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BOOK OF A LIFETIME: The epic courage of a fearless love

Hermann Bengtson, quoted at the start of Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, states that "If anyone has the right to be measured by the standards of his own time, it is Alexander [the Great]." Recent evidence would seem to demonstrate that the general public, at least in the US, has no interest in measuring anyone by any standards other than its own. Yet in all the noise and chaos of examining American xenophobia, homophobia and general epic-phobia, no one has pointed out the obvious fact that Alexander was simply too extraordinary and his life too full to render into scene-sized bites to suit the short attention-span of the average movie-goer.

Forget the Oliver Stone film; this is one case where the genuine seeker after truth has to read the book. And, because Alexander's life is way too complex to fit into a single volume, the book to read - the only book worth reading - is Mary Renault's "Alexander Trilogy" of novels: Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games (Arrow).

Gore Vidal accurately described this as "One of this century's most original works of art". Written through the Seventies, the novels would never be published now without some heavy-duty alterations.

No modern editor would allow the detailed setting of scenes or the laxity of the narrative drive in the early part of Alexander's life; very few modern authors would have the courage to describe Philip of Macedon's indiscriminately bisexual sex life or his stated preference for prepubescent girls quite so openly; no other historical novelist I have read - with the glorious exception of Andrew Taylor's outstanding novel of Regency England, The American Boy - has Renault's ability to create dialogue that captures the tone and pace of the time without sounding anachronistic or hopelessly archaic. When classicists gather, they celebrate the accuracy of Renault's research and her exceptional recreation of time and place - all the more astonishing as she lived in South Africa and only ever visited Greece twice.

I read the trilogy first as a youngster with no classical education at all, and now, on the many occasions I come back to it, as a writer filled with the yearning of one who has seen the stars and wishes to aim for them. The liquid, lyrical prose flows across the mind, creating battle- scapes and love scenes with equal sensitivity. Renault balances minor tribal politics in Macedon and the greater, world-changing corruption of Athens and Persia, shows the growth of boy to youth to man, and makes sense of the conflicting passions that drove him to be one of the greatest generals the world has ever seen.

Each of these qualities alone would make the trilogy exceptional. Yet it is in its quiet, constant acceptance of male homosexuality as a normal part of life that Renault's book is life-changing.

This was fiction written by a lesbian woman about gay men, and it is astonishing in its beauty. You can call these men bisexual if you're feeling particularly prissy, but love is about more than sex, and the relationships of Alexander and Hephaistion with women seem to have largely extended to procreation.

The true, heart-stopping artistry of this work is in the slow evolution of passionate emotional bonds that transcend the boundaries of death and are exclusively between men. The life-changing joy of the trilogy is that it was not written for the gay ghetto, nor read exclusively by the converted, but that it pushes slowly against the tides of cultural phobia and might yet change our world, as Alexander changed his.

Manda Scott's novel `Boudica: Dreaming the Hound' is published this week by Bantam