book review: Medea by Christa Wolf

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MEDEA by Christa Wolf
★★★★★
Nan A. Talese, 1998
originally published in 1996

 

About a year ago I read and loved David Vann’s take on the Medea myth, Bright Air Black. It follows the original story very closely and offers few surprises in terms of plot for those already familiar with the tale, but it endeavors and succeeds in giving Medea a narrative voice, allowing her to tell her own story. Christa Wolf’s Medea, published 20 years earlier than Bright Air Black, is another feminist victory for this narrative, but interestingly, Wolf’s and Vann’s interpretations of Medea’s character couldn’t be more different. I love them both.

Vann’s is very straightforward. Though he at times renders her character sympathetic in a way that’s deeply unsettling, his Medea is every bit as violent and vindictive as you’d expect. Wolf approaches the narrative from a different vantage point altogether. What if Corinth stood something to gain from Medea being painted as a monster? This is the question Wolf explores in this politically-driven retelling, narrated in a series of monologues by Medea, Jason, Glauce, and other individuals in the royal court at Corinth.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I finished Medea’s first chapter and started reading Jason’s was how startlingly different their narrative voices were, which I think is such an incredible and impressive feat to accomplish in a book like this, which hinges on different characters’ perspectives telling the same story. The other thing that struck me was the mastery and lyricism of Wolf’s prose (translated beautifully from the German by John Cullen).

It’s possible they sense my unbelief, my lack of faith in anything. It’s possible they can’t bear that. When I ran over the field where the frenzied women had strewn your dismembered limbs, when I ran over that field, wailing in the deepening darkness, and gathered you up, poor, broken brother, piece by piece, bone by bone, that’s when I stopped believing. How could we be meant to come back to this earth in a new form. Why should a dead man’s limbs, scattered over a field, make that field fertile. Why should the gods, who demand from us continual proofs of gratitude and submission, let us die in order to send us back to earth again. Your death opened my eyes wide, Apsyrtus. For the first time I found solace in the fact that I don’t have to live forever. And then I was able to let go of that belief born out of fear; to be more exact, it repelled me.

I mean, that’s stunning.

What I love so much about mythological retellings; the reason I read the same stories over and over again written by different authors, is that each retelling offers something new, each author interacts with the original story in a different way. That’s clear in the stark contrast between Medea and Bright Air Black, how one can render Medea as a victim and the other as a villain, while both staying, in their own way, true to the original myth. Wolf’s retelling is also concerned with the greater political context of Corinth at the time of Medea and Jason’s arrival – it reflects on how a community is willing to turn a blind eye to its leaders’ faults, which is relevant not only in our current political climate, but also to Wolf’s own life, when you consider that she grew up in the GDR. This is what I mean when I talk about the universality of myth, and how it belongs to everyone, and how individuals from different cultures and different backgrounds can all draw different conclusions from the same story, and why Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions of Medea remain so important thousands of years after they were written. Wolf’s Medea, beautifully written, thoughtful, and resonant, is the perfect reminder of this story’s relevance.

top 5 wednesday: Problematic Faves

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

November 8th: Problematic Faves: Characters you don’t want to love, but you can’t help liking.

Before I get to my list, I just want to talk for a second about how much I hate the word ‘problematic’.  It’s a pointless catch-all word people use when they don’t want to think too critically about the things they’re criticizing.  I think it’s so important to engage critically with media, but I find that ‘problematic’ barely skims the surface of the issues that lie beneath it.  We shouldn’t be afraid of words like ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘transmisogynistic’ – these issues are too important to write off with the lexical equivalent of a vague wave of the hand.

Moreover, I cannot tell you how much I hate the false equivalence between fictional characters and real people.  I feel like there’s a lot of very bad discourse on the internet which condemns the actions of fictional characters (and worse yet – condemns people who consider themselves fans of these characters) as though they were real.  Here’s the thing – flawed characters make good stories.  What’s the point of reading about a group of faultless individuals?  Stories need conflict, they need characters who exist in moral grey areas.  Characters like Snape and Dumbledore are fantastic examples – you don’t need to ‘like’ these characters (I sure don’t), but before dismissing everyone who does, consider that ‘I like Snape’ does not necessarily mean ‘I condone every one of his actions, and if he were a real person I’d like to shake his hand and take him out to dinner,’ but rather, ‘in a fictional universe populated by people who are mostly Good or Bad I enjoy examining the nuances of this character who exists somewhere in the middle, whose ambiguous loyalties provided a stimulating element that the Harry Potter series would be rather lacking without.’

So with all that said, I love ‘problematic’ characters.  I love books about horrible people.  I love fiction that digs into human imperfections.  Here are some problematic faves who I embrace, whose narratives would be nothing without these characters’ fascinating flaws.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  I could easily have comprised this list entirely of characters from The Secret History, but if I had to choose just one, I have to go with Henry.  Henry Winter is one of the most intriguing characters from anything I’ve ever read.  The fact that he’s a murderer barely scrapes the surface of his faults, and yet….. The Secret History would be nothing without his evil genius propelling the story forward.  From the second he’s introduced, how utterly frustrating and enigmatic and ruthless and unknowable Henry Winter is becomes one of the most compelling things about this book.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ryan Cusack begins this story as a teenage drug dealer, and it only gets worse from there… but still, he breaks my heart.  What The Glorious Heresies does so exceptionally well is depict the nuances of inter-generational crime and poverty in Ireland – how it’s such a difficult cycle to break.  Ryan finds himself right in the middle of that, striving to be a good person and only failing because his socioeconomic status is preventing him from succeeding.  Add that to That Thing that we find out happened to him at the end of the novel, and it’s no wonder he’s so messed up.  But never beyond redemption.

22299763Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo).  Kaz is the leader of a ruthless gang, driven singularly by a need for revenge that stems from a tragic childhood.  Though he has a reputation for being monstrous, the more Leigh Bardugo reveals about this character, the more we discover how tragic circumstance has made him the way he is.  The softer side he shows with Inej also makes it difficult to utterly condemn him as heartless.  I have to say, I have such a weakness for characters who lash out or pull up a wall around themselves only because they’re hurting – from the minute Kaz was introduced I knew he was going to be my favorite, and even had the thought ‘I’m probably not supposed to like this character at this point before I reach the tragic backstory, am I.’

33253215Julian Woodbead (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne).  I was initially going to choose the novel’s protagonist, Cyril Avery, but I’m writing this post rather late and Chelsea already did a great job writing about Cyril, so I’m going to instead choose Cyril’s best friend and the object of his affections – Julian.  Julian is ostensibly awful.  He’s a bit of a womanizer, he doesn’t really care about anyone but himself, and yet, he’s so funny, so charismatic, you can’t help but to fall a little in love with him the way Cyril does.  The real strength of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is how simultaneously hilarious and aggravating all of the characters are, and Julian is such a good example of Boyne’s brilliance in this regard.  If Julian were a ‘better’ person, this book wouldn’t be what it is: such a startling reflection of life’s imperfections.

752900Medea (Euripides/classics, Bright Air Black by David Vann).  In one of the most harrowing climaxes in literary history, Medea murders her children.  So.  I don’t think we’re gonna get more problematic than that.  But to write off her character as a monster is to entirely miss the point of how tragic this character is – she leaves her home and betrays her family to help Jason, who she falls in love with, only in turn to be betrayed by him.  She’s wild and ruthless but not utterly soulless, which is the most haunting thing about this character.

Who are some of your problematic faves?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

AUGUST 22 – Top 5 Retellings

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I am a little obsessed with Greek mythology, and so to absolutely no one’s surprise, I am cheating big time with this prompt.  I tried to narrow it down to five and failed spectacularly.

Bright Air Black by David Vann
The original: Medea by Euripides & The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes

Bright Air Black is one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read.  The prose is gorgeous and lyrical, and the characterization of Medea is everything I could have asked for.  Vann renders her as a sympathetic figure without losing any of the ferocity that makes her such a fascinating and iconic figure.  Because this novel is so character driven, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the story of Medea before reading it, probably through reading the Euripides play, though the Apollonius of Rhodes story also factors heavily into Vann’s narrative.

Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin
The original: The Aeneid by Vergil

I’ve read The Aeneid about a hundred times, and I have to admit, that probably clouded my judgment of Lavinia just a little bit – I don’t personally love this quite as much as the others on this list.  But it felt unfair to omit it.  It’s a beautifully written book that tells the story from the point of view of Aeneas’s wife, in a way that’s both inventive and also incredibly faithful to the original.  I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read The Aeneid before reading Lavinia – in fact, reading Lavinia first might be a better way to approach the story.

Alcestis by Katherine Beutner
The original: Alcestis by Euripides

The play by Euripides is one of the only remaining Greek ‘tragicomedies’ that we have access to (though scholars still argue about how exactly to classify it).  It’s undoubtedly tragic and comedic at the same time.  Basically, the story is that king Admetus had been promised by Apollo that he could cheat death, as long as when the day of his death came, someone would agree to die in his place.  That person ended up being Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, who ends up going to the underworld before being eventually retrieved by Herakles.  In Beutner’s retelling, when Alcestis dies, she falls in love with the queen of the underworld, Persephone.  This isn’t a flawless book, but the prose is lovely and evocative, and I loved the lesbian twist to the story.  All things considered, I really enjoyed reading this.  It’s certainly not necessary to have read the Euripides play before reading this novel, though with its short length I’d recommend going for it.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The original: Herakles & Geryon from The Geryoneis by Stesichorus

Autobiography of Red isn’t an autobiography at all, but a retelling of this rather obscure Stesichorus poem.  This is a ‘novel in verse,’ so basically a lengthy poem about the life of Geryon, the monster who in Carson’s story is actually the protagonist.  There’s also a gay twist here where Geryon is in love with Herakles.  This book is absolutely striking and unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Anne Carson is a goddess.  It’s absolutely not necessary to read the Stesichorus before reading this book – there’s an introduction that explains away any questions you might have.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare // Ransom by David Malouf // The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad by Homer

Retellings of The Iliad are my raison d’être, so I couldn’t choose just one.  Each of these retellings is completely unique and brings something different to the story.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare: This is a play which spins The Iliad in a firmly anti-war direction.  This play is a one-man show, where the main character, ‘The Poet,’ recounts the story of The Iliad, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector.  In this interpretation, the Poet is forced to recount the same story again and again until there is no more war.  It’s an incredibly hard-hitting interpretation of the story.  I would love to see a live performance of this, but even reading the script was very entertaining.

Ransom by David Malouf: This short little book is a beautifully written retelling of books XXII – XIV of The Iliad, where the Trojan king Priam crosses battle lines to ransom the body of his son Hector from Achilles, who had murdered Hector and has been publicly desecrating his body.  Malouf’s prose is vibrant and lyrical, and his characterization is stunning.  This is a must-read for all Iliad fans.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Probably the most famous Iliad retelling, The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, which Miller depicts as an explicitly romantic relationship.  This book is gorgeous and devastating and while not 100% faithful to The Iliad, Miller pays homage to it in a satisfying way.  I love this book a lot.

BONUS: One more!  I had to include this non-mythological retelling:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The original: Cain and Abel from the Bible

East of Eden is one of the most beautiful family sagas I’ve ever read.  It tells the story of two families in Salinas Valley California, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, whose two family stories come to mirror the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel.  You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this book – even without the biblical undertones, this book is striking.

So those are my top five eight retellings – what are some of your favorites?  And what do you think of my choices?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Bright Air Black by David Vann

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Bright Air Black by David Vann

US pub date: March 7, 2017

★★★★★

Bright Air Black is lyrical retelling of the story of Jason and Medea, drawing on elements from the Argonautica and Euripides’ Medea to craft a tale that’s at once unique and familiar. Book I of David Vann’s novel begins in medias res: Medea has just killed her brother, and is helping the Argonauts flee from her father Aeetes, which she reflects on as they sail from her home in Colchis to Jason’s home in Iolcus, having obtained the Golden Fleece. Book II follows Medea as she assists in Jason’s ascent to power, before the novel finally culminates in the story’s famously tragic and violent conclusion.

Vann’s Medea is instantly recognizable as the notorious, vengeful priestess that we know from the classics, rage personified. But rather than resting on this archetype, Vann goes further. Here Medea’s rage isn’t only portrayed, but thoroughly examined. Bright Air Black is more analysis than portrait as Vann deconstructs Medea, rationalizing her, humanizing her.

Being a feminist and being a fan of classical literature are two facets of my life which are at odds more often than not. So when I read modern retellings, I’m really looking for female characters to be afforded the same depth and quality of narrative voice as their male counterparts have been through the ages. In this regard, Bright Air Black is a resounding success. Violent, vindictive, impenitent, Medea seems more villain than hero. And yet. Driven by a singular desire for agency, Medea is rendered sympathetic by Vann, almost hauntingly so.

Reading Vann’s prose is a bit like being suffocated, or being submerged under water. Meditative and contemplative but also characterized by a pervasive darkness, this is a story that’s both grotesque and spellbinding. The fragmented sentences take some getting used to, and this style undoubtedly won’t appeal to everyone. Admittedly I tend to be wary of novels which deal in experimental prose, because more often than not, there’s just no reason aside from showcasing the author’s skill. I didn’t find that was the case here. I was quickly entranced by the rhythmic cadence of Medea’s thoughts, which break like waves crashing relentlessly through this narrative. This is a rare example of poetic prose where form and content complement one another masterfully; Medea’s character is inextricably tied to this terse and fragmentary style of writing. Very few authors could pull this off, but Vann does so with aplomb.

Usually a 5 star rating from me means ‘everyone read this book immediately.’ However, I do get the feeling that this may be a little too niche to recommend to the world at large. I’d highly recommend reading Euripides’ Medea or at least reading up on the myth before starting this. It’s not that the story isn’t sufficiently self-contained in these pages, but as an interpretation which is more character driven than plot driven, it’s probably not an ideal starting point.

I do want to stress that Bright Air Black is far from perfect. The pacing is uneven, far too much time is spent on the voyage from Colchis, the ending is abrupt. But these imperfections seem almost appropriate, in a way, because this is a tour de force, electrically charged work whose strength lies in its unapologetically tense and frantic approach. This is ultimately a bold and fearless examination of agency, power, and one woman’s rage. Medea, destroyer of kings.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and David Vann.
If you’re interested in brushing up on your classics before diving into this, here are some works on Medea and Jason to help you get started:

+ link to review on goodreads