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Living for ever

Mary Renault, 18 September 1980

The Cult of the Immortal 
by Ange-Pierre Leca.
Souvenir, 304 pp., £8.95, July 1980, 0 285 62393 1
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... But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnising Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infamy of his nature.’ Thus the good Sir Thomas Browne, meditating on urns, and on mankind’s dealings with the last mystery. Sumerian Gilgamesh journeyed to the Garden of the Sun at the world’s end to find the herb of eternal youth; but when he bent to drink at a fountain, a serpent stole it, proving its power by shedding his old skin ...

Alexander the Greatest

Mary Renault, 4 June 1981

The Search for Alexander 
by Robin Lane Fox.
Allen Lane, 439 pp., £12.95, February 1981, 0 7139 1395 9
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Alexander the Great 
by N.G.L. Hammond.
Chatto, 358 pp., £14.95, April 1981, 0 7011 2565 9
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... Ever since his death in mid-career, Alexander has been projecting from his undiscovered tomb the powerful presence he exercised in life. To those around him, his magnetism was not mysterious: it was a natural phenomenon with which they lived. Once his contemporaries were dead, it became a legend: something transcending his recorded acts, and a receptacle for every kind of fantasy ...


Hilary Mantel, 13 May 1993

Mary RenaultA Biography 
by David Sweetman.
Chatto, 352 pp., £18, April 1993, 0 7011 3568 9
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... It was Renault, pronounced Renolt, not as in the car: this is one of the many things her admirers will not have known about the low-profile, best-selling author of some of the most remarkable historical fiction of the century. David Sweetman met Mary Renault in 1981, when he interviewed her for the BBC; he had been under the spell of her books since he read them as ‘an awkward, insecure teenager ...

New Mortality

John Harvey, 5 November 1981

The Hotel New Hampshire 
by John Irving.
Cape, 401 pp., £6.95, October 1981, 0 224 01961 9
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The Villa Golitsyn 
by Piers Paul Read.
Secker, 193 pp., £6.95, October 1981, 0 436 40968 2
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Funeral Games 
by Mary Renault.
Murray, 257 pp., £6.95, November 1981, 0 7195 3883 1
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The Cupboard 
by Rose Tremain.
Macdonald, 251 pp., £6.95, October 1981, 0 03 540476 0
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... crowded with dead bodies as was, in the upshot, the Hotel New Hampshire. As its title indicates, Mary Renault’s Funeral Games is another busy series of deaths. Babylon is hushed, the courtiers agitate in whispers, as Alexander the Great lies dying. He has conquered the world but left no clear succession, and the novel records how his generals and ...

Paean to Gaiety

Lorna Sage, 22 September 1994

The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture 
by Terry Castle.
Columbia, 322 pp., £20, January 1994, 0 231 07652 5
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... she detects in work by writers ranging from Defoe and Diderot to Compton Mackenzie, Woolf and Mary Renault are not for the most part memorably haunting. There’s a depressing mixture of pretension and weary piety about the argument’s crowning assertion that lesbianism is ‘the repressed idea at the heart of patriarchal culture’. The piece on ...

Builder of Ruins

Mary Beard: Arthur Evans, 30 November 2000

Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth 
by J.A. MacGillivray.
Cape, 313 pp., £20, August 2000, 0 224 04352 8
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... piece of Morris wallpaper). But later in the century, artists, film-makers and novelists (notably Mary Renault) in their turn found inspiration in what he and his team had created. There are very few movies set in the heroic age of Greece that do not derive their backdrop, at least in part, from the ‘Palace of Minos’. This popularity is hardly ...

Happy Knack

Ian Sansom: Betjeman, 20 February 2003

John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 736 pp., £25, November 2002, 0 7195 5002 5
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... for example, that Betjeman was friendly with P. Morton Shand and his lovely daughters, Elspeth and Mary, ‘who were to marry, respectively, the politician Geoffrey Howe (now Lord Howe) and the architect James (later Sir James) Stirling’. Sometimes whole sentences seem designed merely to boast of good breeding: the good looks of the young Candida, Hillier ...

Imperial Dope

Alan Hollinghurst, 4 June 1981

by Gore Vidal.
Heinemann, 510 pp., £8.95, April 1981, 0 394 50015 6
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... circumscription, is also a drastic loss for the novel-reader. Not for Vidal any luxuriance à la Mary Renault. Instead we have a flatness redolent of the travel writings of Edward Heath. A busy market scene: ‘Traders from every corner of the world offered their wares.’ An expedition through a jungle: ‘The journey through the forest was ...

No nation I’ve ever heard of

Garth Greenwell: Matthew Griffin’s ‘Hide’, 19 January 2017

by Matthew Griffin.
Bloomsbury, 272 pp., £16.99, August 2016, 978 1 4088 6708 2
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... any more than queer people have. In his survey of gay novels, Griffin leaves out writers from Mary Renault to Gordon Merrick, whose bestselling, sexually daring Charlie and Peter trilogy explores a life-long relationship between two men. He ignores the novels of Iris Murdoch, whose A Fairly Honourable Defeat, from 1970, features one of the most ...

For Want of a Dinner Jacket

Christopher Tayler: Becoming O’Brian, 6 May 2021

Patrick O’Brian: A Very Private Life 
by Nikolai Tolstoy.
William Collins, 608 pp., £10.99, October 2020, 978 0 00 835062 8
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... and the oddly convincing atmosphere of generosity and high-spiritedness.Game recognised game: Mary Renault sent O’Brian a fan letter. She was even more impressed by Post Captain (1972), the second instalment, which introduces some more interesting female characters – chief among them Diana Villiers, Maturin’s on-off love interest – and gives ...


Peter Green: Love in Ancient Greece, 8 May 2008

The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece 
by James Davidson.
Weidenfeld, 634 pp., £30, November 2007, 978 0 297 81997 4
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... celebration of, the ordinary. I remember, about thirty years ago, reading all the modern novels of Mary Renault, in which nothing separated her middle-class characters from the other occupants of suburbia except their erotic preferences: why, they wondered, wouldn’t society let them join the club? Davidson’s book seems at times fuelled by the same ...

Friendly Relations

Edward Luttwak: Abe’s Japan, 4 April 2019

Japan in the American Century 
by Kenneth B. Pyle.
Harvard, 457 pp., £25.95, October 2018, 978 0 674 98364 9
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... to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world. Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-born Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi super-boss long held in a Tokyo cell at the mercy of prosecutors who could keep him detained indefinitely by periodically advancing new accusations that he made improper payments to himself, would emphatically agree. He complained that ...


Lizzy Davies: ‘The Night Cleaner’, 3 November 2011

The Night Cleaner 
by Florence Aubenas, translated by Andrew Brown.
Polity, 184 pp., £14.99, 0 7456 5199 2
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... travel to the real thing, it is still serving workers at the beginning of the 21st. ‘Poor Virgin Mary,’ the custodian said. ‘If only you knew what people ask her for.’ Like the undercover writers, almost all Aubenas’s fellow workers were women; most CDDs in France are taken by women, many of them working part-time. Politics rarely came up. When ...


Gilberto Perez: Godard’s Method, 1 April 2004

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 
by Colin MacCabe.
Bloomsbury, 432 pp., £25, November 2003, 0 7475 6318 7
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... who took it on as a commercial assignment while devoting more serious attention to his Virgin Mary in modern dress – or undress, since she is naked much of the time in Je vous salue, Marie (the film has a spiritual, reverential dimension, but one can see why there was Catholic discontent). Détective is Bande à part two decades later. It is also a ...

I came with a sword

Toril Moi: Simone Weil’s Way, 1 July 2021

The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas 
by Robert Zaretsky.
Chicago, 181 pp., £16, February 2021, 978 0 226 54933 0
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... she found work at Carnaud, making gas masks and oilcans; she was laid off after a few weeks. Then Renault hired her. At the end of August, she was fired. The experience of dangerous, physically exhausting and soul-destroying factory work forms the background to La Condition ouvrière, a collection of texts – journal entries, letters, brief essays ...

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