168 pp, $20
Reviewed by Rachael Nevins
“It’s hard to imagine an idea, isn’t it? It’s easier to imagine a story? So let’s imagine the story,” says the narrator’s mother in one of two intercutting scenes that open Marianne Apostolides’s fifth novel, Sophrosyne. The suggestion points to an essential technique in the novel, in which the exploration of ideas is embodied in the story of the aftermath of the narrator’s loss of his mother.
Aleksandros, a 21-year-old student at Princeton, tells the story in direct address to his mother, dead from suicide only months earlier. Although he has written thousands of words, Aleksandros is struggling to complete his thesis in philosophy. As personal as it is intellectual, the struggle emanates from his childhood, when his mother tutored him in ancient Greek philosophy—just as her own father, a village priest in Greece, had done with her. Aleksandros remembers the tutoring with a mixture of longing and shame. “I always disappointed you,” he says. “Even when I thought I knew the answers, responses, and how to please you. Because, always, I failed to meet your challenge.”
The challenge his mother put to him was to define his question—“a vital question. A living question”—and in writing his thesis, Aleksandros still wrestles with this challenge. His proposed topic is to define the concept of sophrosyne. Socrates identified sophrosyne as one of four essential virtues that, Aleksandros says, “if lived deeply, could dissolve into the singular quality of virtue.” Whereas the other three virtues are familiar to us (wisdom, courage, and justice), sophrosyne is variously translated as “moderation,” “temperance,” “self-restraint,” and “self-control” and has no adequate equivalent in English.
Aleksandros’s professor maintains that he needs to do more than define sophrosyne: he needs “to articulate why this issue is significant.” To the professor, the concept is significant because of its relevance to our contemporary, posthumanist plight, in which we have “killed the divine” and “desecrated nature.” To Aleksandros, the concept is significant because Sophrosyne is the name his mother (originally Sophia) took for herself on the day that he was born.
The relationship between Aleksandros and his mother is central to the novel, claustrophobic, and disturbing. In their dialogues, which are interwoven throughout the book, she appears as demanding as she is seductive, and their intimacy is both intellectual and physical. In an early scene, for example, Aleksandros remembers lying on his mother’s body and discussing a book one evening as a child:
“’Aleksandros, you’re avoiding the question. Please define the word ‘sophia’”
‘Sophia means wisdom.’
‘Yes. But what does that mean, my love?’
And I looked up, suddenly uncertain, but you smiled. You stroked my face, held my cheek in your palm. ‘That’s a big question, isn’t it?’ you asked and I nodded. And you stroked my skin. Stroking, settling my cheek on your chest. Holding me there, the gentlest pressure before your fingers travelled down my spine.
Of course such physical intimacy between a mother and her little boy is hardly atypical, but it continues into Aleksandros’s young adulthood. At one point, describing the “muscle and ripple, each hard division” of his body, honed by his training as a runner, he says, “I don’t need to tell you about my body. You know this body too well.” Exactly why his mother knows his body so well is never fully revealed, which readers may find frustrating, but their relationship is clearly transgressive, erotic. The ancient Greeks saw knowledge as embodied and the desire for knowledge and wisdom as erotic (think of the Symposium), but to see this understanding of learning played out between a mother and son (as well as possibly between Sophrosyne and her father, as is intimated) is troubling. Aleksandros, too, is troubled: left impotent in his self-disgust and shame.
In the end, his relationship with another troubled philosophy student, Meiko, offers Aleksandros a way out of his difficulties with both his thesis and his memories of his mother. Meiko connects sophrosyne with mu, a Japanese word meaning “no” or “nothing” that is the essence of the first koan that countless students of Zen take up in their training. As for Aleksandros, he solves the koan of sophrosyne not by defining it, but by arriving at his question. Though the question does link sophrosyne with posthumanism and is as compelling as it is urgent, it represents a concern with the dying earth that Aleksandros has previously engaged with only indirectly, through the photographs of David Maisel. Moreover, he seems far more upset that his fellow students seem to engage both ideas and the world itself through the screens on their computers and phones than he is about environmental collapse; and until the conclusion, his anguish has been portrayed as that of living not in a godless world, but in a motherless one. For Aleksandros, though, there is perhaps no distinction between the two.
Masiel’s photographs themselves are rendered indirectly—and gorgeously—through ekphrasis; indeed, the entire novel is gorgeously written, though difficult. The intercutting scenes by which the present is infused with the past demand the reader’s attention, as does the syntax. The sentences are fragmented, many of them beginning with “And” and “Because” as though completing a thought that has not been spoken before. The payoff is a deeply sensual and profoundly unsettling experience that engages the reader with Socrates’s most basic, vital question: the question of how to live.