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The Mask of Apollo

October 7, 2013

I was the only child I know who was forbidden to use the school’s library at my elementary school. Teachers convinced my parents that it was the only way to keep me from reading all the time (through all the boring parts of school), and so the adults conspired to try to keep me from the books, at least during school hours.

But of course I got books anyway; my house had a selection of plays, novels, and books about mythology, travel, history, architecture, and theater, plus a few weird selections that my parents kept in their bedroom and believed I had not found, like Chariots of the Gods.

It’s clear to me that I read a lot of their books before I was old enough to understand much, and Mary Renault falls into this category, although I wasn’t quite sure of that until I finally attempted to read Renault as an adult, inspired by Jenny’s 2009 recommendation of The Mask of Apollo and finally goaded into it by her repeated recommendations and then her mother’s review, posted recently when I was about halfway through the novel (her mother is Nancy, who sometimes comments here).

My experience of reading The Mask of Apollo was continually overlaid by images from my father’s picture books of Greek and Roman theater history, especially the descriptions of the stage and machinery. The experience was also familiar in that the novel shows the protagonist’s life and times through the lens of his art, so when he makes a friend or begins to admire a politician, he sees the person and the role that person could play on the world’s stage in terms of the potential for goodness in him or her. Niko models his own practice on Plato’s, trying to be one of the “good men spreading goodness round them.”

Thus, the climax of the novel, for me, is when Nikeratos is told by a young ruler that the theaters must be closed, because actors must sometimes portray wicked characters sympathetically, whereas he thinks Plato’s teachings mean that “the parts of base, or passionate, or unstable men should be related in narration, while only the good man, who is a fit example, or the gods speaking true doctrine, should be honored by the actor’s imitation.” Niko tries to argue the point, but soon gives it up, thinking “I had learned my art by asking how, rather than why.”

After this point in the novel, the theater metaphors take over almost entirely. The ruler becomes “a man who could put on three masks in a day, believing each to be his face” and Niko takes a part in a play of which he says “I have played in it now some seven times, and still don’t claim to know more than what one man makes of it, on one day.” When Niko’s hopes for a powerful friend have failed, he takes it philosophically: “he and the people are like figures in a tragedy, who come together meaning well, but are born to work each other’s ruin. Neither is without good; but they are fated never to find it in one another.”

His pagan devotion guides Niko in what seems a very modern way, especially when he explains to his younger lover why they must part for a while, in the service of their art and the command of their god:
“[The god] cannot change his nature, which can light or burn. We are scorched already, my dear. You have felt it too. All through rehearsals, through the contest, all through the victory feast, you give and give, you behave perfectly. Then later your oil flask is mislaid, and it enrages you. So it will be; and in two years we shall have nothing. Let us obey the god and keep his blessing. The time is now.”

Niko’s story ends with his decision to take care of a person he knew only slightly, but “who had been kind when kindness or cruelty had power to shape my soul.” I don’t really remember this ending, but it seems a long-familiar conclusion.

As Tennyson’s Ulysses observes “I am a part of all that I have met,” and certainly I met Niko and looked through The Mask of Apollo before I became what I am.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2013 12:18 pm

    which reminds me that i want to re-read The Last of The Wine.

    did you read the New Yorker piece by the guy who corresponded with her?

  2. October 7, 2013 2:56 pm

    How iniquitous of your teachers to prevent you from using the library! I would have lost my mind if I’d been subject to a rule like that.

    Although The Mask of Apollo is far from the first book to show a theater-affiliated person using theater metaphors for Life, I love it because I think Renault does this without seeming affected. Niko simply is so immersed in and devoted to the life of the theater that he cannot view life any other way. I liked that, that single-mindedness.

    • October 9, 2013 9:15 am

      Growing up with a theater professor as a father, I was so immersed in the life of the theater that I can’t view life any other way. To this day, if I go to a place with a stage, I have to have the tour.
      It was iniquitous, and who is to say that I did not lose my mind…although I like to think that I used my miserable school experiences as fuel for the fire in the belly necessary to keep my kids from having to put up with such nonsense.

  3. October 8, 2013 1:46 am

    I read everything I could get my hands on too, but I guess this is one time when a nomadic life served me well: I went to five elementary schools so no one picked up on my obsession with reading — I just wasn’t there long enough. I think the closest anyone came to realizing how much I read was my sixth grade reading teacher who positively encouraged me. Looking back, I think it was his own form of rebellion and he gave me all sorts of books to read that I would never have heard of otherwise and I’m pretty certain not many other sixth graders who have wanted to read.

    • October 9, 2013 9:16 am

      It does sound like the nomadic life served you well. Hooray for your 6th grade teacher!

  4. October 8, 2013 1:15 pm

    I definitely read Renault when I was far too young to understand a lot of what she was talking about. There is one particular scene in a book about Alexander the Great when his father comes back from the wars and first encounters his mother, that puzzled me for a very long time – sweet little innocent that I was!

    • October 9, 2013 9:26 am

      Yes, I absolutely identify with that. I think you and I are similar in age, which means that Renault’s crest of popularity made her books widely available when we were very young.
      Of course, I was an “innocent” in some ways into my forties. It took me a while to understand why my students wanted to know such detail about what I told my children about homosexuality. “I told them those two guys are in love,” I said, and blinked at them as they spluttered their awkward way to silence.

  5. October 8, 2013 1:47 pm

    So glad being banned from the library didn’t ruin your for reading! The school librarian and my teachers loved my because I was one of the few students who actually liked going to the library and read the books. Though my mom always grumbled at me for spending all my allowance on books. I’ve never read Renault but I’d like to get to her one of these days.

    • October 9, 2013 9:29 am

      I remember the ban as being like when parents forbid an adolescent to see a love interest. It was just fuel for the fire. And my parents certainly provided books at home; they were just mistaken in thinking that not letting me get books at school would stop me from reading through arithmetic lessons.

  6. October 9, 2013 12:29 pm

    Where you’ve said about Niko seeing things as in a theatre production. That really shows the passion he must have for it, and it makes me want to read the book. At school my teacher said to my mother that perhaps I ought not to spend so much time playing musical instruments, school work instead. I didn’t, but it was enough to know the atmosphere of something being banned in that way.

    • October 10, 2013 9:14 pm

      Ha, I used musical instruments as a way to avoid ever having a study hall in high school (part of my pattern of avoiding school as much as possible). At one point, I was playing violin (which I still play), trombone, alto clarinet, cello, and piano.

  7. October 10, 2013 8:35 pm

    Sometimes I made my kids wait to read books – because I knew that they would miss the point of some amazing reads, and I wanted their first read of the book to thrill, not bore them. Call me a fascist – I still think I was right. But then, I have no scarring memories of cruel book deprivation. I had fairly minimal monitoring of my reading as a kid – I went to a Catholic school, so everything in the library was mine for the asking, and the librarians were just thrilled that I wanted the books at all.

    • October 10, 2013 9:16 pm

      I never interfered with my kids’ reading, but I did leave books I thought they were ready for out in their path. I did sometimes make them wait to watch movies. Since I had been scared by The Wizard of Oz, I made them wait until after they’d already seen the first Lord of the Rings movie, and then things like the animatronic owls were just funny to them.

  8. October 11, 2013 10:58 am

    They barred you from the library?!? My mom made rules that we only got to watch an hour of TV for every hour we read books. She had to change the rule for me, I had to spend an hour outside for every hour I read. So I would take my book outside and read it up a tree!

    • October 11, 2013 11:11 am

      Sounds like a good compromise!
      Yes, this really happened, as Cody says in Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant: “That was the way he always introduced his childhood. ‘This really happened,’ he would say, as if it were unthinkable, beyond belief….”

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