“Because fear can transform into confidence, recklessness, the kind of power you can’t imagine until you’re inside it. And then, once you’ve felt it, you can’t feel alive when it’s gone. Sophrosyne. You understood this feeling. I know you did, though you never said it. I saw it, instead, on your face when you danced.”
Sophrosyne is one of only four virtues identified by Socrates – four traits which, if lived deeply, define who we are as human beings. But sophrosyne is a concept our culture has long forgotten. ‘Self-restraint,’ ‘self-control,’ ‘modesty,’ ‘temperance’ – none of these terms expresses the essence of the word.
In this provocative new novel by acclaimed author Marianne Apostolides, 21-year-old Alex is consumed by the elusive problem of sophrosyne for reasons he cannot share with others. While Alex’s philosophy professor believes studying it will help shed light on the malaise of our era, Alex hopes it will release him from his darkly disturbing relationship with his mother. As he attempts to uncover his mother’s truth, Alex is drawn inside an amorphous, indefinable undercurrent of love and violation. Only through his lover, Meiko, does Alex open into a new understanding of sophrosyne, with all its implications.
Reminiscent of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Sophrosyne asks readers to surrender themselves to the book’s logic and language. Infused with a sensuality balanced by its intellect, Sophrosyne reads like “the music’s rhythm… soft like wax and supple, warm,” pulsing through your veins.
Praise for Sophrosyne:
“This brazen novel slides its hands all over me as a reader, and I am fixated on its wending aesthetic pressures. Poetic language, and in particular, fantastically intense dialogue between mother and son […] slides into my inner ear, manipulating my allegiance. Apostolides brings to bear in this fiction an almost intolerable charm, exacting the same seduction of my readerly identity as her mother character has performed on her own son.”
— Margaret Christakos, “Daring the Bad-Mother Narrative”
“So the book is incredible. It is difficult and heavy and it hurts sometimes, but it’s spectacular to be a part of…. You also get to watch Marianne Apostolides blow almost every other contemporary Canadian writer our of the water with her fearless approach to language, syntax and subject matter.”
— Nicole Brewer, (parenthetical)
“a remarkable evocation of the problem of desire, in both its monstrosity and its enervation, in our age of post-humanism…. [Apostolides’] writing is a measure of the power and pleasure of the infinite.”
— Jason Wirth, Professor of Philosophy, Seattle University, introducing Apostolides’ reading, February 2015
“the entire novel is gorgeously written, though difficult….. 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.”
— Rachel Nevins, Atticus Review
“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.”
— James Bonner, Nomadic Press
“This story is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s unsettling, it’s contemplative, and it’s vast.”
— Jaaron Collins, Worn Pages and Ink
I’ve discussed sophrosyne — as a concept, and as a novel — with various interviewers. The discussions ranged freely from the writing process, the Socratic virtue, and the undertow of eroticism in this book. Have a look — and a listen — to some of the interviews and readings here.
The calligraphy on the cover, and within the book, is the work of the phenomenal artist Noriko Maeda.