Thursday, June 09, 2005

Introducing the Book Review and Author Blarney

The first book I've had on my TBR pile is author and book blogger Debra Hamel's Trying Neaira,The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece which is a nonfiction. Let me also for the sake of disclosure that Hamel reviewed my novel some time ago and liked it, but that this in no way influenced my opinion of her book. It did, however, bring her work to my attention in the first place and succeeded in moving it up the pile because I am interested in all things appertaining to ancient Greece. (Also, as I am master of my blog and so long as my reviews are impartial and I bring you news of interesting books, I also figured you'd kindly indulge my various selection methods.) My fascination with ancient Greece stems from someone telling me in my childhood that my first name is associated in some manner with that culture, and I disliked all of the Latin meanings. I was told it means "Magican" or "Wise one" in ancient Greek and, as I feel wise currently, it must be true.

At the same time as I launch this review, I thought it would be a treat if I also posted a mini-interview with the author, whenever possible. I've entitled these interviews Author Blarney in deference to my Irish origins, naturally.

Anyway, here goes:

TN Trying Neaira

In Hamel's book (200 pages) I was never disappointed that I was not reading a fiction about Neaira (pronounced "neh-EYE-ruh"), though I shall add it will not be for everyone in that it is published by a university press (Yale University) and thus aimed at scholars of ancient Greece as well the casual reader. That said, casual readers of nonfiction need not be put off by the book's lineage in any way because her prose is breezy, accessible in that one won't require a dictionary as bed companion, and the unfolding narrative keeps the reader's attention.

A slave, Neaira was purchased as a child by the brothel-keeper Nikarete and plied her trade at her owner's brothel in Corinth. She was not a common harlot--known as pornai from which the word 'pornography' derives--and occupied a rung just below the status of high class prostitutes who were better known as 'female companions' and attended dinner parties with their clients. As the book progresses, we learn of Neaira's life as a prostitute, how she was eventually sold off to two Greek gentleman--former clients--after her youth was spent, the men making themselves responsible for her welfare in return for sexual favors until their eventual marriages (it is presumed). Ever resourceful, Neaira purchased her freedom and moved to another Greek province with Phrynion (a cad) who abused her and finally leaves for Athens with Stephanos with whom she lives as a spouse and, indeed, may possibly have had children by him. It is this thirty year cohabitation which forms the basis of Appollodoras's legal action against Stephanos wherein, in an attempt to get back at him for previous wrongs, he accuses Neaira of being an 'alien' and thus absolutely forbidden to be married to Stephanos, an Athenian citizen. Consequences were dire for losing parties; for Neaira it could have resulted in her being sold back into slavery, and for Stephanos, the loss of all rights and privileges associated with Athenian citizenship.

Most interesting are the unfurling revelations about ancient Greek culture: how revenue was collected, how the Athenian war fleet was financed, the relationship between citizens and foreigners, the confined circumstances of Athenian women--both prostitutes and well-born women--and the absolute importance of sons being introduced AND recognized by their phratries in order to give them status and citizenship. Hamel unveils the Athenian court system in a manner that is compelling and includes nuggets about the imposition of penalties on the loser of a lawsuit ( including radish insertion--not the common garden radish we know of from visits to the local supermarket, I hasten to add--for the offence of adultery,) how the prosecution and defense presented their cases (not to be compared with our modern system of jurisprudence), how juries numbering as little as 501 members were selected from the 10 Athenian tribes, and how the passing of time allocated to prosecution and defense was measured using an ingenious 'water clock.'

I would have loved to hear Neaira's voice, to see through her actual eyes, to learn how she felt about this attack on her freedom and wellbeing. But this was stirred only by my being a novelist at heart and had nothing to do with any oversight by the author whose objective quite rightly was to work from what actual record of the trial remains. I was left thinking how unfortunate and sad it is that there is no record--at least none that is known today--of Neaira's thoughts about her life. But such was the lot of women in that society, I think.

For anyone interested in the culture and institutions of ancient Greece, this book is a must read. Recommended.

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Author Blarney

Debra, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your book and writing.

Thanks for the opportunity.

DMN: Trying Neaira deals with the culture and cast of characters involved in the trial of a prostitute in ancient Greece. What inspired you to write a book like this?

DH: Well, I'd studied ancient history in graduate school, and thus become familiar with the wealth of material we have that sheds light on the Athenian legal system. Of course, "wealth" here is relative: ancient historians don't enjoy the riches of sources material available to historians of later periods. But we do have about a hundred extant speeches that were composed for delivery in court trials. These speeches not only preserve information about the law but they also are a valuable source for social history. At any rate, I was familiar with the speech against Neaira, that is, the prosecution speech from Neaira's trial. It's on the long side--and thus packs a lot of information in--and it's rather salacious, so it's a popular text among classicists.

With that in my background, I had had it in mind that I would like to write a popular history--nonfiction for a general audience--but to the extent that I'd thought about doing such a thing I had despaired of it. Back to the sources: Greek historians don't have available to them the copious private letters and, in general, the information about individuals that often make for interesting histories. But one day I happened to notice a blurb on the back of a book I was reading, itself the story of a 17th-century woman accused of witchcraft. The blurb simply said something about trials being a rich source of micro-history, but when I saw the word "trial" there the idea of writing about Neaira came to me at once. My first step was to decide whether her story would sustain a book, and after reading the speech against her through again I decided it would, and I set to work.

DMN: The book is published by Yale University Press which indicates at first instance that the subject matter is scholarly, yet I found it was written in a breezy, highly accessible manner that draws in people like me who are interested in the culture and institutions of ancient Greece. Did you intend your book to serve a dual purpose and, if so, was it difficult to achieve this balance?

DH: I certainly wanted Trying Neaira to be accessible to laymen as well as solidly researched. It is not "scholarly" in the sense of introducing ground-breaking ideas based on original research--that wasn't my intention. But I wanted to get it right, and I wanted it to be informative. The audience I had in mind primarily when writing the book was the "educated general reader," but it can be read profitably also by students. It's been used in some college courses that I'm aware of.

As far as striking the right balance goes, I did of course make a conscious effort to explain any concept/historical background that wouldn't be familiar to non-classicists. And my writing in Neaira is certainly more breezy than it was in my first book (a monograph on the Athenian generalship). I wouldn't say that doing either--the explanations or the breeziness--was difficult, but it's true that I wasn't sure in the end whether my writing wasn't still too serious for the purpose. On the more practical side, there was the question of documentation. I've been accustomed to using copious footnotes, but in a book for a popular audience you have to tone that down a bit, or at least combine your notes into bigger parcels. Then everything winds up inconveniently at the end of the book, because the average reader is supposedly put off by footnotes.

DMN: Neaira was a slave sold into prostitution. How did these transactions come about? Who would have sold Neaira to the brothel owner? Can you speak a little about the lot of slaves, male and female, in ancient Greece?

DH: We don't know how Neaira wound up as a slave of the brothel owner Nikarete. She seems to have landed there when she was quite young. But generally speaking, one might become a slave in any number of ways. With a bit of bad luck, really, anyone could end up as a slave: if your city was razed by the enemy and you were taken as spoils, if you were a soldier captured in war, if pirates got their hands on you. In early Athenian history one could become a slave after falling into debt. Slaves were employed in all manner of occupations, including some surprising ones, some of them terrible and some certainly not as bad. Slaves were not only prostitutes and domestic servants, but the less fortunate worked under horrific conditions in Athens' mines. Some were employed by the state as a kind of police force, incredibly enough--the Scythian archers. Some slaves were shopkeepers. Interestingly, Neaira's prosecutor, Apollodorus, was the son of a former slave. His father Pasion had lived the ultimate success story. He had been the slave of bankers, had gained their trust, and eventually been granted his freedom. As a freedman he'd become very wealthy and had impressed the Athenians with his munificence. Finally the Athenians rewarded him with a grant of citizenship, which was very unusual.

In (at least) two ways slavery in Greece was a very different phenomenon from the American brand of the institution. (1) While the slaves employed in Greece tended to be from non-Greek speaking areas, they were not necessarily racially different from their masters. (2) They were not employed for the most part in large groups, as in the plantations of the American south. They were divided among households, living among families.

DMN: It seems to me as if well-bred Greek women were in a way 'slaves' within their own homes. Could you talk about that?

DH: Not slaves, but they are sometimes thought to have been confined to their homes as something like prisoners. It's true that they were segregated to an extent from men. They were expected to stay apart from men, excepting members of their own family, and so, for example, would remain in the women's quarters of their homes if unrelated males were in the house. Nor would a respectable woman have gone traipsing around with her husband to dinner parties, say. But I think it's wrong to imagine the life of a well bred woman as one of virtual imprisonment. Although they did not enjoy the same social and political rights as men, Athenian women had their own spheres within which they were active--friendships with other women, responsibilities and social/religious events that will have brought them out of the house. But it is true that a prostitute like Neaira, though a slave, enjoyed some freedoms that a respectable Athenian woman did not.

DMN: How long did it take you to write Trying Neaira and are you working on anything else?

DH: I wrote the book in something less than a year, but I had subsequently of course to make some revisions, both to respond to some very helpful suggestions made by my agent and in preparing the final manuscript for the publisher. Neaira was in book stores I believe a little less than three years after I began the project.

I am not working on any major project at the moment. I've been writing book reviews (for my web site, http://www.book-blog.com, and now for a print column) and the occasional article. I haven't decided yet what I'd like to devote a large chunk of time to.

DMN: Is there anything else you'd like to mention that I've omitted to ask?

DH: I should mention that a German translation of Trying Neaira (Der Fall Neaira) by Kai Brodersen was published in 2004 by Primus Verlag. And Kedros Publishers recently purchased the Greek rights to the book, so there should be a Greek translation available within a couple years.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is usually my kind of book but I found Debr Hamel's book to be very OTT

I did not like it I must say and I would not recommend it