Reviewed by David Maclaine
I've read The Praise Singer three times now, each time with enjoyment, but I find that after each reading my memory of the story starts to fade. This mostly reflects the restrained nature of the plot, which traces the youth and early manhood of the poet Simonides. There is obvious excitement in Renault's stories about war and conflict, but The Praise Singer isn't that kind of story. It's absorbing to read about a child discovering his gift for words, his estrangement from his father, and the process by which he moves into the larger world, learning both his craft and the art of pleasing a patron without sacrifice of his integrity. But the book lacks the gripping and memorable scenes of danger and adventure in Renault's novels on Theseus. There is some violence, but it's usually offstage, in the manner of the Greek tragedy that evolved directly from the ceremonial poetry of Simonides and his contemporaries.
What makes the story a worthwhile read is its believable recreation of the later Ionian world and the people who lived in it. The most memorable character is the narrator's older contemporary Anacreon. He is in many ways a complete opposite to the narrator: handsome and charming, and flamboyantly bisexual, where Simonides is ugly, diffident, and straight. Their friendship plays out during the years when the center of Greek culture shifted from the islands to Athens and when poetry began to shift from a private resource stored only in memory to a legacy written down for future generations. The climax of the novel comes before the midpoint of Simonides' long life, at a key transition in Athenian history, but that action matters less that the tale of "tryants" who nourish the arts and help produce the first written texts of Homer's poems. The Praise Singer is Renault's own hymn to the power of words and will reward anyone who cares about Greek poetry. (1978, 290 pages)More about The Praise Singer at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository