Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ursule Molinaro's The New Moon with the Old Moon in Her Arms, a feminist novella of ancient Greece

At an initial glance, Ursule Molinaro's feminist novella appears to be a curious amalgam of ancient Greek tragedy and scholarly discourse.  The story is told with unorthodox punctuation and a self-aware modern voice, and it uses few historical fiction tropes. Readers won't find lengthy descriptions of fashion, hairstyles, or evocative foreign landscapes in this slim volume.

The New Moon With the Old Moon in Her Arms isn't a traditional historical novel and shouldn't be judged by those standards.  (The wonderful title, taken from the Scots ballad "Sir Patrick Spens," is just one example of the anachronistic borrowings Molinaro freely uses to make her points.)

But even within a plot nearly whittled down to its thematic essence, the author presents an absorbing and character-centered story that proceeds in an easy-to-follow, chronological fashion.  The style is nowhere near as complicated as it looks.

The narrator, an unnamed poetess in Athens of 293 BC, is living through the last month before her execution. As a form of protest against the patriarchal culture, the moon goddess Circe had persuaded her to put herself forward as a Thargelia volunteer: half of a couple who will be stoned to death on the next Expulsion Day, taking the city's sins with her when she dies.  Thargelia was a religious festival of ancient Greece, held in late spring; the author's research is sound in this and other instances.

Unlike past sacrificial victims, who were deformed or crippled—as was historically the casethe poetess is whole, shapely, and attractive.  On the downside, she's a 30-year-old unmarried virgin whose writing has gone unnoticed, and who lived with her parents until recently.  Those of an academic bent will empathize. It seems jobs in the humanities have always been hard to come by.

Living alone in secluded municipal quarters with an attendant to serve her every need, she doubts the wisdom of her choice with every new day that passes, but Circe is always there in the back of her mind with promises of laurel leaves, which will dull the pain at the end, as well as convincing arguments.  

"If we succeed I might be read: the moon goddess tries to bribe me back into submission.
 I'm not sure a posthumous audience is worth dying for: I say out loud into the quiet room."

If that's not enough for her to muddle through, an adolescent girl presents her with a moral dilemma, and a possible (if temporary) reprieve from her fate.  The poetess also tumbles into a lusty affair with a man who makes her feel desirable.  For the first time in her life, she has something to live for.

The narrator's decisions generate a fair bit of suspense (Will she take the escape route(s) offered?  And if she does, will she be caught?).  Interspersed with her musings, she (or Molinaro) adds informative historical digressions on linked topics: the months of the Greek calendar, the legend of Circe, the medicinal properties of stones, and interpretations of Homer's poetry—including ten excellent reasons Odysseus is overrated as a heroic figure. Those alone are worth the price of admission.

In the most prominent strand of knowledge braided into the story, Molinaro (or the narrator) provides many examples of how feminine power was deliberately subverted by men through the ages. She offers many points for discussion, and for this reason, one could easily imagine The New Moon as assigned reading in a women's history class.

This sharply intelligent, witty book shouldn't be restricted to this audience, though.  It demonstrates that experimental fiction can be approachable and smoothly readable, even for historical fiction fans who wouldn't normally consider it. Anyone interested in ancient Greek history should give it a try.


The New Moon With the Old Moon in Her Arms (subtitled "A true story assembled through scholarly hearsay") was published by the independent literary press McPherson & Co. in 1993 in trade paperback (119pp, $10.00).


  1. Anonymous4:04 PM

    This one sounds very unusual, Sarah. I'm intrigued.

    1. Unusual it is. And it's also very good. I wasn't sure what to make of it when I first picked it up, but I'm glad I read it.

  2. Very interesting. Looks like the author did something similar in the early 90s as well with "The Autobiography of Cassandra: Princess & Prophetess of Troy." Seems like an acquired taste...I'll have to see if I can acquire it ;-).

    1. My library had an exhibit on ancient Greece last semester (I did a supporting display on fiction set in the period), and I'd asked them to buy a copy of The Autobiography of Cassandra. I should check it out, too - literally! Like this one, it's also very short, just over 100pp, and I'd imagine it could be read in an afternoon.