Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Antony and Cleopatra

I wanted to like this book. The whole Masters of Rome series is genius. Before you get discouraged by this review, go read The First Man in Rome and get to know Gaius Marius and a young Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The series maintains its relevance — even as the history becomes more familiar with the arrival of Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar — because her characters are brilliant. McCullough does a masterful job of detailing Sulla's depravity, Pompey's arrogance, and Caesar's Johnson as a political weapon. But her enemies are great, too. You couldn't help but like Jugurtha, and Mithridates the Great (Holy gratuitous self-referencing, Batman!) won me over with his favorite punishment for incompetent subordinates:
Tongue out, eyes out, hands off, balls off, begging bowl!
But the best character of all is Marcus Antonius. This isn't the Antony of Shakespeare:
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
That Antony is noble, brave, brilliant, better than Caesar even, but of course with a fatal flaw.

But McCullough's Antony isn't even that of HBO's Rome series. Their Antony is still brilliant, and might have made the speech above, but he's almost completely amoral, and of course with the same fatal flaw. James Purefoy almost made us believe he was Antony himself. It was only HBO's obsession with gratuitous male full frontal nudity that confirmed he had one very un-Antonian feature.

No, McCullough's Antony is (was) my favorite of all. Completely amoral, sometimes brilliant, sometimes a buffoon, undeniably brave, as debaucherous as Sulla, and as vain as Pompey. This Antony wanted to kill Caesar himself so he could inherit his fortune, but was still indispensable to Caesar, who kept him at his side. He had lions pull his chariot, had as many women as he wanted, and routinely drank himself into week long stupors. He went to costume parties in tight fitting clothes to show off his legendary organ. I mean, what's not to like. This guys was everything — everything but dull.

That is, until Antony and Cleopatra. The guy's just pathetic through the entire book. Look, McCullough's limited with what she can do here. She can't make him beat the Parthians or triumph over Octavian
but at least she could have given the man his due and made this seem remotely plausible. Antony might not have been the general Caesar was, fair enough, but the campaign against the Parthians was a joke from the beginning. He whines the whole time and cries like a little girl afterwards. Sure he fell in love with Cleopatra — fine — but does he have to whimper and do nothing while she slowly drives away ally after ally?

The bravado, the charm, the occasional brilliance, the charisma
— all gone right from the beginning. Instead of a tragic ending to a brilliant career, we get 500 pages of a pathetic driveling man standing by while a stupid woman slowly destroys him. It's not just sad, it's kind of boring. The same meeting — Cleopatra insults Antony's legates, Antony lets her, legates desert — happens over and over.

A brilliant series ends on a dull note. And Antony's sudden change from best character in the series to pathetic loser is neither entertaining nor plausible.

I haven't read this one yet, though I plan to. I keep finding other books to read first, and I think that's pretty telling.

I've felt for a while now that this series was heading downhill, and I've wondered why. I think a big part of it is that the historical and cultural record is thick with material that covers this period (say, from Caesar's career onward), and so McCullough not only has to contend with competing — sometimes Shakespearean — narratives, she's also telling stories most of us already know. Rome buff that I am, I couldn't have foretold the plot twists and turns in the earlier books on Marius, Sulla, and Pompey. But we all know what's coming here, for the most part.

Since she can't rely on a suspenseful plot, McCullough has to rely on other qualities to sustain our interest — principally, her detail work and her character development. It sounds to me like you feel she had a pretty good character in Antony, and she betrayed him.

I will say from my own experience failing at literature that I've written supporting characters that I like a heck of a lot — in some cases much more than the principals — but if I ever had to turn them into principal characters, I'd probably end up hanging myself. I think this is because the more peripheral a character is, the more he can get away with being a character, a work of artifice, rather than a more complete, developed person. With distance, a statue without detail can still look good. Up close it doesn't work. So when McCullough bids to make Antony her protagonist, she has to give him more depth and complexity — this undercuts the sharp and static elements that make him stand out, and he loses much of his appeal.

There's a bit of art imitating life here, too. I'd venture to say that Antony was the sort of person who did his best work as a supporting actor. When events wrenched Caesar away and the spotlight finally turned to him, he showed an astonishing lack of depth and standalone character — and that's what ultimately did him in.

I'll agree with most of that. And I acknowledge that she had a difficult task. But I think Antony became more cardboard in this book. He still had plenty of depth in The October Horse — and he was already a principal character at that point — but he's just boring, pathetic and obvious in this last book.

You say the real Antony wasn't much without Caesar? Yet somehow he managed to orchestrate the defeat of the conspirators and carve up half the world for himself — all this from a pretty precarious situation immediately following Caesar's death. The real (and in every telling I've heard/read/seen, also the fictional) Antony is pretty damn remarkable from Caesar's death to Philippi. The real one eventually falls — we know that — but tell me how. Don't just remove everything useful and interesting from the guy and let him wallow until it's all over . . .

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