Thursday, November 09, 2006
Books! Augustus, dude!
Some of you will know how dearly I love the genre of biography. To my mind, there's no reading experience to equal a masterly-written life of an interesting person. That person doesn't need to be a king or a prince - ordinary people can be every bit as fascinating (the Pastons prove that, among others), if the writer is up to the task.
The biographer is key. The discipline requires extraordinary skill, even moreso than history does - because the biographer signs on for a kind of marriage with their subject. It's an explicitly personal connection that the regular historian doesn't have, and shouldn't have (with rare exceptions - surely Thucydides' history is better for his having participated in what he analyzes, and surely William Shirer's history of the Nazis is only the better for his hating them so).
A good biographer must walk the same line that destroys more marriages than it saves: the line between knowing an enormous amount about somebody and still managing to stay objective about them.
Most marriages fail this test, and most biographies do too. Either the biographer conducts the entire enterprise with rose-colored glasses firmly in place, or else the biographer starts to engage emotionally with their subject - which may or may not be bad for the reading experience, but which is certainly bad for the objectivity of the work.
There's one huge difference between these two failings: the latter can sometimes produce great works, and the former never can.
It's clear beyond doubting that by the end of her researches into Alexander the Great, Mary Renault had (like virtually everyone who came to know him well) fallen in love with her subject. Likewise Francis Hackett clearly came to hate Henry VIII by the time his book on he monarch was done.
And yet - both The Nature of Alexander and The Personal Life of Henry VIII are great works of biography, both saying to their readers: OK, I feel very strongly about my subject, and I think you'd be crazy NOT to, but either way, here are all the facts so you can judge for yourself.
(and of course in the most extreme of cases, can there be any doubt that all serious biographies of, say, Hitler have been written by people who went in hating their subjects and wrote in full possession of that hatred?)
Still, exceptions aside, most biographies fail because their authors have forgotten that their subjects are dead (as for the modern vogue in which this isn't the case, we here at Stevereads give it the back of our hand - the very least thing a person has to do to get written about, in our view, is to die. Until you at least do that, NOBODY can tell whether or not you were a loser) - instead, through all this time they've spent reading and researching, they've come to think of their dead subjects as living spouses ... with predictably lamentable results.
The ones that ALWAYS fail are the put-up jobs. The campaign biographies. The partisan apologia, the mere sycophancy.
Your suspension of disbelief (no less necessary with nonfiction) can survive knowing or suspecting that your biographer has an emotional axe to grind - one way or the other - with their subject. It absolutely can't survive the faintest wiff of toadyism, the faintest hint that the biographer might want a JOB from their subject.
Odd as it sounds, Anthony Everitt is looking for a job from the emperor Augustus.
I know, I know - the hope comes a trifle late for any chance of fulfillment. But how else to explain Everitt's new, stupid, and virtually useless biography of a man who's been dead for 2000 years?
Of course I acknowledge my own personal stake in the matter: Augustus was a monumental asshole who pulled off the ultimate irritating asshole-trick: he managed to convince nearly everybody that he was the exact OPPOSITE of an asshole (those of you groping for a contemporary analogy need look no further than erstwhile singer-cum-sainthood candidate Bono)(since of course the days of ACTUAL upstart emperors - men who connived and stole and lied their way to power over ancient republics and then maintained it by manipulating popular religious sentiment - are long since over)
Even so, I'm willing to read a well-researched, well-written biography of the man - not because I can be shifted in my opinion of him, but because only a fool doesn't admire passionate advocacy (or passionate condemnation).
And I've read such accounts! Gawd knows, there's been no shortage of them. I read Shuckburgh's great, myopic work on the man, and Firth's more dyspeptic account. I read Rich Holmes' searchingly objective but turgid account, and Buchan's towering masterpiece from the 1930s. All these men had several things in common: they were all classically educated, they were all steeped in the primary sources, and they'd all read extensively in biography and history - not just of their own periods, but of all periods.
Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Anthony Everitt. Perhaps you remember him from the halls of Ridgemont High.
Everitt very much belongs to the FORMER school of biographers. He scans the rolls of historical characters, picks somebody his previous background has disposed him to like, and then writes a 'biography' in which he proceeds to like the daylights out of them for about 280 pages (any more would be, you know, boring).
Jupiter's balls, but this is a dumb book.
Everitt's last book was a life of Cicero, and it was dumb too - but there was a symmetry to it, since Cicero's life and endless pronouncements were mostly dumb too. Cicero's anile chattering about himself dovetailed gracefully with Everitt's anile chattering about him.
A life of Augustus must perforce delve into deeper, darker waters. There's much more to determine here than which of the stories Cicero told about himself are true and which aren't. The young man who became Augustus trod the most twisting political and social paths in Western history, and enough of it comes down to us indirectly documented so that you very much want a skilled, scholarly, savvy guide to help you thread the undercurrents. The LAST person you want helping you out is a semi-sentient ex-footballer with a penchant for cliches.
And boy, does he love his cliches! They crawl over the text of this book like ants at a picnic. Virtually every title chapter is a cliche proudly paraded ('Unfinished Business' 'Killing Fields' 'Golden Age' 'Parthian Shots' East is East and West is West' 'Showdown' 'The Long Farewell' 'Whom the Gods Love' 'The Bitter End'), and the text itself is larded with them too - innumerable characters 'sit on their hands' or 'cool their heels' or 'sit this one out.'
All of which would be passably bearable if a book were spirited enough to circumvent such crudities, but alas, this isn't such a book.
Instead, this is a David McCullough-style least-common-denominator popularization, only without McCullough's (admittedly slight) ability to craft competent prose (it's without McCullough's team of editorial janitors too - there are typos and clearly unintentional sentence fragments, and the index is gigantic game of musical chairs; Marc Antony, in typical wastrel fashion, only shows up for about half the pages he's credited with, for instance, and a couple of times when Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus' name is called in the index, his brother Gnaeus is the one who actually shows up in the text ... probably our author didn't notice the difference, since they looked so much alike)(and besides, who can keep all these crazy names straight anyway?).
But the crowning offense of the thing isn't its bluster and bungling (although those are pretty damn bad, in a 'popular' history that might actually snare one or two unwary readers) - it's the author's naked pretensions to get a seat at the big boy historian table. Since his nominal subject is the tumultuous era when Rome went from Republic to Empire, he sets his sights on the Everest of the period, Ronald Syme's masterly The Roman Revolution. Syme's book is almost inhumanly great, and Everitt loudly hails it as his guiding light.
Syme worked on his book for fifteen years. Its critical apparatus goes on for some thirty pages. Its Latin passages are offered without translation. It's serious history, for serious readers of history.
Everitt's book still has wet ink. It uses about twenty-five secondary sources (including websites), all of which - except for Syme - were written very recently. All of its primary sources are credited in recent translations. The numerous glosses throughout the book lead one to doubt severely that Everitt can read Latin (they lead to a moral certainty that he's innocent of Greek).
In short, Sir Ronald would not be amused.
Everitt flatly states at the onset of his book that all previous biographies of Augustus failed to delve the heart and soul of their subject. This leads to the obvious conclusion that he hasn't bothered to read any of the books mentioned above, especially Buchan's. I whole-heartedly recommend that he go and do so, and I make the same recommendation to all of you. In the meantime, don't even briefly consider giving this book to your Uncle Morty ('I don't know, he likes history...') over the holidays. The tables at your local Barnes & Noble offer much, much better pickings.