Posts from May 2014

May 24th, 2014

A Literary History of Rome!

duff golden ageOur books today are two oldies but goodies, A Literary History of Rome from the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age (1909) and A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age from Tiberius to Hadrian (1927) by J. Wright Duff, who labored over them for a huge chunk of his life and brought forth a two-volume masterpiece the equal of which you’ll be hard-pressed to find no matter how long you comb the Classics section of every used bookstore you visit.

Duff was a classicist of the old school, as thoroughly conversant with that choice ancient company as he was with the faces at his dinner table. But he brings to his books much more than simple linguistic mastery; he studies the breadth of Roman literature with rigor but also with a deep sympathetic understanding that brought his books hymns of praise from all quarters (including a certain pince-nez’d Commander-in-Chief who consumed the first volume, argued with it, and said it encouraged him to re-visit many of the classics he’d last read in college). Put simply, he’s a marvelous writer – and it’s amazing (although it shouldn’t be) that his literary appreciations ‘stand up’ so well even after a century. Take his take on the Roman playwright Plautus, for instance:

Primarily, Plautus’s object was not to lecture but to amuse, and yet there is more than infinite jest and trickery in him. If he was no deep student of human nature and no deep thinker on human destiny, he did not lack feeling for the earnest of life. With his merry laughter went broad sympathies. His own outlook on existence must have coloured the character of some of the slaves whom he paints with zest – a cheerful attitude to what seems a game, a readiness to take one’s luck and to rise above untoward events buoyant and resourceful. Mirth is not necessarily stone-blind to sadness; so comedy, while it laughs, may contain real criticism of life as tragedy.

But because we’re talking about a Victorian education here, Duff’s books rest in a comfortable downy context of literary allusions from the entire canons ofduff silver age four modern literatures as well as three ancient ones. This was an era – perhaps the greatest such era – when it was no sin of elitism to be well-read, and no ancient author evokes that quality quite like Cicero in his letters (which even I, no fan of Cicero, am prepared to sing as the masterpieces their author knew they were):

The author’s varying moods are naively reflected. He can write like Horace Walpole at his airiest or Cowper at his gravest. He has some of the coxcombry of the former an something of the tragic personality of the latter. Cicero is not starched by the consciousness of impending publication as Seneca, Pliny, and Madame de Sevigne all were. He shows more freedom than Gray. There is no affected pull towards artificialism as in the case of Burns’s letters. He has Byron’s frankness, if he lacks his sparkle. Colloquial turns are lavishly introduced. With certain correspondents – most of all with Atticus – he sprinkles his sentences with Greek, as we might use a handy French word in a letter, but sometimes solely because of Atticus’s Greek tastes.

A Literary History of Rome joyously bristles with erudition and yet is an unmixed pleasure to read. Its reception has become fairly exclusive, I fear: Duff’s pace will quickly shake off readers who are just hearing the names “Tacitus” or “Pliny” for the lucy reads dufffirst time, and it never occurs to him that his readers won’t possess Latin and French – and possibly German and ancient Greek as well. His footnotes are a marvel of study, but the number of general readers who’d be able to marvel at them today has dwindled severely since Duff’s day.

Even so! Even so, there are wonders in these two volumes for any fan of ancient literature! Just the other day, I wrote about how embattled university presses provide their readers with so much excellent stuff readers would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. That same article mentioned that another, often-overlooked function of such presses is to reprint scholarly works that would otherwise disappear forever. A Literary History of Rome is exactly such a work and deserves exactly such a reprint. After all, the last outfit to reprint these volumes was boring old Barnes & Noble.

March 6th, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Horace!

Our book today is Archibald Campbell’s big fat dense opinionated 1924 volume Horace, which is, pound for pound, my favorite book on Quintus Horatius Flaccus, that most beloved and approachable of Roman poets. So approachable, in fact, that Campbell’s book had to win its spot in my heart against some incredibly fierce competition: there have been thousands of good books written about Horace in the last three hundred years, arguing over every single possible aspect of the poet and his work – from the details of his life to the order of his poems to his influence on every poet who’s come after him.  W. Y. Sellar, Gil Highet, D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Eduard Fraenkel … the list of first-rate scholars, writers, and popularizers who’ve taken Horace as their subject is very long. Campbell himself is alive to this fact (he himself was writing in Sellar’s shadow) and fills his donnishly chatty book with reasons why Horace would enjoy such an appeal:

He is certainly a great artist; the purest Roman literature can show us, Virgil having more of genius and inequality. Horace has indeed, as I have remarked already, a strictly limited array of themes; though all are good ones. He has even, if my analysis of his form is not most grossly out – he has even, in by far the greater portion of his maturest and most characteristic work, but one single type of poem! Yet not even by his own custom can his infinite variety be staled. It is what he does that tells, and he hardly ever does the same thing twice. His subjects he repeats innumerably, he almost never repeats himself. What the ancients cared about in poetry was two things: the soul of the poem, and its body; the structure, and the surface; the composition, and the style. His treatment is always unique, his language always individual. He takes over all the conventions that were available for him; but he used them for his own ends; they are but a medium for his meaning. He cannot be translated; metre and language are fused into his work; the effect cannot be extricated from them.

But many writers sing Horace’s praises – the fact that Campbell does that isn’t the only reason I go back to his book over and over. No, the rest of the reasons are harder to pin down. I like the fact, for instance, that he under-estimates Horace (“Horace’s poetry is good for this age; but not sufficient”), as so many scholars tend to do – it makes both him and Horace seem more human; I like the fact that he seems to have discovered the semi-colon about ten minutes before his book went to the printers and over-uses it like a child running wild on Christmas morning; I like the fact that his book is unapologetically soup-to-nuts, giving us Horace’s life and times, a complete overview of poetry’s place in the ancient world (an excursus he actually tells readers they can skip if they like! Let’s hope none of them did!), and a full explication of everything Horace wrote; and I like the old-world certainty with which Campbell assumes his readers already know their Horace. That last one is a pleasure rapidly vanishing from the world of classical studies, if it isn’t entirely vanished already: the assumption of classical knowledge on the part of the reader. Writers who make such an assumption might occasionally paraphrase things in French, but they’ll feel no obligation to translate anything older:

We see, then, that the standpoint vulgarly known as classical is that which Horace is opposing; and more explicit proof soon follows. Horace, too, in his turn, appeals to the Greeks; but he uses the appeal of antiquity in the right way. In language which ought never to be forgotten he tells his generation that the great classics were in their own day great innovators:

quod si tam Graecis novitas invisa fuisset

quam nobis, quid nunc esset vetus?

That is unanswerable.

The same is true for Campbell’s anecdotes (believe it or not – and in the context of the rest of this entry, how on Earth could you? – he’s actually quite a funny writer, happily willing to tweak the noses of snobs and dilettantes alike), which gain their maximum punch through the fact that our author doesn’t feel the need to stop and annotate them:

There is not getting over the fact that, as Pindar pointed out, Typhon does not like music; and people who do not care for music are generally, I think, not fond of Horace’s Odes.

I’m not sure there are 100 readers left in the world today who would smile, as I did, at that reference – who would nod upon seeing it and then keep reading. Probably not everybody in Horace’s own reading public got such a reference, but the audience he had always in his mind while he wrote understood him perfectly – or so he hoped.

Campbell goes over every single line of Horace with minute and comprehensive attention, and that, too, is refreshing. Sometimes the raw work of scholarship happening right in front of you is the perfect anecdote for an afternoon spent re-writing textbooks for schoolchildren. As noted, other studies of Horace have come and gone since this one was published ninety years ago, but work and thought and spirit like this are evergreen, or should be.

February 14th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Livy’s First Book!

Some Penguin Classics get overshadowed by others, and that’s certainly the case with the Aubrey De Selincourt translation of the first five books of the Roman historian Livy. This volume was done in 1960, but when readers think “DeSelincourt” and “Livy,” they think of that translator’s fantastic, reads-like-a-novel Penguin Classics volume titled The War with Hannibal, the praises of which we’ve sung often here at Stevereads. That Hannibal volume is a kind of masterpiece, but even so, The Early History of Rome deserves its day in the sun.

This is the story of Rome’s earliest mytho-history, from the foundation of the city and the tale of Romulus and Remus to the Gallic invasion of 386 b.c. Here are the Tarquin kings and the virtuous virgins and the squabbling in-fighting and the oversized characters like Coriolanus who so profitably fed the imagination of Shakespeare that he sometimes doesn’t even bother to change Livy’s words as he’s purloining them.

The reason for this is the superb drama of Livy’s prose. He himself concentrates on that drama in an appealingly unashamed way – as R. M. Ogilvie points out in his introduction, Livy had no political occupation or administrative duties; the purpose of his entire life was to write, and despite the stories we read of his public readings at Rome being sparsely attended, he clearly wrote to be enjoyed. He appears to have led no public life other than that of a working historian – he came to Rome from Padua at an early age, and when he was around 30 he began work on the great history that would consume his life: a sprawling, cinematic work of 142 books, of which only 35 survive. He write his prose epic for forty years with the full encouragement of the emperor Augustus (who jokingly accused him of Pompeian loyalties), and when he died in a.d. 17 he was famous throughout the Roman world (there’s an anecdote about a man from Cadiz, with which I shall not trouble you, since you’ve undoubtedly read about it elsewhere).

35 books isn’t much. For those of us who’ve read them over and over for the sheer fun of it, the number is heartbreaking. But there’s a consolation to be taken in these first five books of the Ab Urbe Condita. Livy started here, after all, and these five books were meant as a rhetorical unit. They were proofread, indexed, and sold separately from the rest of the work, even when the rest of the work was well advanced and garnering fans of its own. Something about these elemental stories of Rome’s chaotic founding (stories Livy transmuted from the mostly Greek originals he came across and denied using) held a narrative appeal that retained its strength for long centuries after their storyteller was gone. In Livy’s later sections dealing with Rome’s consolidation of power in Italy and the Mediterranean, there are many spots where the master nods – but in The Early History of Rome there’s scarcely time to take a breath between one incredibly charged moment and the next.

Take the example of the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, a human drama so stark that even De Selincourt’s Edwardian circumlocutions fail to blunt it:

“My body only has been violated. My heart is innocent, and death will be my witness. Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer will be punished – he is Sextus Tarquinius. Hi it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death – and his, too, if you are men.”

The promise was given. One after another they tried to comfort her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind, they said, that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be guilt.

“What is due to him,” Lucretia said, “is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent or unchaste women to escape what they deserve.” With these words she drew a knife from under her robe, drive it into her heart, and fell forward, dead.”

Her father and husband were overwhelmed with grief. While they stood weeping helplessly, Brutus drew the bloody knife from Lucretia’s body, and holding it before him cried: “By this girl’s blood – none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her – and by the gods, I swear that with sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, his wicked wife, and all his children, and ever again will I let them or any other man be King in Rome.”

Or the scene from the story of Coriolanus where he confronts his mother before the walls of the city he’s intending to sack for its insolence to him – a scene that will be familiar to lovers of Shakespeare but in Livy’s hands lacks not one bit of the Bard’s pathos:

“I would know,” she said, “before I accept your kiss, whether I have come to an enemy or to  son, whether I am here as your mother or as a prisoner of war. Have my long life and unhappy old age brought me to this, that I should see you first an exile, then the enemy of your country? Had you the heart to ravage the earth which bore and bred you? When you set foot upon it, did not your anger fall away, however fierce your hatred and lust for revenge? When Rome was before your eyes, did not the thought come to you, ‘within those walls is my home, with the gods to watch over it – and my mother and my wife and my children’? Ah, had I never borne a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country! But now there is nothing left for me to endure, nothing which can bring to me more pain, and to you a deeper dishonour, than this. I am indeed an unhappy woman – but it will not be for long; think of these others who, if you cannot relent, must hope for nothing but an untimely death or life-long slavery.”

De Selincourt’s translations rolls on magnificently from page to page, and the reader is swept along. Penguin Classics has four volumes of Livy (and in my library of dream-volumes from Penguin – a library whose contents we’ll get to by-and-by – they come out with one hugely satisfying plump big trade paperback of all four of those volumes together), and as noted, The War With Hannibal is the best of them, the most vivid and exciting and pivotal in terms of real, verifiable history. But The Early History of Rome takes a close second place and is utterly fascinating in its own right – not only for the drama of its stories but for the uncanny window it opens into how one very intelligent man thought the Romans under Augustus might want to see themselves – or their ideal selves.

November 8th, 2010

All Roads Lead to Murder!

Our book today is Albert Bell’s 2002 mystery novel All Roads Lead to Murder, and it’s a perfect illustration of a fact that might sometimes get obscured in the omnivorous whirligig of Stevereads: there are countless books out there I’ve never read! Countless books, in fact, that I’ve never even seen. Every single trip I take to the Boston Public Library is a voyage of discovery for me – and I’ve been prowling their aisles since the days when I was lunching regularly with Oliver Wendell Holmes (translation for the rest of you: a long time). Part of the vertiginous joy of reading for me is that very knowledge that there’s so much more out there.

Perfect case in point: in Open Letters recently, while reviewing a murder mystery starring ancient Roman dilettante and letter-writer Pliny the Younger, I opined that it was amazing no writer had thought to make him the star of a murder mystery before now. I’ve read a vast, heaping number of novels set in ancient Rome (and written one! Prospective publishers may begin their bidding war now!) – in my hubris, it never occurred to me that I might have missed one, when in fact I’ve doubtless missed many thousands.

The one I missed was a doozy! After my review appeared, I was duly informed that at least one other author had, in fact, written a murder mystery starring Pliny the Younger: Albert Bell. His novel All Roads Lead to Murder appeared in 2002, and, prince that he is, he sent me a copy (most writers in such a circumstance would have sent me their dog’s latest nighttime surprise in a plastic baggie – but then, I suspect Mr. Bell is a good deal more civilized than most writers)(not that this is difficult …).

I’m glad he did, for the best, simplest reason: All Roads Lead to Murder is fantastic.

And Pliny the Younger is indeed the star: the novel takes place when he’s still a young man, still making his way in Roman society (and still grieving the recent loss of his famous polymath uncle, Pliny the Elder, in the Vesuvius disaster) – but already set in a lot of his ways, as young men will be. The story finds him and his traveling companion Tacitus – the great Roman historian, only here still comparatively young and known mainly as the son-in-law of the famous governor of Britain Julius Agricola – traveling to Smyrna in a group that includes all kinds of future suspects: the adherents of an exotic religious cult, two old Jews who might just belong to a religious cult themselves (the elder is a certain doctor named Luke, if that gives you any hint), a well-to-do Roman lout, his slaves, and his various cronies, etc. The group has no sooner settled in lodgings in Smyrna than one of their members is found dead in his room with his heart carved out of his body. The provincial governor is away, and for local administration Smyrna has the usual bureaucratic mess characteristic of that part of the world even today – so Pliny (dragging Tacitus along) takes it upon himself to investigate.

Bell does every single thing right in this engrossing book, starting with keeping his star player believable. Pliny the Younger published a large collection of his correspondence during his lifetime, and although all of it was pumiced and holystoned as close to self-aggrandizement as he could make it, the collection is still infinitely revealing – and the person it reveals was, shall we say, fallible. It would be a capital mistake to change that for the sake of producing a more conventional hero, and Bell never comes near to doing that. Instead, his Pliny is given to offhand comments like “Slaves and horses – they both have to be broken to be useful. But you don’t want to crush the spirit.” When one character calls him a “high and mighty bastard,” we can’t help but agree. Hell, almost on the book’s first page, the easy-going Tacitus asks him, “Why can’t you just relax and stop being such a prig?” It’s a line good for a chuckle, because Pliny never does relax in the course of the book. You get the impression he wouldn’t know how; it’s a trait he shared with his illustrious uncle, whose memory hovers over this book like a ghost, as when Pliny contemplates his memories of the man:

What difference does it make? The end of both men – of all men – is the same. The day will come when Apelles’ wife and children will no longer remember just what he looked like, what his voice sounded like. He will ‘live’ only in the name which his son bears. Poor Cornutus didn’t leave even that much to keep his memory alive. I find each day that my uncle’s visage is dimmer in my mind. He was fortunate to have written so much. He is ‘alive’ even for people, like Luke, who never met him. That kind of legacy is the closest we can come, I think, to immortality. It’s what I hope to achieve with my life.

Pliny and Tacitus have a wonderful chemistry – it’s a brilliant choice in Bell’s part to give the ‘sidekick’ role to a man very likely more intelligent than Pliny himself: it forces us to concentrate on Pliny’s other characteristics, like his tenacity and the unconventional modes of thinking he learned from his uncle. The inconvenient fact that the pre-modern world had nothing much in the way of forensics or investigative procedure is handled with perfect deftness – Pliny goes about tracking down the truth much as you or I would, with his hands and his brain and his best guesses, and it’s all wonderfully convincing.

Bell is a classicist and a scholar of the ancient world, and when I read that, I trembled. Such men are dangerous – they have lean and hungry looks and often take a dagger to dramatics without even meaning to. But even after a single chapter, I breathed easier – Bell knows his facts, yes, but his primary concern here is storytelling.

The best illustration of this comes half-way through the book. The governor of the province has returned to take over the murder investigation, and a beautiful slave-girl has been fingered as a likely source of information. She and her family have a tangled and tragic history with Pliny and his uncle, and he feels both guilty and intrigued by her strength of character, so he’s horrified when the course of Roman justice begins to take the path it always does: whenever a crime happens to a person of quality, the first thing you do is torture the slaves for information. So we get a scene in which, over Pliny’s protests, the governor orders the slave-girl strung up right there in the room to be whipped.

Reading that far, I groaned inwardly – because Bell had painted himself into a dramatic corner. The facts of the Roman world make only one outcome of such a scene possible – but the far older dictates of drama say: your hero doesn’t stand idle while the innocent suffer. When the Roman soldier raises his fist with the whip in it, I knew the only thing Bell could have Pliny do was nothing at all.

So imagine my pleasure when he has his Pliny do the only thing he should do first: he grabs the hand holding the whip. It’s a little moment, passing quickly (after he’s admonished, he leaves the room and the torture commences), but a classicist with no ear for the stage, no heart for drama, wouldn’t even have seen how crucial it was, much less worked it right. I’m not sure, but I may have applauded just a bit, the first time I read it.

All Roads Lead to Murder was followed in 2008 by a second Pliny-Tacitus adventure, The Blood of Caesar. This one takes place in Rome itself and features an Emperor Domitian who’s every bit as monstrous as history portrays him and yet recognizably human as well (it’s a beguiling bit of characterization, and there are many, many bits like it in the book). The plot involves twists and turns of high statecraft reminiscent of I, Claudius, and all the dramatic strengths of All Roads Lead to Murder are here again, only sharpened and strengthened.

I can’t recommend these two books strongly enough. Any fan of fiction set in ancient Rome will love them; any murder mystery aficionado will love them; any classicist who’s head isn’t firmly up their aqueduct will love them. I missed them fair and square (effective self-promotion, rather charmingly, doesn’t seem to be our author’s strong suit), but you now have no such excuse: go to Amazon or BN.com right now, today, and buy a copy of each – buy a couple of copies, because I guarantee you’ll want to give them to readers you know.

And while you’re at it, kindly help me to correct the only problem I can find with these books: there are only two of them! In a publishing world where so many murder mysteries aren’t fit for lavatory duty, Albert Bell has seen fit to give readers only two adventures of young prig Pliny and his surprisingly libertine friend Tacitus, and that’s just not right. So email the author and tell him to write a third book in the series post haste. Nag him via snail mail. If you live near him, harangue him at the Piggly-Wiggly. A writer of his caliber (and playfulness! All Roads Lead to Murder has dozens of impish anachronistic allusions, including a hilarious little nod to “The Tell-Tale Heart”) must have no rest, no relaxation: he must be firmly in harness all the time in the service of his demanding readers.

I’m now one of those readers, and all I want for Christmas is another one of these fantastic books.

October 6th, 2010

Big Fat Historical Novels – Ten Tomes to Tempt!

It’s autumn in New England, and you know what that means: fall foliage, Tom Brady swiveling his butt to bring the Patriots victories, and a slight, almost imperceptible lessening of the choke-hold in which murderously hot, drowningly humid weather has held the entire region since the second week of June. Nothing extravagant, mind you – Boston is still a tropical latitude, so the windows will be open and the ceiling fans whirring for the next eight or nine weeks – but enough of a lessening so that the idea of curling up on the couch with a big, luscious historical novel isn’t utterly repulsive.

Ah, but which big, luscious historical novels, you ask? Granted, it’s not as popular a genre as it once was – the Western reading public has fatally weakened its powers of concentration and penetration by spending the last decade reading books written for children and bragging about that fact (I’ll never forget the first time an adult told me she was reading Harry Potter and the Plagiarized Plot-Device – she blathered for fifteen minutes about ‘finding the kid inside’ again, until my pained, sickened expression gave her pause)(to this day, I know full-grown adults who’ll proudly cite Harry chapter and verse and equally proudly admit they’ve never read Pride & Prejudice). If you write an 800-page historical novel these days and try to sell it, chances are the first thing a publisher is going to tell you is to cut it to 250, make a series out of it, and put in some vampires. Authors still persevere, but it’s rare.

Fortunately, the world will always have Annie’s Book Stop, and so readers will always have access to the glorious behemoths of yesteryear! Without further ado, here are ten such behemoths that are well worth your $2!

Duchess of Milan by Michael Ennis – The first impression given by this fat pulpy 1992 novel is that it’s a bodice-ripper of dubious historical veracity. But like most first impressions, that one is only half-right: this is actually a bodice-ripper of impeccable historical veracity. Ennis doesn’t indulge in the later vice of such books by appending a bibliography, but it’s clear on every page of this book – an intrigue-packed Renaissance tale of the rivalry between Isabella d’Este (who plays a major part in my own Renaissance epic, 1515!) and Isabella of Aragon – that he’s done lots and lots of conscientious research … and then added to it the spice of passages like this, spoken in a moment of characteristic braggadocio by a member of the haughty Este family:

I intend to embalm Rodrigo Borgia’s corpse and bring it back to Naples. I want to stand him up in my bedroom and make him watch while his daughter sucks my cazzo.

Hee. Safe to say you won’t find that kind of thing in most bodice-rippers. The salt and snarl of the Renaissance lives in this unpretentious book as it so often doesn’t in more scholarly tomes (The Agony and the Ecstasy comes to mind).

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – There’s no denying it: this book (so ably dissected by the incomparable Rohan Maitzen this month at Open Letters) comes with baggage. Not only sociological baggage – it’s about a petty, scheming young Southerner in the mid-19th century, after all, and it wears its pro-Confederacy pro-Klan sympathies on its sleeve – but also pop culture baggage, since virtually everybody who comes to the novel now (it’s unlikely it will ever go out of print as long as there are physical printing presses anywhere in the world – an almost unique achievement for a historical novel of any length, much less one so long as this) will come to it from the idiotic movie adaptation (Ben Hur used to have this same problem, until it was entirely forgotten). Such readers won’t be able to help themselves: they’ll populate every scene with the hammy over-actors they saw on film, which defeats the purpose of reading the book, although not the effect of reading the book, since it, too, is full of hammy over-actors. But it’s Mitchell’s weird prose that’s the main draw here – it’s bad, yes, but it’s hypnotically bad … you keep turning pages as in a fever, because the prose has no wasted energy in it, as in the scene where dimwittedly selfish Scarlett O’Hara wanders the house at night alone, hungrily scrounging some corn bread from the deserted kitchen:

When she had finished it, a measure of strength came back to her and with the strength came again the pricking of fear. She could hear a humming of noise far down the street, but what it portended she did not know. She could distinguish nothing but a volume of sound that rose and fell. She strained forward trying to hear and soon she found her muscles aching from the tension. More than anything in the world she yearned to hear the sound of hooves and see Rhett’s careless, self-confident eyes laughing at her fears. Rhett would take them away, somewhere. She didn’t know where. She didn’t care.

Scarlett’s lean abandon to be rescued is perfectly done, as is that deceptively subtle conveying of the vague disturbance at the end of the street – and the whole book is like that, a sweet, sinful, articulated nightmare that doesn’t want to let you go.

The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough – this fat 1990 novel of ancient Rome in the time of Marius is the first installment in McCullough’s mind-bendingly profuse ancient Rome series … something like ten novels (depending on whether or not you count Antony and Cleopatra), all exhaustively researched, all exhaustively end-noted, all illustrated by the author, each one topping 900 pages – a publishing feat almost without equal or even parallel in the annals of historical fiction. And the real miracle is that so much of that great gray wall of prose is actually pretty good. Don’t get me wrong: not nearly enough of it is pretty good – nothing on Earth could justify the editor-free length of these books, not even a $10 bill pasted to every 100th page – but pretty good, good enough to re-read when the mood strikes you. McCullough is a plodder to beat all plodders – if her inexorable narrative brings her to a Roman town on market day, she describes that town and that market in grinding detail rather than say ‘it was market day’ and let us do the rest. Same thing with the wasting illness of Julius Caesar’s father, which is here given a diagnosis, a prognosis, and a presentation:

Gaius Julius Caesar was dying. Everyone in the house knew it, including Gaius Julius Caesar, though not a word had been spoken. The illness had started with difficulty in swallowing, an insidious thing which crept onward, so slowly at first that it was hard to tell whether there was actually a worsening. Then his voice had begun to croak, and after that the pain started, not unbearable at first. It had now become constant, and Gaius Julius Caesar could no longer swallow solid food.

There are readers of big fat historical novels who love this kind of immersion – McCullough clearly knows this, and she provides it in tome after tome, until it seemed like the Ides of March would never come. But The First Man in Rome itself gives readers a very welcome fictional treatment of Marius, who’s too often overlooked in the cavalcade of more household names his reforms and revolutions made possible. And each tome likewise has a central gem of a surprise, buried in a vast oyster of prose.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – We’ve touched on this 1985 masterpiece before at Stevereads, but something about the first touch of those chilly 70 degree afternoons automatically suggests it again. This is of course McMurtry’s epic story of a cattle-drive to Montana undertaken by two stalwart old Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call. McCrae is all loquacious sentimentality, and Call is all repressed stoicism, and yet the two men are best friends, and it’s their dynamic that propels the book for most of its enormous length. But McMurtry is also fantastic in all the little details and flourishes that must fill a novel of this length, and in his portrayal of Clara, the strong-willed woman from McCrae’s past, he poured all that he knew of how to write resonant female characters (unfortunately, nothing afterwards remained for any of the book’s other female characters, one of whom – a cowardly simpleton with no self-esteem and no powers of judgement – follows the drive for its entire length and makes you wish on every page that a longhorn would spike her good and proper). We see Clara vividly in McCrae’s memories long before we meet her:

“It weren’t that simple,” Augustus said, looking at the creek and the little grove of trees and remembering all the happiness he had had there. He turned old Malaria and they rode on toward Austin, though the memory of Clara was as fresh in his mind as if it were her, not Woodrow Call, who rode beside him. She had had her vanities, mainly clothes. He used to tease her by saying he had never seen her in the same dress twice, but Clara just laughed. When his second wife died and he was free to propose, he did one day, on a picnic to they place they called her orchard, and she refused instantly, without losing a trace of her merriment.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I’m used to my own ways,” she said. “You might try to make me do something I wouldn’t want to do.”

“Don’t I indulge your every whim?” he asked.

“Yes, but that’s because you haven’t got me,” Clara said. “I bet you’d change fast if I ever let you get the upper hand.”

But she had never let him get the upper hand, though it seemed to him she had surrendered it without a fight to a dumb horse trader from Kentucky.

And the meeting is every bit as good as foreshadowed – it’s as bittersweet to read the first time as it is the tenth.

The Journeyer by Gary Jennings – Another great big volume I’ve praised here before (and handed to as many of you as I can – copies available upon request!), this sprawling 1984 novel stars “Mister Millions” himself, Marco Polo, who always insisted he’d seen and done far more in the exotic East than he’d ever described in his famous book. Gary Jennings takes him at his word and follows him half-way around the world, from the bustling streets of Venice to the far reaches of fabled Kithai and the service of the mighty Kubilai Khan. Like his main character, Jennings is a master storyteller, and Journeyer abounds in wonders – and with a winking kind of humor at its own excesses, as in this interview young Marco and his uncles are having with the Shah of Baghdad, an interview that gets interrupted by a certain rather oblivious storyteller of its own:

“The Arabs,” said my uncle, “build their ocean-going ships in exactly the same slipshod way they build their ramshackle river boats, which Your Majesty sees here at Baghdad. All tied and fish-glued together, not a bit of metal in the construction. And deckloads of horses or goats dropping their merda into the passenger cabins below. Maybe an Arab is ignorant enough to venture to sea in such a squalid and rickety cockleshell, but we are not.”

“You are perhaps wise not to do so,” said Shahryar Zahd, coming into the room at that moment, although we were a gathering of men. “I will tell you a tale …”

She told several, and all of them concerned a certain Sinbad the Sailor, who had suffered a series of unlikely adventures …

Marco too has a series of unlikely adventures, from using his Western knowledge to pull off an impressive military victory to using psychedelic drugs to experience childbirth (the passage is terrifically graphic; if it doesn’t put men off giving birth, nothing will), and all of it told with such obvious enjoyment that you’ll wish Jennings had given us more.

From Here to Eternity by James Jones – This 1951 novel is flatly, inexpertly written (it’s yet another volume that should never have won the National Book Award) and shows innumerable signs of both the author’s “literary” pretensions and his at times embarrassing lack of narrative control. Take this scene between Private Prewitt and the native girl he’s frequenting in 1941 Hawaii where our tale is laid:

“All the soldiers want to screw them,” Violet said.

“Well, they go out with civilians, too. Thats what they want. Whats wrong with that?”’

“Nothings wrong with it,” she said. “But a wahine girl must be careful. A respectable Nisei girl doesn’t go with soldiers.”

“Neither does a respectable white girl,” Prew said, “or any other kind of girl. But they’re no different than the goddam Pfcs. They all want the same goddam thing.”

“I know it,” Violet said. “Don’t get mad. It’s just the way the people look at the soldiers.”

“Then whynt your folks run me off? Or do something? Or say something? If they don’t like it.”

Violet was surprised. “But they would never do that.”

“But hell. All the neighbors see me comin here all the time.”

“Yes, but they would never mention it either.”

Prewitt looked over at her lying on her back in the dappled sunlight, and the short tight legs of her shorts.

Those ‘that is’ and ‘what is’ constructions ostentatiously lacking their apostrophes are intentional, Joycean touches that just look ridiculous, and that repetition of ‘short’ in the final line is painfully obviously unintentional, the product of fast typing and no revision. But there’s a blunt, feral vitality to the converging story lines in this book that grip you and don’t let go. That vitality runs through all Jones’ books and makes them very much worth reading, although in every case you wish he’d cut the manuscript in half and actually read his own prose. The National Book Award actually spoils the reception of this book – in reality, it’s just an in-the-trenches potboiler like the others on our list and deserves to be enjoyed in exactly the same way.

The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye – How not to include this 1978 doorstop of a Raj novel? Its marvelous inventiveness, its occasional eloquence, and even its heeping length (1189 pages, in the purple version bought by gazillions of readers in the book’s heyday) make it pretty much the perfect book to read on those lazy late-October evenings under the spinning ceiling-fan as the murderous heat of the day slowly fades. This is the epic Moses-in-the-bullrushes story of young Ash, an orphaned English boy who grows up in the far distant kingdom of Gulkote scarcely aware of his heritage until circumstances bring him back to England for a rude introduction to the society of his own people. From there he’s sent back to India where he has fantastic adventures, exercises his superior mental, physical, and moral abilities at every turn, and finds romance in a story line so lush if it doesn’t cause your heart to go all mushy – even just a little – you should have your heart checked by a certified physician.

Along the way, Kaye – as indefatigable a researcher as McCullough, although she wouldn’t dream of being so artless about it – gives us innumerable Herodotean little facts to store away (in fairness to Kaye, her facts almost always rebound back upon her sprawling story at some point), like this little digression about the most common poison lurking under all those conveniently pungent spices in Indian food:

Now datura is a plant that grows wild in many parts of India, though more especially in the south. Its white, lily-like flowers are sweetly scented and very beautiful. But its seed, which is round and green, is known as ‘the apple of death,’ for it is exceedingly poisonous – and being easily obtained it has been used for centuries as a handy method of getting rid of unwanted husbands, wives, or elderly relatives. It is one of the commonest of all poisons, and can be ground into powder and mixed with almost any food (though bread is the usual choice) and death follows quickly or slowly, depending on the size of the dose and the amount that has been eaten.

Shogun by James Clavell – another behemoth from the ’70s (they knew how to write ’em, back then), this one had an even greater heyday than The Far Pavilions – or indeed virtually any other book on our list, with the obvious exception of Gone with the Wind. It’s the story of the hard, pragmatic English soldier-of-fortune Blackthorne, who’s washed up by a shipwreck on the shores of 17th century Japan in the age of the great Shogunate warlords (the shipwreck was inevitable, I think: who names a warship Erasmus?). Blackthorne has to adapt to the strange customs of this new world (hardly any meat to eat, and frequent bathing!), and the best part of that adaptation – the part Clavell was smart enough to see was essential – is Blackthorne’s relentless honesty with himself: unlike his doomed shipmates, he’s too stubborn to allow even his prejudices to blind him to what he’s actually seeing, as in an early exciting scene where one of his captors surprises him by trying to rescue one of his shipmates from the surf:

In spite of Blackthorne’s hatred he had begun to admire Yabu’s courage. Half a dozen times waves had almost engulfed him. Twice Rodrigues was lost but each time Yabu dragged him back, and held his head out of the grasping sea, long after Blackthorne knew that he himself would have given up. Where do you get the courage, Yabu? Are you just devil-born? All of you?

To climb down in the first place had taken courage. At first Blackthorne had thought that Yabu acted out of bravado. But soon he had seen that the man was pitting his skill against the cliff and almost winning. Then he had broken his fall as deftly as any tumbler. And he had given up with dignity.

Christ Jesus, I admire that bastard, and detest him.

I myself think that ‘I admire the bastard but detest him’ line is carried on just a bit too persistently in Shogun – it verges on being patronizing (and hoo-boy, one look at the author photo Clavell chose for his dust-jackets confirms that yah, he just might have had a pinch of that in him). But even so, it’s just a small touch in a big novel that’s never anything less than exhilarating and that contains a deceptive amount of research.

Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen – I’ve been championing this dense and yet light-footed 1986 pageant of the very beginning of Georgian rule in England ever since it was published and I found it tucked away in the Romance section of my local bookstore. Not for accuracy’s sake – it is a romance, full of plot-twists and yearning hearts and some very odd yet convincing pairings – but for fairness’ sake, since this is one romance that would appeal to a huge audience if it were given a chance. Koen tells a hugely intricate story dominated at its start by one priceless character, Alice, the Duchess of Tamworth, and populated by enough scheming relatives, lovelorn maidens, and ruthless aristocrats to keep P. G. Wodehouse busy for half a novel. George I has just taken the throne of England, Jacobite sympathizers are everywhere, and everywhere, trying desperately to grow in this weed-choked warren, is love, which the author venerates even while she’s piling obstacles in its path. The characters you’ll root for in this big book will come by your sympathies honestly, because Koen spares no satire at their expense. Indeed, her playful, dextrous prose is full of daggers, and her period details are almost always flawless:

He walked toward the alcove. It was a show simply to watch him. A big, hulking man, he always wore very high heels on his shoes so that he towered over the men around him. Added to his height was a tiptoeing, swiveling, mincing kind of walk that was amazing to see, as if an effeminate bear were walking carefully, but sociably, through thorns.

Like I said, in its early days you could only find Through a Glass Darkly in the Romance section, and that was a shame. Lately, in its pretty new trade paperback reprint, it’s managed to shift its way to the Fiction section where it belongs – and I hope it continues to find new readers there.

Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge – Our last book this time around is the incredible story of ancient Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled as Pharaoh some three thousand years ago and gets her story told in vivid, straightforward, sometimes powerful prose by Canada’s Pauline Gedge in this bestselling 1977 novel. Gedge has a great story to tell, and she rises to the challenge – her Hatshepsut is an entirely believable human creation, savvy and yet quick-tempered in just the proportions you’d need in order to survive as a woman for two decades in a job zealously guarded for men. The book’s action scenes can be a bit vague, but there’s ample compensation in the many scenes involving Hatshepsut’s tempestuous relationships with her own family, especially her headstrong heir presumptive:

Before the winter was over, Hatshepsut betrothed Thothmes to a glowing Neferura and then immediately sent him and his troops north on maneuvers. But she had made it quite clear to him that this was not marriage, only a promise.

He had sneered a little, standing before her in the throne room, his arms folded across his chest. “You have committed yourself, Majesty,” he had said. “You may send me here and there on errands and expeditions, but sooner or later you must take Neferura to the temple and give her to me, for I am no longer a boy.”

“I hase eyes!” she retorted. “Oh, Thothmes, why do you prickle all over when we have dealings with each other? Did I not promise you this throne one day?”

“Yes, but now I do not believe that you ever intend to give it to me. When I was a child I was in awe of you. But not I am becoming a man, and still you shut me out of the audience chamber – my own chamber, the place where I as Pharaoh am entitled to sit. I think you intend the throne for Neferura.”

“You are stupid if you really believe these things and yet shout your doubts all over the palace. What is to stop me from getting rid of you? Then Neferura could indeed wear the Double Crown and marry some general to give Egypt heirs.”

In conveying the grit and pragmatism that lurked behind the stunning opulence of the Egyptian ruling class, Child of the Morning can rival anything written by the perennially under-estimated Allen Drury, which is praise indeed.

And there you have it! Ten tomes to tempt you on torrid October nights! As some of you will no doubt recall, we took a similar tour a year ago – but I’m sure you’ve all finished those earlier tomes already! And we’ll have to do it again soon, since there are EVER so many more such tomes out there, waiting for your attention!

March 6th, 2010

The Ides!

Our book today is Stephen Dando-Collins’ new work of history, The Ides: Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). When last we saw Dando-Collins anywhere in the vicinity of Open Letters, he was being good and properly mauled by angry young freelancer Ascanio Tedeschi, who read his previous book, Blood of the Caesars, with mounting incredulity and rage. At one point in his scathing attack, Tedeschi makes some passing comment to the effect that Dando-Collins had previously written fairly worthy histories – that it was only this particular one that was aneurysm-inducing. But Tedeschi didn’t dwell on those other histories; he was hot on the trail, slavering for the blood of an author who’d overstepped all bounds of believability. Editorial policy at OLM is to first check to see that a freelancer has all their rhetorical ducks in a row – and then to stand back, let them hammer away at their victims, and try not to get any of the viscera on the furniture.

But the fact is, Dando-Collins has written some interesting, worthy histories in his career (his accounts of various Roman legions are meticulously researched and quite interesting), and his latest, The Ides, is therefore a return to form. At no point does he hypothesize that, for instance, it was a stand-in for Caesar who was killed on that bloody Ides of March; at no point does he speculate that perhaps all of the assassins were illegitimate offspring of Caesar. In fact, The Ides contains very little speculation at all – it’s mostly just sturdy summarizing done almost exclusively from ancient sources, with a little modern historiography thrown in and quite a bit of intense scrutiny of timelines and possible motivations. Dando-Collins seems to invite ambivalence with the first of his endnotes, in which he enigmatically reminds us, “The noted British historian Sir Ronald Syme once said that if history is to be written at all, it must be written with the violent and complex reality of serious fiction” – but The Ides is almost entirely facts, and even the quasi-philosophical theorizing is fairly harmless:

Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 B.C. took about ten minutes from start to finish, and Dando-Collins has a whole book to fill, so there’s quite a bit more of this ‘perhaps so, perhaps no’ type stuff, including the age-old school-debate topic of whether or not it was wrong for Brutus & Co. to kill him in the first place. The assassins said they were acting in defense of Rome, removing a man who’d become a monster – and Dando-Collins is ready to mostly agree with them:

There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power in a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.

(That bit about Caesar’s mental health is the closest the author comes to an outlandish theory this time around; he wonders if in addition to – or perhaps even instead of – being epileptic, Caesar had some kind of brain imbalance that would account for several of his recorded behaviors)(That there was never a more completely, horrifyingly mentally balanced human being in the history of the world is patently clear from the ancient first-hand evidence, and no doubt Dando-Collins sees that, but as noted, he’s got a book to fill up)

And there are some good insights here, stuff that will entertain and intrigue the student new to these matters, including a little speculation on that other age-old question – what did the assassins really want:

The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that inputting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be ride of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.

No, there’s nothing in The Ides to incite the anger of a passionate young freelancer. This is a sturdy, well-done recounting of a pivotal event in Roman history, and any reader not already familiar with this very familiar material could do a lot worse than to choose this book as their introduction to it. Just don’t tell Tedeschi.