Recently I’ve been musing on the nature of happiness, sparked in part by my book group’s latest meeting where we discussed The Last King of Lydia, written by Tim Leach. Tim obligingly visited our group meeting to take questions from the group regarding the book which was universally enjoyed by all (very, very unusual, this has happened only once in six years with Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood).
The Last King of Lydia (hereafter LKOL) was inspired by Herodotus’s take of Croesus, a king with wealth so great he believes he is the happiest man alive. He is visited by the philosopher Solon, who tries to debunk of him of this notion. There are some rather beautiful descriptions and scenes in the book, depicting the vast wealth of the king, whilst emotionally his life is something of a vacuum. For a historical novel based on Greek history it is also fairly light on religion and mysticism, choosing instead to focus on what makes a man (in this case) happy.
LKOL interweaves the life of Croesus with that of his personal slave Isocrates, and the shift in the relationship as both men age, alongside that of Isocrates’ wife Maia as they fall into slavery under the Persian king Cyrus. The language is in some respects quite sparse, yet manages to convey both a great sense of place and history as well as asking some fundamental philosophical questions.
Where does this fit with Bat Fit, you may be pondering? Well, the debate with Tim touched quite deeply on the notion of personal happiness; in Croesus’ case thinking naively that his was defined by his wealth. For Isocrates, happiness was a year when the army he was a slave in was stationary:
We have gained a year where nothing will change. We will eat, do our work and sleep. … what a gift that is. To be granted a year of this stillness. There will be no surprises to trap us into making any mistake. If I had my way, I would be happy to wait by this river for the rest of my life.
Next week I will in a way have completed my own year of stillness. A whole year since I walked away from my paid employment in search of something different. I don’t have Croesus’ money – and I have never wanted it – but being deprived of an income does make me appreciate small pleasures more. No one directs my days or tells me what to do.
And there are days when I am brilliantly happy. When the sun breaks through the shroud of grief and I can just appreciate the moment. There have been times when I’ve been sad – but it’s kind of an exhilarated sadness – such as the day I visited Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery to see the exhibition of shell shock in the Great War, and was quite overcome when looking at Wilfred Owen’s original poetic manuscripts.
People niggle at me, prod me, wonder what I’ve done over the past year. I have no focal point achievements, no banner headlines, nothing physical to show other than several discarded manuscripts and an awful lot of reference books cluttering up my study. What they don’t see is the learning I have gained that can’t be demonstrated over lunch, the images and personal tales that make up my memories and very often infiltrate my dreams.
I’ve been reluctant to start a certain project until the bulk of the building blocks are in place. Listening to Tim talking about writing LKOL was illuminating (though a little daunting when contemplating working with an editor). He spoke of writing, and honing your craft, producing beautiful sentences. I’ve been working on that. He also said – and I totally agree – that you can write a novel that is beautifully crafted but without the characters and plot structure being engaging and tight that novel will not work. He has some in the bottom drawer; I have 2 cluttering mine up right about now.
So I left this meeting musing on the idea of happiness (as I think we all did). For Isocrates, a perfect sunset made him happy. For me, the perfect flat white from Cullercoats Coffee provokes much the same response. Tucking the dog in bed at night with a biscuit and a fluffing of the super soft hair behind her ears makes me happy, as does taking that first 30 minutes out of a morning to share a pot of fresh coffee with Husband Underfoot before work begins. I’m still anxious, at the end of my first year sat by the river. I’m still nervous about what will come in the future and as a result my fingers are still gnawed to ribbons. And I play waaaay too much Damian Rice for it to be good for me. But I appreciate my blessings – and they aren’t monetary.
The Last King of Lydia is an excellent and recommended read, particularly if you like thoughtful historical novels. The author is a super nice and smart guy, and I’m pleased to have his second novel (The King and the Slave) in my grubby mitts, at the top of the reading pile.
I joined a book group to encourage myself to read more literary fiction, and have read some gems in the process (though sometimes the most hyped are my least liked, such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train). Favourites included The Dig by Cynan Jones, Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid, and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. All recommended.
I’m currently reading Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville, which 100 pages in is superb – a dark retelling of the Pied Piper myth with Hansel and Gretel and the Holocaust also invoked, along with the finding of a mysterious girl.
Alongside this I’m dipping into an excellent book of essays that take you on a doctor’s eye view of the body – Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis. Fascinating, beautifully depicted, occasionally sad – and totally compelling.
For lovers of urban fantasy, I’ve just completed the first 2 of Susan Ee’s Penryn and the End of Days trilogy. Great commuting fiction, well written and some very dodgy angels.