The Golden Mean – Annabel Lyon, copyright 2009
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
Reason for Reading: Pulitzer Prize Nomination 2009
I first heard about this book late last year when it was shortlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of Canada’s most prominent fiction awards. In the end The Golden Mean was beat out by Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man (which I have yet to read) but Annabel Lyon’s book received a lot of press as a result of the nomination and I can recall reading nothing but positive reviews since that time. Those reviews combined with the absolutely stunning cover art quickly convinced me this was a must read.
Aristotle is returning to Athens to resume his work teaching and studying. A stop in Pella, the Macedon capital changes his plans when Phillip, his childhood friend and King of Macedonia, asks the philosopher to stay in Pella to tutor his son and heir, Alexander. This is the story of Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander (later Alexander the Great) and of Aristotle himself, how he came to be the sad-sack that he was and how he acquired his vast knowledge of life and nature. Alexander plays a role in the story, but, in truth, this is a very literary look inside the soul of Aristotle.
I know that isn’t much of a summary, but the truth is the story is nothing new. Anyone who has seen Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander will be familiar with the book’s plot, which, to be quite honest, is not what drives this work. The unique perspective and the deep look into the mind of the man is what is at the heart of this beautiful literary work. Lyon does a magnificent job of burrowing into the mind of one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
“Mother used to say he had the ocean inside him, but that it was his great secret and I must never tell anyone. She said if he wanted to talk about it he would, but we must never push him. We have to let him go about things in his own way.” Page 221
Those words, from Aristotle’s sister, sum up the melancholy personality of the man, whose life was devoted to finding the mean between all extremes, the golden mean. Several times, I had to go back and reread a paragraph because it was difficult to immediately ascertain its full meaning, not as a result of poor writing on Lyon’s part, but as a result of the philosopher’s cluttered and sometimes inarticulate brain. As muddled as it may have been, however, it was destined to produce some very insightful ideas.
“My father explained to me once that human male sperm was a potent distillation of all the fluids in the body, and that when those fluids became warm and agitated they produced foam, just as in cooking or sea water…In the womb, the secretion of the man and the secretion of the woman are mixed together, though the man experiences pleasure in the process the woman does not. Even so, it is healthy for a woman to have regular intercourse, to keep the womb moist, and to warm the blood.” Pages 154-155
It was fascinating reading some of Aristotle’s pontifications, thinking how archaic and ridiculous some of them were and yet how brilliant they were for their time. In the end, I was surprised that I enjoyed The Golden Mean as much as I did. Works as literary as this do not usually agree with me, but somehow the believability of Lyon’s characters somehow caught my imagination.
RATING: Hard to Bleat