THE MASKS OF MARY RENAULT: A Literary Biography

Caroline Zilboorg, Author . Univ. of Missouri $34.95 (258p) ISBN 978-0-8262-1322-8

Almost 20 years after her death, Renault, author of a hugely popular series of historical novels set in ancient Greece, remains elusive. Born in England, she lived in South Africa for the second half of her life, where she was both an antiapartheid activist and accused of racism in her policies as president of the Durban chapter of PEN. Though openly and happily settled in a monogamous lesbian relationship, she maintained a bisexual identity and had few, if any, lesbian friends. Her pioneering depiction of male homosexuality was so successful that many men imagined her to be a man. Yet she disapproved of South Africa's homophobic legal system because it forced gays into a homosexual underground where they "met all the wrong sort of people" with whom "they had nothing in common." An instinctive feminist, she detested what she called "Women's Lib" and was wholly comfortable in terming heterosexuals "normal." Zilboorg, a Cambridge academic, here applies the perspectives of queer theory in an attempt to wrest from Renault's fiction a coherent thread of transgressive sexual identity that in Zilboorg's view represents a radical position. Readers turning to this book as a biography will be disappointed; while Zilboorg's readings of the novels are solid and corrective, their author remains opaque. Thanks to Renault's extraordinary reticence and advanced sense of privacy, we know only what she wants us to. Even this determined biographer cannot unmask her. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/07/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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