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Ancient Greek in a Cardigan : MARY RENAULT: A Biography, By David Sweetman (Harcourt Brace: $24.95; 307 pp.)

August 01, 1993|Daniel Harris | Harris is an essayist and book reviewer whose work appears in Harper's, Salmagundi and The Nation. His essay on "Cuteness" will appear in "Best American Essays 1993."

One of the most revealing examples of Mary Renault's painstaking accuracy as a historical novelist can be found not in her books on ancient Greece, but in her garden. There, in the middle of the flower beds that surrounded her house in South Africa stood a weather-worn statue of Hermes, a metal reproduction that sported a fig leaf, the obligatory cache-sexe that came to symbolize for Renault all that she despised about her contemporaries' bashful Victorian images of classical Athenian culture. Irritated by the leaf's coyness, she hired a metal-worker to amputate it with a hack-saw, only to find, when he had finished slicing off this prudish reminder of 19th-Century censoriousness, that he had emasculated the sculpture altogether (since there was, as is so often the case, nothing whatsoever underneath). Disappointed by the hermaphrodite she had inadvertently created, she hired the same workman to restore the figure's manliness--but was unprepared for the massive endowment he welded on, a gigantic organ entirely unsuited to a classically proportioned Attic male.

Her unflinching sense of realism, however, had its limits. When rumors began to circulate that Hollywood was going to pull out the stops and turn "The Persian Boy" into a magnificent epic a la Cecil B. De Mille, hairless youths with willowy bodies began to send her photographs in hopes of landing the part of Bagoas, the beguilingly beautiful eunuch who narrates the novel. One particularly desperate candidate even stated that he would be willing to submit "to the knife" simply for the opportunity to star in what promised to be an atrocious bit of Hellenic kitsch, but only if Renault would guarantee him the role. Although she was capable of butchering a sculpture in order to meet her exacting standards of accuracy, she drew the line at a real person, claiming that, even if this delirious adolescent were spayed in the name of artistic verisimilitude, such an unconscionable act of mutilation would only be "gelding the lily."

David Sweetman's "Mary Renault" tells the story of one of the most popular historical novelists of the 20th Century, a kind of mass-market Marguerite Yourcenar, who wrote so convincingly about the homoerotic culture of classical Greece that many readers thought that she was a man writing under a nom de plume. (Mary Renault was in fact a pseudonym, but simply for Mary Challans.) Other readers, impressed by her uncanny intimacy with her subject, believed that she was in fact a reincarnation of someone who had actually witnessed the events she described and thus was simply functioning as a sort of belletristic channeler.

Sweetman does an admirable job of exploring the mysteries of how this dowdy, buck-toothed British woman, who invariably appeared in public swaddled in baggy cardigans, could write stories for which she appeared so miscast--steamy narratives about Persian eunuchs who wear eye shadow and perform exotic dances to choruses of appreciative cat calls from lusty battalions of ancient Greeks.

Born in 1905, Renault was a gruff, charming, masculine lesbian who grew up in what would now inevitably be called a dysfunctional family headed by a meddling shrew who constantly needled her daughter about her indifference to her femininity, holding up Mary's docile and somewhat insipid sister as a paragon of ladylike daintiness. At the age of 18, this bullied tomboy escaped her mother's tyranny by fleeing to Oxford where she began training as a nurse, a thankless career that tided her over for the next 15 years until she was finally able to make her living as a novelist. In the course of her studies, she started an affair with another student, Julie Mullard, whom she found attractive even in the starched, androgynous school uniform, with its servile bib and its antiseptic "Flying-Nun's" cap. The relationship, which lasted a full 48 years until Renault's death in 1983, began inauspiciously under circumstances reminiscent of a sadistic girls' boarding school, with vicious headmistresses snooping around for the telltale signs of insubordination and depravity as Mary and Julie slipped in and out of each other's beds performing unspeakable acts.

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