Friday, January 07, 2011

Alexander and His Nature!

Our books today are two slam-bang fantastic biographies of Alexander the Great: Peter Green's masterful 1970 volume Alexander the Great and Mary Renault's more emotional, empathetic 1975 volume The Nature of Alexander. Both books do a superb job of assembling and presenting the known facts of Alexander's life and times (they remain the two best works on the subject ever written in English, by my reckoning), and they quite unconsciously form very illuminating counter-points to each other. Unlike many historical subjects, Alexander can bear this kind of multiplicity of interpretation - not only are the accounts of his life less than we would like, but those facts were hospitable to legend even while Alexander was alive - indeed, even while he was still a boy. Then as now, there's a very pleasing sense that none of these accounts might be right - or that all of them might be right at the same time.

Green, the intense classical scholar, treats his sources with rigor and his subject with a cold kind of equanimity:
I have tried, insofar as the evidence would allow it, to strip away the accreted myth, and discover the historical Alexander of flesh and blood - no easy task. His true genius was as a field-commander: perhaps, taken all in all, the most incomparable general the world has ever seen. His business was war and conquest. It is idle to palliate this central truth, to pretend that he dreamed, in some mysterious fashion, of wading through rivers of blood and violence to achieve the Brotherhood of Man. He spent his life, with legendary success, in the pursuit of personal glory; and until very recent times this was regarded as a wholly laudable aim.

Whereas Renault, a novelist who wrote two great fictional works about Alexander, is far more impressionistic, far more willing to extrapolate the personal, lived reality of her subject, as when she imagines his death-scene:
Ever ready to die in war, he must long have been prepared to die in pain, and resolved it should not diminish him. The exhaustion must have shortened his last hours, but it is unlikely at this stage he could have recovered. The necessary suffering he accepted in return for what had been essential to him all his life: to be equal to his legend; to be beloved; and to require it extravagantly, regardless of expense. Whether sustained by pride, by philosophy, by belief in the immortality of his fame or of his soul, he met his end with not less dignity, fortitude and consideration for others than Socrates himself. And he, till he drank the quick painless hemlock, was a healthy man with a long, fulfilled life behind him; Alexander carried it through with a great design in ruins, and in the distress of a mortal sickness.

Our two editions in question today - the Praeger version of Green's book and the big Pantheon hardcover of Renault's - were part of a very welcome trend in the 1970s toward larger, profusely illustrated nonfiction books. Green's photo editor and Renault's have ransacked the ancient and modern worlds, providing slightly differing versions of virtually every image even remotely associated with Alexander (mercifully, both these books being from the '70s, neither one features the sight of Colin Farrell in eye-liner). I like this approach much more than the current crop of hardcover works of history with their marooned little sheaf of photos stuck in the middle. Both these books are visually fascinating, which is always a welcome bonus.

But the true draw is the prose, of course, in both cases - sharp, intelligent prose from both authors, but employed to very different ends. Green wants us to shed the accretion of myth and soft track-lighting that has accompanied Alexander for two thousand years. He never misses an opportunity to cut the diminutive conqueror down to size:
Like most personally austere leaders, he had an ill-disguised contempt for humanity in the mass, and seems to have felt he could manipulate his troops as he pleased simply by indulging their grosser appetites.

Whereas Renault, being more than a little in love with her subject, wants her readers to love him too and is willing to defend him even sometimes against the weight of fact, as in her characteristic aside about his wanton sack of the great palace at Persepolis:
This action is know today by people who know virtually nothing else about him (and who remain more impressed by this outrage to an empty building than by the living holocausts of Coventry and Dresden); fit retribution, if he deserved it, for a man who cared intensely about his good name.

I just the other day re-read both these books back-to-back, and I came away all the more impressed with each of them despite their enormous philosophical differences. Both are readily available in scads of editions (although I happen to think these two are the prettiest), and each in their own way would have pleased Alexander's erratic egotism, although he'd have been shocked by how much both must necessarily indulge in conjecture. He had a horror of being unknown to the future, and reading how different these two intelligent, well-researched treatments of his story are, you suddenly realize just how fragile that story is.

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