‘Listen, and do not forget, and I will show you a mystery. It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god. But one washing does not last a lifetime; we must renew it, or the dust returns to cover us.’ – King Pittheus to his grandson Theseus, The King Must Die
I’m reading The King Must Die by the glorious Mary Renault and this paragraph really stood out for me. I’m in the process – a long process now, years in the making – of finding my authentic creative expression. Or at least, getting quiet enough to let it surface. Because although it’s always been bubbling away in the deep primordial goo of the creative unconscious, I’ve only really allowed aspects of it to bloop to the top for public consumption.
I don’t know why. The usual suspects are lined up, of course: shame, feelings of unworthiness, fear of rejection etcetera etcetera … boring after awhile, but no less stunting.
I am in awe of people who are so easily able to put themselves on the public stage with a clarity and confidence that I would pay good money to embody. I have only been able to do it a handful of times in my life and lately, as I’ve worked my way so very, very slowly to getting my first novel published, the harder I’ve had to work to fight against those demons and not let them overwhelm me.
It hasn’t really worked. Not really. I mean, yes, in the grander scheme of life, relationships and ultimate happiness, I’m in a different universe to where I was a decade ago. But when it comes to this most personal of adventures … well, I’m somewhat still at the mercy of old patterns.
And then I read this piece by Renault and am reminded that maybe the time for fighting those demons is over. It is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting. And the readiness.
‘The readiness is all’ is a phrase I first read in Hamlet and interpret for myself now…
‘Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.’
No need to control an outcome, dear one. Just do what you do for the love of doing it and the rest will follow. Follow your bliss, the gentle impulse…
There is something else about this piece by Renault that inspired me.
The King Must Die is the fourth of Renault’s books that I’m reading and yet I’ve only now let me myself take a gander into her history…
I don’t research authors when I first start reading their work.
This is probably not a great confession, but I simply make assumptions about them based on their work; I let myself be informed by any and all manner of tidbits I pick up about their character and life from random bookish sorts of conversations and factoids that dot bookish sorts of blogs and sites and papers and magazines. I don’t need to know what they eat for breakfast or who they fuck, to read or like their work.
So, with that in mind. Here is what I assumed about Mary Renault…
Having read Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games, all historical fiction masterpieces about Alexander the Great that Oliver Stone straight up plagiarised in his film Alexander, I had assumed (bolstered by those tidbits I heard somewhere) that she was a Classical historian trained in that most Oxfordian of classical ways. In other words: had spent at least 90% of her time, brain-power and personality poring over ancient philosophical and historical tomes from Aristotle to Herodotus, Plutarch to Ptolemy, Homer etcetera, etcetera.
After all, how else do you write so convincingly about this time? So convincingly, in fact, that her Alexandrian trilogy feels like historical fact? That Alexander moved as she wrote, felt as she directed, loved as she saw?
No. In my mind she was definitely an historian with a literary bent and a focus on the Classical world and access to mega libraries. This was the 60s and 70s after all. No Wiki then. No online encyclopedias. No email. No quick travel.
But here’s the fact of it:
Renault got an undergrad in English at Oxford but was trained as a nurse. For the first third of her career as a writer – which she squeezed in between nursing and World War II – she made a name for herself writing commercial ‘he and she’ bestsellers. She wrote these until she moved to South Africa in 1948. She moved here with her love Julie Mullard, and lived in Durban because it was less problematic for same-sex relationships than the UK. They joined Black Sash.
Finally free of her roots, and presumably free of obligation to them, she embraced her true creative impulse: the classical world.
The Last of the Wine was the first of these in 1956, The King Must Die the second (the one I’m reading now), and on it went until the last of the Alexandrian trilogy and her final book Funeral Games in 1981.
She was trained as a nurse. She lived in South Africa. She starting writing the books that would mark her career at the age of 51. She lived in Cape Town. She died in Cape Town.
Damn. That is inspirational.
She wrote giant stories, defined an area of historical fiction and gave the classics all the flesh and heart to make them real for us, based on great research. She wasn’t writing what she knew, she wasn’t writing where she was emotionally, she wasn’t writing literature conditional to where she was placed geographically in the world. She wasn’t writing literature expected of Little Ladies.
When I finally muster up the muster to talk about my book, I will explain how wildly inspirational this is to me. But the short of it is this: that being South African, living in South Africa with the history that has been ours, has felt like an expectation to bond to our collective trauma story.
There has to be more to us than this. For better or worse, there is more to my creative output than this.
But that is a story for another day.
One last probable untruth: The King Must Die was the apparently written in Hermanus. I haven’t found any evidence of that, but I don’t care. I’ve always loved Hermanus and have written in a journal from many years ago something along the lines of: ‘spend time staring at sea in Hermanus and practising ways to describe it’.
I will do this thing. I will sit on the bench and look out over Walker Bay at that wild blue ocean. But instead of trying to practice being a better writer, I will just let myself be silent. No thinking, no fighting, no trying. Just sit and be still and let more of what I am bloop to the surface.