humanitarian work in the field.”
Guilty, moreover, about indulging her “personal longings” among individuals who have made extraordinary sacrifices in order to do “political work”—“[d]aily,” she writes, “I meet people who have lost everything because they acted and spoke out against injustice” —she recognizes, again and again, her privilege as an “outsider” and wonders if she can ever overcome her position as such. Yet because Connelly neither couches her self-reflexivity in theoretical jargon nor lapses into sentimentality, the narrative never loses its “honesty” or its periodic humour. Loathe as I am to use such descriptors as “honest,” “raw” and “human” in any review, Burmese Lessons is all three. Little is withheld in this book and nothing, it seems, is taboo. This is the story of a woman who loves easily (“I love, I love, I love”), revels in extraordinarily good sex, feels suspicion and jealousy (“[a]re you sure [Maung’s] single?” asks an acquaintance, planting the seeds of doubt), experiences severe constipation, and succumbs to malaria. The painfully impossible decision she ultimately faces—to marry and have children with Maung, but in so doing abandon her writing life—becomes the heartbreaking climax of an intensely-fraught, multi-layered story.
That Connelly chose, and chose well, the writing life is evidenced by The Lizard Cage (2005), her exquisite novel substantially informed by her time in Burma. Indeed, throughout Burmese Lessons, Connelly alludes to the ways in which the novel began to “become” over the course of her travels (“a man’s voice whispers in my head … He talks about his own life . . . I’ve also heard his laughter. I’ve heard him sing”). Ultimately, then, while Burmese Lessons leaves us with aching questions about the fate of Connelly’s lover, we might speculate that he is immortalized as a ghostly, bittersweet presence in her previous book.
- L'enfance à risque by Sylvain Marois
Books reviewed: Le petit Lalonde by Raymond Lévesque and Maïta by Esther Beauchemin
- First Words by Ruth Panofsky
Books reviewed: Keel Kissing Bottom by Elizabeth de Freitas and Crazy Sorrow by Susan Bowes
- Reading Pleasure by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: What Casanova Told Me by Susan Swan
- Relationships and Recollection by Emer Savage
Books reviewed: Ordinary Lives by Josef Skvorecky
- Endgame Tap-Dancing by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
MLA: Grekul, Lisa. Risky Business. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 154 - 156)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.