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Like Dust, and Memories

Alcestis

Katharine Beutner
Soho Press, 2010

When I was a little girl, I was never without my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I brought it with me everywhere, strangely comforted by its endless variety of stories, by its author’s kindly old face looking out at me from the dust jacket, even by the weirdly authoritative pictures by its mysterious illustrator, Steele Savage.

One of the Steele Savage illustrations that always stuck with me was titled “The Rape of Persephone (Proserpine)” – it showed Hades, the high-helmeted god of the dead, driving his flying chariot down into an enormous abyss, carrying away Persephone, daughter of the earth-goddess, down to his sunless realm. Something about the brightness of the day above – Persephone’s handmaidens, alarmed, are watching from the edge of the chasm – horrified me even before I could actually read the story (and certainly long before I knew the meaning of that word in the picture’s title).

Once I could read the story, it struck me even more deeply. Demeter, in her grief over losing her daughter, halts the fruitfulness of the earth itself (this impressed me during any rebellious phases, when I was bitterly certain my own mother wouldn’t halt the opening of Saks over my disappearance), allowing no seeds to take root, no harvests to grow. The seasons themselves become a desolate wasteland, until finally Zeus, the king of the gods, orders Hades to give the girl back to her mother. He does – but he tricks her into eating a pomegranate, which binds her to return to the underworld for a portion of every year. Persephone is reunited with her mother, but nothing is ever the same again, as Miss Hamilton puts it:

But all the while Persephone knew how brief that beauty was: fruits, flowers, leaves, all the fair growth of the earth, must end with the coming of the cold and pass like herself into the power of death. After the lord of the dark world carried her away she was never again the gay young creature who had played in the flowery meadow without a thought of care or trouble.

The title of Katharine Beutner’s powerful, despairing debut novel (which comes ready-supplied with an adulatory blurb from the mighty Elizabeth Knox – cause enough to pay it some attention) isn’t Persephone, but it could have been, for that poor stricken queen of the dead towers over the novel’s other three main characters, including the eponymous Alcestis.

Miss Hamilton covers this myth as well, naturally: the story of how the god Apollo, after serving for a time and coming to like the young mortal King Admetus, works out a deal with the Fates: Admetus need not die right now, if he can find somebody willing to take his place. Some deal, you say – who, in possession of a heart, would ever avail himself of such a deal? But Admetus is young and beautiful, and I’m coming to learn that young and beautiful men are seldom brimming over with compassion. The spoiled young thing turns first to his aged parents, and in one of Greek mythology’s most oddly cheering little moments, they flat-out turn him down. Disgusted, he turns elsewhere, in words from Miss Hamilton I’ve long since memorized:

He went to his friends begging one after another of them to die and let him live. He evidently thought his life was so valuable that someone would surely save it even at the cost of the supreme sacrifice. But he met with an invariable refusal. At last in despair he went back to his house and there he found a substitute. His wife Alcestis offered to die for him. No one who has read so far will need to be told that he accepted the offer.

In Alcestis he doesn’t accept the offer, he violently rejects it, but the god Hermes, the guide of the dead, is standing right there and doesn’t care; he was only waiting on a “yes.” Beutner’s joyless heroine steps forward not out of spousal devotion but for practicality’s sake: she knows that if Admetus dies, she’ll be known as the wife who didn’t sacrifice herself for him. A widow, she’ll be disgraced, denied shelter everywhere – she faces a choice between the underworld and a protracted living death, and she opts for the former. Of course, she’s also embarrassed:

I was shaking my head and I couldn’t seem to stop. This was not my husband; this was some other man, some shepherd, some slave. This was unworthy.

The underworld holds little terror for Alcestis, mainly because her life in the sunlight had, to that point, been no picnic. In Beutner’s mythical Greece, women (even royal women; Alcestis is the daughter of a king) are casually despised, routinely treated – and regarded – worse than farm animals. Add to this more individual sorrows: not only does her beloved sister Hippothoe die while still a child, but her married life to Admetus is rife with subversion and betrayal. The world of Alcestis is intensely, pervasively sexual, and the gods are at the heart of it, and Beutner’s telling of the old story, Apollo and Admetus are something more than just friends:

Once I had come back to the bedchamber in the middle of the day and overheard them arguing, Admetus shouting and Apollo responding in low, measured tones that sounded no less angry. … I thought they were in our bed together, and my throat closed. But when I pressed my face to the just-open door and peered through the crack, they were standing upright in the middle of the room, Admetus’s head on Apollo’s shoulder, Apollo’s hand glowing pale against my husband’s dark curls.

I’d stood and watched them for a long time. My husband’s face, turned toward me, was calm and smooth, his eyes closed and one corner of his mouth curled up, a child’s expression he wore in sleep.

“Lust is as pungent as a roasting sacrifice,” we’re told, and it’s the thought of this betrayal that prompts Alcestis as much as anything else to make her sacrifice and accompany Hermes to the realm of the dead. She also has some idea of finding her sister Hippothoe among the numberless shades – for what reason is never made clear (the persistence of that plot-strand, even after both Alcestis and every reader knows how pointlessly it will end, is the novel’s only flaw, its only mechanical allowance to the genre in which female-protagonisted not-quite-historical novels like this one hope to catapult through Sunday afternoon book clubs to bestseller status. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has much to answer for).

But what Alcestis finds in the underworld quickly overwhelms all secondary narrations. There is Hades, yes, the king of the dead. “His hair fell about his shoulders in dark ringlets neat as a woman’s,” we’re told, “and he wore a silver crown that seemed to twist into the strands of his hair.” But most of all there is Persephone, the abducted queen of this blighted realm:

The goddess Persephone’s eyes were gray and reflective as adamant, set wide in her girlish face. Her cheek was leached of color, but its curve was apple sweet. Her hair was golden and smooth as flax, her thin lips the stunning read of pomegranates. Her crown was neither gold nor silver but a narrow sharp-edged circlet of adamant, and she wore a dress almost like my shift, fine gray cloth that clung to her slim body. Like me, she was a queen dressed as a slave or a shade. But she was not like me. She had a remote and dreamlike beauty, a feverish loveliness that called Hippothoe’s face to mind. It was the kind of beauty death lends to a beloved face, a beauty that spoke of last looks and last kisses, of tears falling unheeded onto cooling skin.

The irony at the heart of Alcestis is that she goes to the underworld to escape the shame of her husband’s supernatural liaison – only to find such a liaison herself once she gets there. And the awakening moment is parallel; when she happens upon Hades and Persephone making love, she glimpses a divine passion like nothing she’s ever seen before:

Did her lips still taste of the fruit? If he bit at her tongue, would her blood have the sweet savor of pomegranates? I watched the twisting of her limbs and the twisting of her face, her beautiful clear features going taut and sharp. Never did I think: I should not be watching. Never did I think: what I’m seeing is wrong. It was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen mortals do.

Through grudging stages (that never-ending search for Hippothoe again), Alcestis yields to Persephone’s obvious interest and soon enough finds herself “sitting on the grass beside this goddess in a dead garden, watching her suck the juice from the fruit that had doomed her.” In Beutner’s vision, the realm of Hades is an especially lonely place: the shades of the living crowd and drift everywhere, but since they’ve all sipped from the River Lethe’s mind-erasing waters, they are mere husks (in one of the book’s more disturbing images, we’re told that whenever these shades approach someone with more vitality, they “nudge like sheep”). It’s a realm not quite right, and its queen knows this better than anyone, as when she thinks back on her fateful snack before leaving the underworld that first time:

“I ate the fruit. No one had warned me. I did not think. It looked so beautiful and sweet, and the garden was empty. I did not even think anyone had seen me eat. It did not taste quite right,” she added suddenly. “Nothing here does. But I have learned to like the taste. It tastes like dust, and memories, and there is salt in it, like mortal tears. I cannot explain it to one who will not eat. But it lingers in the mouth.”

Readers familiar with Miss Hamilton (or with the other source, some guy named Euripides) will know what to expect from the rest of the story: in the myth, Heracles comes upon the house of his friend Admetus deep in mourning, makes an ass of himself as usual, and to make amends, tromps down to the underworld intent of wrestling Hades for Alcestis, intent on bringing her back to the land of the living. In the ancient Greek plays of which Euripides was a master, the audience always knows the rest of the story – the genius of the writing arises from how skillfully the author can bend the path and pile on the ironies, so that the conclusion the audience knows is coming feels nevertheless strange or poignant when it arrives. The genius of Alcestis is that it flawlessly preserves this duality. In the underworld, surrounded by shades, fascinated by (and fascinating to) Persephone, Alcestis is on the verge of becoming more alive than she ever was in the daylight, so when we see Heracles lumbering through the drifting shades, intent on bringing her back to her feckless husband and her joyless life, we feel the exact opposite of what we might have expected: we don’t want this rescue to happen.

Beutner’s book is a resolutely sad affair, so the rescue does happen (the exchanges between Alcestis and Heracles, who’s naturally nonplussed at her lack of enthusiasm, are priceless in their own grim way). Shortly before it, Alcestis has a bitter moment thinking about Persephone:

I’d thought I understood her. Such a stupid mortal way to think – I had been more blind than the seer [Tiersias]. She was not a human. She was not to be understood. Layers of her came off like sunburnt skin. If I touched her, I would be left with a sheath, an impression, a lie.

And yet, for all that, they are coming to understand each other, even to love each other, when fate and empty heroism intervene. Heracles arrives before the throne of Hades (who, in a excellent little touch by Beutner, disdains anything so silly as actual wrestling and simply releases the girl), and after a brief trip back to the light, he presents her to her clueless, self-absorbed husband (“Still she does not speak,” Admetus complains. “What has happened to her?” “Why, she died,” Heracles has to remind him), with whom she will live out the rest of her mortal life.

The end of that mortal life would seem to offer a distant happy ending for Alcestis, a possible reunion with the death-goddess, but no such ending is hinted at in Beutner’s book. There are no happinesses here that are not accidental or heavily revenged, and yet this is a beautiful, utterly enjoyable work, as wistful and note-perfect as a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Beutner has taken loss and sadness, sharpened them, and shaped them into a tale at once profound and daring in what it refuses to give its readers. This is the dawn of an extremely promising career.

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Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen is currently completing her first year in the Ivy League. She writes occasional pieces exclusively for Open Letters Monthly.