scarecrow reviews


Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel’s "Trying Neaira: the True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece" (Yale University Press, 2003) is an intriguing insight into the life of a woman in 4th century BC, from Corinthian brothel to sex slave through to a relatively harmonious life (minus the court cases) with her long term partner Stephanos of Athens. When your life story can be encapsulated into such a sentence it deserves to be retold to future generations and it is thanks to Hamel’s rigorous analysis of the few available sources that we have access to Neaira (pronounced “neh-EYE-ruh”) and her story. Unfortunately the closest we get to Neaira is through the speeches of others and despite being the centre of both the book and the court case that inspired it she has no voice. This is perhaps inevitable as women were not able to speak in court and respectable Greek women were meant to be kept hidden away from all except male relatives and consequently they are also hidden from historians. The information on Neiara’s life is provided by the speech of the prosecution, an Athenian by the name of Apollodoros the man behind the litigation against Neaira and involved in a lengthy feud with Stephanos. Hamel works through the spin (the speech possesses it in abundance) and picks through the dirt aimed at Neaira and her former life in an attempts to reach the truth. However, rather than being the focus of Hamel’s work Neaira, her trial and the other players involved are used as a springboard into Athenian society and its legal, political and social systems.

The first chapter of Trying Neaira deals with place and time, following Neaira within her working life as a courtesan and introduces the reader to the prevalence of prostitution and its various guises in ancient Greece. The legality and social acceptance of prostitution in ancient Greece seems incongruous to the modern reader when juxtaposed with the limited freedom extended to free female Athenians. Yet, if wishing to learn more about women in this society this acceptance and openness has yielded numerous sources which provided important access to a part of society where women were central figures. Although Hamel is seeking to tell Neaira’s story the emphasis is on the society she existed in and the details we are given are more generic than specific. This is an unavoidable limitation given the available sources but the reader is amply compensated with details of a prostitutes daily life. Who can help but be intrigued by the knowledge that some working girls wore "studs affixed to the soles of their sandals (which) spelled out erotic messages" (Pg. 5) in the sand encouraging men to follow them to more private locations?

In the proceeding chapters Hamel deals with the numerous litigation preceding Neaira’s trial; the amount of which would suggest that both Stephanos and Apollodoros were never far from court. The political manoeuvring and court activity of the men in Neaira’s life is intriguing and the use of Stephanus’ daughter Phanus as a pawn to initiate yet more lawsuits is richly and concisely conveyed. Once again the reader is treated to juicy titbits concerning the seamier side of Athens's courts and the Athenians use for radishes is to be wondered at. The amount of information Hamel packs into this book is testament to her concise prose style and superior knowledge of ancient Greek society and the reader will finish this book amazed at the amount of knowledge they have absorbed.

The triumphs of Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira are many but, arguably, the most significant is the use of Neaira’s eventful life to embark on an accessible but still comprehensive analysis of Athenian society and its legal system. For those with knowledge of ancient Greece Trying Neaira can only enhance their understanding of Athens legal and social systems. However, perhaps more importantly, Hamel succeeds in producing a work that must surely spark the interest of any newcomer to the subject causing them to delve further into this fascinating society and the position women occupied within it.

Gina Evans © 2005.


Lisa Williams - Letters to Virginia Woolf

Lisa Williams -Letters to Virginia Woolf


Every once in a while a book comes your way, almost as if from out of the ether, that moves you to such an extent it forces you, at all costs, to make other people read it too. Lisa Williams's Letters to Virginia Woolf [Hamilton Books] seems to be one of those books. There is usually a formula to these books: they are normally simple in construct, speak clearly and concisely to the reader - they are never overtly literary or self-congratulatory. Yet all touch something inside us, they somehow speak universally, they are magical; you know the type of book I'm talking about. Most are fables, or uniquely allegorical in style, some, like Lisa Williams’s Letters to Virginia Woolf, are epistolary in their design and uniquely human in their voice.

Part personal memoir, part meditation on Woolf's own pacifist philosophy, Williams attempts to transfer these meanings into a wider, contemporary epoch [she succeeds, not that such themes lose much punch over the years]. In succeeding in this pursuit Williams also manages to keep the book personal, relating current events and the themes covered by Woolf, in her life, to her own life experience; foremost of these is the birth of Williams’s own child. Letters to Virginia Woolf juxtaposes the image of one woman's struggle to create life, Woolf's struggle to prolong life, with those who want to destroy it - drawing largely from the 9/11 attacks in New York. Yet, what makes this an extraordinary book is Williams's knack of universal communication without literary obfuscation. Let's face it; this is a hard task when dealing with such subjects. Letters to Virginia Woolf is chopped up into short letters, vignettes, page breaks, and quotes - for such depth of subject Williams manages to convey all she needs to in just 78 extremely short pages [some containing barely a paragraph of text if that].

When reading Letters to Virginia Woolf one is taken by the hand and led agog into the world of two women, one real and the other now mythologized into a meaning to cling on to. Each of the six parts, containing the personal letters addressed to Woolf, acts as a porthole into that other world of the imagination, the world of hope and coming to terms with our beastly nature, the world of wanting, demanding that final answer. Each letter is mesmerizing in its brevity and frankness - there's no time for literary allusion here, just a lyrical, poetic beauty that speaks directly from the page. Williams writes about her childhood, family and war, interlinking each theme with fluidity and ease. Williams addresses these issues in response to the personal effect Virginia Woolf's own words have had on her - an acquiescence of sorts, a sisterly homage to the philosophy of pacifism and a two-fingered salute to the grandiloquent philosophy of war and the misery it creates.

It is interesting that Williams equates pacifism with womanhood [and why shouldn't she?] - Woolf's words are seen as universal words, but at their core lies an intrinsic understanding, on Williams’s part, of the pains suffered to help create life:

"I was convinced that the first miscarriage was a lark, a fatal mistake, so many women have one. The doctors told me it would never happen again to me. After the doctor removed the placenta and the remains of the dead embryo, I felt completely emptied out. It was as if winter had arrived early. The barren branches of trees were dying inside me, and the soil around me was dry, longing for water" [Pg 13]

Letters to Virginia Woolf remains as intensely curt, lyrical and poetic throughout. Subtle imagery is used to convey this barren wasteland of infertility, but there is nothing on show here, this is not a contrivance - we instantly feel the barren, deathly battleground, the leaves stripped bare after each detonation, the smouldering embers of Ground Zero, one woman's struggle to create life amongst all this bitter turmoil. A cruel kismet created by our own hands. And so it is Williams's unique, honest prose-style that encapsulates all and confines the reader's imagination - it is simply hypnotic in its frankness.

Williams even intersperses poems into her letters without much of a shift in pace and feeling. Soft, welcome lyrical lulls that appease the reader after each shocking admission. For instance:

"You must be/covered now/ by moon light,/and sleeping,/sleeping so peacefully/in starlight/sleeping/in a place where the dead/wait patiently/to become what is alive/once again” [Pg 23]

This is a Godless vision, yet it is one of hope, everlasting hope, that things may be reborn, but there is also a remote cynicism at hand, a simple knowing that nothing can be changed, everything is fixed - the world around us made up, a vast canvass filled by only us, our vanities and cruelties, the only inevitable outcome determined by us. Williams begins to paint a picture of a world that knows nothing but war and destruction:

"I understand now that as children we are transparent, but as we grow we inherit the violent history of the earth...And then, of course, there is the sorrow 'brewed by the earth', the sorrow of all those lives lost in the many phases and manifestations of war." [Pg 76]

And this, of course, is true. And we know it. Above all this, though, is Williams's recognition that Woolf was first and foremost a woman and a writer and thinker second. I feel it is this basic fact that is the crux to both writers beliefs. Letters to Virginia Woolf is worth owning for its simple, lyrical beauty alone, but also for its understanding of Woolf's inner machinations, the pivotal beliefs which, in the end, drove her to despair. Williams uses her past to reveal more about the present that most historical tomes I have read, the way she delicately unpeels certain events in her own life help to, somehow, make some sense of the destruction we see around us.

Just like Woolf's own 'angel in the house' Williams exorcises the ghosts of her own past to help forge a clearer present.

In this form of exorcism Williams leaves no stone unturned, she effortlessly strides the complexities of divorce, adolescence, childbirth, miscarriage, death, destruction, terrorism and war in a concise, unsentimental approach. It is quite a feat for Lisa Williams who, with the very make-up of Letters to Virginia Woolf, has all the trappings to be an overly sentimental, gushy writer, literally sopping wet, drenched in flowery prose, wilfully tugging on the heartstrings of a wounded nation - but she most certainly is not syrupy and corny. Let's get this straight. Letters to Virginia Woolf can not be as diametrically opposed to the above statement if it wanted to be. It is as far removed from the current gush we have come to know and expect in recent years. Williams's terse, honest and sharp voice does not allow such solipsistic jabbering and the whole book remains universally precise because of this. Letters to Virginia Woolf speaks the language of the everyday, the ordinary and, rather ironically, is an extraordinary book because of it. Read something different.

Lee Rourke (c) 2005

posted by scarecrow  # 11:11 PM


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