19 January 2024

Glorious Exploits: a reading list

Posted by Ferdia Lennon

Our Book of the Week is Ferdia Lennon’s debut Glorious Exploits, a brilliantly original historical novel, telling the story of Lampo and Gelon, unemployed potters in 5th century BCE Syracuse (who speak in distinctly modern Irish vernacular), and their quest to stage Euripides with Greek prisoners of war for actors and a quarry for a stage. Lennon told us about some of the inspirations behind the book, from Thucydides’ ‘rollicking good’ account of the Pelopennesian War to Patrick deWitt’s western-for-people-who-don’t-like-westerns.

History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
An account of the twenty-seven-year conflict between Athens and Sparta, written by an embittered Athenian general in exile, is, in a sense, the first real attempt at a detailed and objective history. Unlike Herodotus, who loved a good story and was more than happy to include a god or divine intervention if the mood took him, Thucydides was a 5th century BCE sceptic, who painstakingly researched everything he included and wrote it all in a voice which is eerily contemporary. Here we have demagogues, invasions of conquest framed as humanitarian interventions, heroic attempts at self-governance, epidemics, political debates, staggering ascents to power and even more rapid collapses. It’s a rollicking good read, like Game of Thrones blended with the Iliad and one to which I always return.

The Trojan Women by Euripides
A year after Athens had executed the entire male population of the island of Melos and enslaved its women and children, Euripides penned what is often considered to be one of the greatest anti-war narratives ever written. The Trojan Women depicts the last hours of Hecuba, Cassandra, Helen and the other defeated women of Troy before they are shipped off as slaves to Greece. Dark, strange and very moving, Aristotle once wrote that Euripides was the most tragic of the great Athenian playwrights and The Trojan Women is certainly his most tragic of plays.

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
After Moby Dick, the Melville work you most often see recommended is Billy Budd. However, for me, The Confidence-Man, a tale of a mysterious con artist testing passengers’ belief systems on a steamboat journey through the Mississippi on April Fools Day is the other Melville masterpiece. Often interpreted as a satire of key American literary figures of the day, this darkly comic tale is just further evidence of the fact that Melville and boats are a recipe for weird and wonderful fiction.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The last thing anyone needed was another novel about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s doomed marriage. Yet the genius of Hilary Mantel is to give us exactly this in a way that felt totally unexpected and vital. She achieved this by reframing the narrative from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the perennial moustache-twirling villain of the Tudor soap opera. The familiar became unfamiliar, and perhaps the greatest series of historical fiction novels was begun.

A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess
The raucous adventures of the great playwright Christopher Marlowe are brought to life in crackling prose in this playful rendering of Early Modern English. It’s a historical novel in which the language itself, rather than the layering upon layering of period detail, is the thing that most immerses the reader and evokes Elizabethan London. Burgess did something similar again in his novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like The Sun, but Dead Man in Deptford seems to me the finer book and leaves you wistful about what he might have achieved if his planned epic about the black prince and The Hundred Years’ War, all written in Chaucerian English, had been completed.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
A western which can be enjoyed by people who have no interest in westerns, de Witt’s third novel is a comic picaresque of Charlie and Elis Sisters: hired gunslingers who are given the task by the commodore to find and kill Herman Kermit Warm. Thus begins a loose odyssey across 1850s America during the California Gold Rush. Funny, violent and laced with melancholy, it’s a book which surprises and delights.

The Last of The Wine by Mary Renault
Renault wrote many excellent historical novels of Ancient Greece, from a trilogy about Alexander the Great to The Mask of Apollo, a tale of a tragic actor in Sicily. However, if I had to recommend just one of her books it would be The Last of The Wine. Fifth century Athens has perhaps never been quite so vividly evoked for the modern reader as in Mary Renault’s meticulously researched, first historical novel. Encompassing a whole host of famous characters from Socrates to Aspasia, the novel manages to be both epic and personal, entwining the story of Athens in the final years of its golden age with the individual tale of its narrator, Lysis.


Glorious Exploits is out now published by Penguin Fig Tree, priced £16.99.

Books mentioned in this blog post