And the skin becomes white when I do this. Pale white, lacking blood, but the blade of my hand stays pink. That solid muscle, the edge of my hand, and it seems to get darker, as if all the blood were stunted there.
Marianne Apostolides's most recent novel, Sophrosyne, is a downward tumble into the mind’s rabbit hole. Apostolides examines human nature, the connections and distinctions between intellect and feeling that affect the people around us, as well as our presence in, and outside of, any particular moment. Sophrosyne is powerful, stimulating, expressive, and introspective. I found myself reading and rereading several passages—pages, even—as I coursed through the book. I was able to lose myself while reading out loud in a crowded space, as if speaking to her characters and Marianne Apostolides herself. Sophrosyne is a haunting tale caught somewhere between that of Albert Camus’s The Fall and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower—it is demanding of care and intention.
The story is told through the eyes of a young man who is stumbling through the philosophical preconditions of becoming what the Ancient Greeks considered to be the ideal adult male. Aleksandros (or Alex to his friends) is tackling the challenges presented by an Ivy League school and the unforeseen difficulties of writing his thesis while still thoroughly entangled within the unconventional upbringing of his single, Greek mother who always tiptoed along the borders of the sensible and insane.
From one chapter to the next, we are transported from Aleksandros’s childhood to his present situation at school, and the reader begins to understand that there are choices that Alex will make between the two generations in his life that will never be clarified. The execution is left to the devices of the reader's own experiences, and as such, the reader floats somewhere in between their past and present, all the while regarding the drama as if it were a silhouette—a la Plato’s cave allegory.
As a young child, Aleksandros is left alone in the evenings while his mother, Sophia (“wisdom” in Greek), is at work; Aleksandros only has a book and the starry eyed prospects of his over-rehearsed adolescence (In the mornings over breakfast, Sophia questions her son, followed by an intense dialogue and discussion on the study of knowledge specifically regarding an assignment given to Aleksandros by his mother the night before). As a young man, Alex , who often lies in his dorm-room bed at the university with the same book from his childhood tightly in his hands, feels that he is continuing the conversation with his mother in his head: Alex feels as if she is with him in the darkness as clothes on his chair—“A shape in the darkness. A way the light holds, or the shadows form."
In the midst of writing his thesis on the study of the Greek word, Sophrosyne—a word that has an emotional meaning to Alex, but that cannot easily be defined—Alex is wrought with the intent to explain who he is, as he feels lost, abandoned, and unfinished. Sophrosyne, in an inexplicable way, characterizes his unique and incomplete development; it characterizes the actions and behaviors of his mother, as well as the developing relationship between him and Mieko, his lover. But because Alex feels cheated from a certain accord—a rite of maturation that he was never granted—Alex encounters a wall that he cannot negotiate, and while attempting to do so, realizes that he ultimately must confront himself. Unfortunately, because Alex feels that he is lacking in a mutual agreement between the life which he was cheated from and what he feels he is expected to understand, the means to tackle his psyche are limited.
Apostolides’s characters of Sophia, Aleksandros, and Mieko are so well developed and explored that the reader becomes keenly familiar with their interests, talents, traumas, and dreams. We can empathize with her characters in the ways in which they get lost within themselves and the unknown, which is both past and future. Yet, there is also a distinct separation between the reader and Apostolides’s characters—a separation that will allow the reader to see the slight differences that develop as her characters develop—the same distinction necessary to bring awareness to the changes a child goes through as they mature.
Easily read in a single sitting, I would recommend Marianne Apostolides's Sophrosyne to those well versed in philosophical writings, or those simply looking for a good read. The novel will stay with you, as great stories always do.
Bonner is an author and writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bonner has been writing for the better part of ten years, and he is aiming to release a collection of short stories in the Fall of 2015.