Papyri crumble away. What remains of her home is 20 feet underwater. She died before Jesus was born. Her first biographers never met her, and she deliberately hid her real self behind vulgar display. A cautious writer would never consider her as a subject. Stacy Schiff, however, has risen to the bait, with deserved confidence. "Saint-Exupéry: A Biography" and "Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)" demonstrated her mastery of the form. "The Great Improvisation," Schiff’s analysis of Benjamin Franklin’s years in Paris, revealed a different genius: the intellectual stamina required to untangle the endlessly tricky snarls created by the intersection of human personalities and international relations.
"Mostly," Schiff says of "Cleopatra: A Life," "I have restored context." The claim stops sounding humble when we understand what it entails. Although it’s not Schiff’s purpose to present us with a feminist revision of a life plucked from antiquity, in order to "restore" Cleopatra — to see her at all — one must strip away an "encrusted myth" created by those for whom "citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts." Lucan, Appian, Josephus, Dio, Suetonius, Plutarch — the poets, historians and biographers who initially depicted Cleopatra were mostly Roman and all male, writing, for the most part, a century or more after her death with the intent to portray her reign as little more than a sustained striptease.
And although Alexandria was the intellectual capital of the known world and Egypt an ancient pioneer of gender equality, the country had "no fine historian" to counter the agendas of those for whom "impugning independent-minded women was a subspecialty." As Schiff observes, Cleopatra may boast "one of the busiest afterlives in history," including incarnations as "an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor," but the single piece of documentary evidence that might be traced to her own hand is "perhaps and at most, one written word" (translated as "Let it be done," with which she or her scribe signed off on a decree). The woman left no primary sources.
Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra ascended the throne of Egypt at 18. As childhood was not a subject of great interest to the ancients, Schiff explains, "players tended to emerge fully formed" into the public consciousness, their recorded lives beginning when they first influenced history. To distract the present-day reader from the absence of her subject’s early years, Schiff neatly draws our attention to a different, albeit geographic, femme fatale — Alexandria. Balanced on the sparkling Mediterranean coast, with a parade-ready colonnade running the length of the city and mechanical marvels like hydraulic lifts, coin-operated machines and statues with flickering eyes, Egypt’s capital made Rome look like the "provincial backwater" it was. Schiff’s rendering of the city is so juicy and cinematic it leaves one with the sense of having visited a hopped-up ancient Las Vegas, with a busy harbor and a really good library.
When Cleopatra came to power it was, in accordance with her father’s will, as co-ruler with her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy, to whom she was wed. Probably her parents were also full siblings. The Egyptian practice of incest among royals was adopted by her Macedonian forebears, who had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great. But Cleopatra had no more intention of consummating a pro forma marriage than she did of sharing power with a little boy. Educated rigorously with an eye to her future rule, she’d paid careful attention to her father’s missteps as well as his triumphs. To keep her crown required Rome’s allegiance, which she captured in 48 B.C., swiftly and with the flair and ingenuity for which she would be remembered.
Goaded into exile as a result of a failed attempt to oust Ptolemy and his advisers, Cleopatra, 21, had herself stuffed into a sturdy sack, smuggled back into her own palace, and presented thus to Julius Caesar, who, taking advantage of Egypt’s political upheaval, had installed himself in the capital. While even her detractors agree, grudgingly, that Cleopatra was blessed with megawatt charisma as well as a formidable intelligence — she spoke nine languages — there is no record of how she persuaded Caesar to support her hegemony rather than making Egypt a province of Rome, and "no convincing political explanation" for his remaining with her in Alexandria for months while his own empire languished. We do know that when he left, Cleopatra was pregnant. Clearly a seduction had been accomplished, and she had far the most to gain from it.
To discover what truths remain after two millenniums, Schiff must consider her limited and inconsistent sources through the lenses of anthropology, archaeology and psychology, revealing a ruler who, centuries before those disciplines had been invented, used a similar set of tools to consolidate and maximize the power she inherited. What Schiff describes as Cleopatra’s ability "to slide effortlessly from one idiom to another" depended on what was in fact an astute and arduous campaign to secure the allegiance of a people whose religion and culture she borrowed to suit her own ends. Detractors misrepresented her use of jaw-droppingly over-the-top spectacle as proof of decadence rather than the art of a political visionary. From the beginning of her reign, the young queen had manipulated her largely illiterate populace by staging elaborate productions that underscored and cemented the idea of her divinity and her therefore incontestable rule.
Gliding up the Nile, having styled herself as Isis, Cleopatra presented Caesar to "cheering crowds" agog at the gigantic royal barge embedded with gold and ivory and bearing colonnades and 18-foot gilded statues. For as long as nine weeks Cleopatra displayed herself and her alpha mate as "the earthly visitation of two living gods." And her auspiciously timed pregnancy allowed her to advertise the fertility of their union. When her child was born, she named him Caesarion and, in a further reworking of the myth she inherited, installed "little Caesar" as her co-ruler after his father’s assassination in 44 B.C. Caesar fit neatly into the role of Isis’s partner, Osiris. The supreme male divinity was murdered by enemies who spared his "young male heir and a devoted quick-thinking consort." As Schiff dryly observes, "the Ides of March handily buttressed the tale."
Egypt had the wealth to underwrite Roman wars; Cleopatra needed Roman clout to keep her throne; it had long been Rome’s intent to annex Egypt. In 41 B.C., Mark Antony, intending to learn where Cleopatra’s post-Caesar loyalties lay, summoned her to Tarsus. Fluent in pantheons other than Egypt’s, Cleopatra there descended as Venus, with an entourage befitting the goddess of love. Her silver-oared barge had purple sails and an orchestra of lyres, flutes and pipes, everything perfumed by "countless incense offerings." Fair maidens dressed as nymphs and graces worked the ropes while beautiful cupids fanned the queen under her golden canopy. The "blinding explosion of color, sound and smell" captivated another gaping multitude, and the equally astonished Mark Antony followed Cleopatra back to Alexandria. Again using biology to shape destiny, she promptly bore him a son and a daughter, and then another son; she and her lover remained together for the better part of a decade. Death didn’t part so much as bind them together indefinitely, with tandem suicides concluding their biographies on a note of high drama and guaranteeing the staying power of a romance that had held their contemporaries in thrall.
Cleopatra mythologized herself before anyone else had the chance. Roman contemporaries misread the pageants she acted out; early biographers were biased, xenophobic, politically motivated and sometimes sensationalistic, writing for an audience that expected to be dazzled by intrigues reflecting its assumptions. It’s dizzying to contemplate the thicket of prejudices, personalities and propaganda Schiff penetrated to reconstruct a woman whose style, ambition and audacity make her a subject worthy of her latest biographer. After all, Stacy Schiff’s writing is distinguished by those very same virtues.
With her signature blend of wit, intelligence and superb prose, Schiff strips away 2,000 years of prejudices and propaganda in her elegant reimagining of the Egyptian queen who, even in her own day, was mythologized and misrepresented.
Here is the only truly definitive history of classical ballet. Spanning more than four centuries, from the French Renaissance to American and Soviet stages during the cold war, Homans shows how the art has been central to the social and cultural identity of nations. She meticulously reconstructs entire eras, describing the evolution of ballet technique while coaxing long-lost dances back to life. And she raises a crucial question: In the 21st century, can ballet survive?
Time is the "goon squad" in this virtuosic rock 'n' roll novel about a cynical record producer and the people who intersect his world. Ranging across some 40 years and inhabiting 13 different characters, each with his own story and perspective, Egan makes these disparate parts cohere into an artful whole, irradiated by a Proustian feel for loss, regret and the ravages of love.
Gathering work from Trevor's previous four collections, this volume shows why his deceptively spare fiction has haunted and moved readers for generations. Set mainly in Ireland and England, Trevor's tales are eloquent even in their silences, documenting the way the present is consumed by the past, the way ancient patterns shape the future. Neither modernist nor antique, his stories are timeless.
Donoghue has created one of the pure triumphs of recent fiction: an ebullient child narrator, held captive with his mother in an 11-by-11-foot room, through whom we encounter the blurry, often complicated space between closeness and autonomy. In a narrative at once delicate and vigorous — rich in psychological, sociological and political meaning — Donoghue reveals how joy and terror often dwell side by side.
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