A novel of Antinous and Hadrian
I’m really having difficulty figuring out what I think of this book. It raises so many interesting questions in light of my recent reread of Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. For one, it gives Antinous a voice of his own, which is fitting considering that his fictional existence, like his memory, has been dominated by Hadrian’s idealised gaze. On the other hand the tone of the writing is uneven and in many places it’s weighed down by a desire to show how much research has gone into this depiction of the Roman world. It is a striking, unsettling, flawed book but the way that it acknowledges and fences with Yourcenar’s all-conquering vision of these historical figures is quite fascinating.
It is an October evening on the banks of the Nile in 130 AD, on the eve of the great festival of Osiris. Antinous, the favourite of the emperor Hadrian, steals away from his companions to write an account of his life, in the hope of purging himself of all unworthy thoughts and inward struggle before the following day. He traces his path – which has always been chosen for him, never by him – from his rural childhood in Bithynia to his meeting with Hadrian in his early teens, his higher education in Rome and, ultimately, his place in the emperor’s bed.
For Antinous, the beauty that will secure his immortality is a double-edged sword: a gift and a curse, which brings him the admiration of the most powerful man in the world, but also ensures that his body and his life are no longer his own to command. Even a schoolboy crush on a classmate is forbidden. Isolated from his friends and left open to the prurient envy of would-be rivals, this Antinous struggles to maintain the expected veneer of serene detachment. And, as he approaches his nineteenth birthday, on this night in 130 AD, he comes to realise that once his hold over Hadrian ends – as it must, now that he is growing up – he has nowhere else to turn and no future prospects but the bitter loneliness of the discarded courtesan.
The object of his affection. His beloved. Does anyone question whether the beloved loves in return? Does the beloved have any choice?
This is a very different spirit to Yourcenar. And it is a valuable counterpoint. In her ambition to internalise Hadrian’s attitudes and to think as he would have done, Yourcenar gave us an Antinous of melting beauty who was silent, contemplative and unquestioningly devoted to the emperor. Her novel offers us an idealised picture of an adolescent boy seen through rose-tinted glasses by his much older lover, who scarcely troubles himself to wonder what is going on behind that lovely, impartial mask of a face. McDonald invites us to step into the mind of a confused, indignant teenager who has been forced to grow up too fast and whose feelings for his domineering lover veer from passionate attachment to intense dislike. The problem is that those feelings are too wildly inconsistent even for a hormonal adolescent. One moment Antinous looks down on Hadrian, disdainful of his character flaws, and dismissing him as a ‘Priapus’; the next he asserts his admiration or affection, comparing their relationship to that of Zeus and Ganymede, or Apollo and Hyacinthus. Similarly, at times he is pedantic and superior, trotting out platitudes and philosophical tenets; while at others he comes across as more naive. It doesn’t flow.
I wonder if it’s the result of McDonald intermittently trying to emulate the philosophical spirit of Yourcenar’s novel. If so, there’s a twofold reason why Yourcenar succeeds and McDonald doesn’t so well: first, it’s more plausible that a mature man would have absorbed and internalised these concepts over the course of his life; and secondly, Yourcenar’s whole novel has a slightly rarefied, dreamlike air which suits these explorations of the inner self, while Eromenos can’t quite decide what kind of novel it wants to be. Incidentally, although it has no bearing on whether or not I think the book is good, I don’t like this Antinous. He comes across as vain, petulant and unpleasantly misogynistic – and his ultimate sacrifice feels less like a tribute to Hadrian, and more like a misguided way of drawing attention to his own plight.
The novel is most successful at the beginning, before Antinous takes his place at Hadrian’s side (and before Yourcenar’s shadow spreads), as the boy describes his childhood and his first impressions of Rome. But this latter section already begins to show the book’s tendency towards lists rather than description. McDonald has done a lot of research and, when setting scenes, she often chooses to overwhelm the reader with lists of market goods or varieties of wine or the foods you might find at a banquet. (Her research also manifests itself in a brief cameo by the Warren Cup, which I thought was amusing.) The same listing habit appears throughout, and in fact much of the second half of the book – as Antinous remembers his travels with Hadrian – is little more than a list of events with no real story linking them.
In Yourcenar we have the impression that Hadrian’s peregrinations were part of some wider plan, but in Eromenos it reads as if ‘this happened and then this and then this’. The story wavers between a more detached, elevated tone (which seems to be influenced by Yourcenar) and a livelier, cruder spirit, as in the scenes with Favorinus of Arles. And that crudeness reappears in unexpected places. I found the sex scenes very uncomfortable to read, because they felt strangely voyeuristic in comparison to Yourcenar’s discreet allusions. And there is one major jarring moment almost at the end of the book: I cannot believe that even this embittered Antinous would end his record of his life by dismissing the absent Hadrian with the single word ‘Fucker’. I had to do a double take: it is completely out of character both for the boy and the book.
This unevenness of tone and fondness for lists were two of the things that most troubled me. Having read Yourcenar so recently, I was also struck by the way that some scenes in Eromenos mirrored Memoirs of Hadrian so closely: not in the same words (I checked) but in very much the same spirit. For example, the comparison after the lion hunt of the flayed skin hanging outside the emperor’s tent, with its odour suffusing the air, and the state of the stripped red carcass in a ditch the following morning – a cautionary tale about the fleeting quality of power. Or the sacrifice at the top of Mount Casius. Or the contrast between Latin as a language of administration and Greek as a language of life. There’s no doubt that McDonald has read Yourcenar closely; but at the same time I suppose there are certain episodes that have to be included in Hadrian’s story, and only so many ways to tell them.
There is one very interesting diversion from Yourcenar, in fact, which is in the story of the lion hunt. In Yourcenar’s version it’s the impatient Antinous who puts himself in harm’s way, bravely but foolishly charging out in front of the rest of the party. McDonald, by contrast, has Hadrian deliberately testing the boy by wounding the lion and leaving Antinous to defend himself – in which he fails. Both versions have Hadrian riding in at the last moment to dispatch the lion and rescue Antinous, but the flavour of events is distinctly different. And McDonald’s version is more faithful to the source we have for the lion hunt, in which the writer Pankrates specifically notes Hadrian’s intention to test the boy’s abilities.
It’s a complicated book – a brave challenge to Yourcenar, which asks us to reconsider the romanticised idea we have of Antinous. In that, I must congratulate McDonald and even though I found her characterisation confusing, her Antinous feels real enough for me to have a strong opinion on him (i.e. I don’t like him). However the novel is strangely staccato in its second half and by its very nature it never quite shakes off Yourcenar’s shadow. I’m sure that my fondness for Memoirs of Hadrian has hampered my enjoyment somewhat, because it has given me such a cherished idea of what these characters should be like… but I’m sure I’m not the only one who will come to Eromenos in the wake of Yourcenar’s novel. However, if you haven’t read Yourcenar I’d love to know what you make of Eromenos, because I’m sure it’s a very different reading experience.
While writing this, I remembered all the rumours flying around a few years ago about a film adaptation of the Memoirs of Hadrian. That all seems to have gone a bit quiet, which in a way is a good thing because Hollywood would undoubtedly have completely messed it up. The mood of introspection is just so foreign to much modern film-making. On the other hand, Daniel Craig was slated for Hadrian, which could have been rather interesting. I’ll have to keep my ears open for any further news.