Saturday, March 12, 2016
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
New York: Little, Brown and Company
$29.99 - 368 pages
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” --- Cicero, 106, B. C.
Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian and a guest editorialist for the New York Times, has written a fascinating historical biography of one of “the most alluring and elusive women in recorded history” - Cleopatria VII. She was the last of a long list of Egyptian queens and pharaohs who lived in luxury, controlled an fabulous kingdom and murdered their enemies (including their own family) with impunity. A descendant of the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt from the death of Alexander, the Great (305 B. C.) until 30 B. C. It is a period of excessive cruelty and creativity and embodies a time when knowledge (the Alexandrian library was the greatest in the world), wealth and power co-existed - all of which made Alexandria “the greatest city on earth.”
According to Schiff, Cleopatra has been ill-served by everyone from “the lilac-eyed Elizabeth Taylor” to a host of historians, including Dellius, Plancus and Josephus, none of which knew their subject personally but readily accepted the wildly improbable stories that were repeated at the time - reports of Bacchanalian orgies and banquets that gave new meaning to the word “gluttony.” Perhaps the Queen’s greatest enemy was the philosopher and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who developed a reputation for his scathing attacks on his enemies. ( He appears to be a kind of Roman Walter Winchell.) Cicero devoted an amazing amount of time and talent (in both writing and oratory) to ridiculing Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Much of Rome and Egypt lived in fear of this noted senator’s witty diatribes on everything from bad taste in clothing to social misconduct of the rich and famous. As a result, Anthony finally ordered his murder and requested that Cicero’s hands (which has written so many insults and lies) be returned to him. Anthony’s wife, Flavia, demanded Cicero’s head and took pleasure in piercing the dead orator’s tongue with a pin.)
Essentially, Schiff corrects the errors of Cleopatra’s detractors by painstaking research. She reveals that her subject spoke nine languages
fluently and surrounded herself with hundreds of advisors, philosophers, poets and musicians. During her reign, the streets of Alexandria and the public buildings were encased in semi-precious stones with the city’s main thoroughfare (40 feet wide) guarded by a phalanx of elaborately carved sphinxes. The Alexandrian library contained 500,000 scrolls - the works of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers. All of the Greek arts flourished in Alexandria and Cleopatra, like the average citizen of her day, could quote passages from Homer’s Iliad and eagerly participated in debates on questions such as “Can Medea’s murder of her children be justified?” The city contained over 400 theaters and the works of the Greeks, from Sophocles to Sappho were popular with the local citizens. Due to mutually beneficial trade agreements with India, Egypt teemed with foreign wines, spices and silks.
Schiff provides fascinating insights into the most famous/infamous tales about the Egyptian queen. Did the 17-year-old queen smuggle herself into Julius Caesar’s presence wrapped in a rug? Yes, she did, although the actual event may have lacked the dramatic trappings of the movies, she succeeded in her purpose: to seduce Egypt’s conquerer and become the mother of his child. Frequently, the author’s research reveals excesses that are grander and more fantastic than anything described by her critics. She and Julius Caesar did make an astonishing journey up the Nile in a 300-foot royal barge that included a gym, a library, a garden, a grotto, a lecture hall, copper baths and an aquarium. The luxury of this incredible journey is verified right down to the menu and the wine list.
The heart of this fatal drama concerns the astonishing events which occur after Julius Caesar’s assassination. When Cleopatra finds herself playing host to a second conquerer, Mark Anthony. Thus begins a love story that inspired hundreds of poets and playwrights, including Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. Is it true? How much of it is either the posturing of two egomaniacs or the creation of Greek and Egyptian gossipmongers who bear a remarkable resemblance to modern-day tabloids? Schiff provides proof that, despite political intrigue and the shifting loyalties of the Ptolemaic rulers and the Romans, beneath the rants and theatrical posing, the passion was real.
At the time that Marc Anthony met Cleopatria, he was the darling of the Roman senate. He had married wealth and was the acknowledged “adopted son of Julius Caesar.” After Caesar’s death, Anthony was committed to tracking all of the assassins who fled like a covey of quail to a dozen cities. He was also on the “fast track” to becoming Caesar’s successor. According to the writers, orators and sculptors of the time, Anthony was strikingly handsome (he was in his 50’s) and possessed a frank and open nature that made him loved by both the Roman populace and his own soldiers. However, his devotion to Cleopatra cost him his future, and made his a “traitor” to Rome. After he “abandoned” Rome, he quickly passed from being “a mortal god” to an object of contempt. After Octavian, Caesar’s “true son,” denounced him as a besotted and foolish man who had allowed himself to be enslaved by a woman, (unforgivable in a Roman) his fate was sealed.
Schiff develops the idea that Rome (the West) and Egypt (The East) were direct opposites in geography, climate, morals and temperament. From the beginning, many Romans found Egypt to be a land of hedonists and degenerates. In like manner, Egyptians viewed Rome as a fascist state ruled by moralistic kill-joys who were obsessed with conquest and power. Conflict was inevitable.
However, Schiff finds yet another reason to admire Cleopatra. She was unique for her age - a powerful, intelligent woman capable of ruling a 300-year-old dynasty. She successfully held her own against assassins, generals and world leaders, such as Herod, the murderous “client king” of Judea and defied Rome who denounced her as Caesar’s concubine.
What about the fabled end of these star-crossed lovers? When the triumphant Octavian arrives in Alexandria prepared to march Anthony and Cleopatra in chains through the streets (although he dreamed of executing Anthony), did he succeed? No, he didn’t, and it frustrated him considerably. The final suicides of these two lovers differs slightly from the popular tale (no poisoned asp), but it remains a moving and poignant conclusion to one of the world’s most memorable love stories.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
$16.95 - 483 pages
"It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams."
-Garbiel Garcia Marquez
Early in this astonishing autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes a comment about the problems the he has experienced when writing about the past. He notes: nostalgia colors the way we recall the past because frequently, it has “erased the bad memories and magnified the good ones.” Ironically, this judgment is an accurate description of Living to Tell the Tale. For example, Marquez repeatedly veers away from describing the execution of 3,000 striking banana workers in his home town (Barranqualla) while devoting long, descriptive passages to his childhood passions: reading comics (Flash Gordon, Tarzan and Mutt & Jeff) while attempting to draw his own versions which he sold to the neighbors.
From the beginning, Marquez was a storyteller, entertaining his family with his personal accounts of local events, gossip and scandal. By the age of four, he had learned to embellish his stories with bizarre details. In addition, he loved music and delighted everyone by singing the romantic ballads he heard on the radio. However, to the distress of his parents, he always wanted to be a writer (journalist) and began his career writing for the local newspapers. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing a daily column while singing with local quartets at night, an activity that paid little if anything. (Gabriel’s father was a failed businessman (pharmacy) who was rarely able to provide for his family )
I first read a reference in the New York Times to Marquez as “our greatest living writer” some twenty years ago, and after reading his first novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I concluded that the Times was right. Marquez is a master of descriptive detail and when I read his account of a journey he made with his mother to the nearly abandoned town of his childhood “to sell their house,” I remembered all of the journeys in Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth as Marquez describes the Magdalena river, the stench of drowned chickens and cows, the stultifying heat and the constant vibration of the engine on the boat as young prostitutes ply their trade in the dark. (He says the river mud was so deep and smelled so bad, passengers had to be carried to the bank by servants who beat off the clouds of turkey buzzards that fed off the dead creatures in the muck.)
Marquez developed an appreciation for American writers as a teenager and read (and identified with) Faulkner. He also read Dos Passos and Hemingway and often praised his favorites in his newspaper columns. However, his favorite literature was A Thousand and One Nights.
Marquez brings the same graphic realism to the streets of his childhood home where the nights are filled with laughter and weeping. In addition, the young Marquez listened to his relatives tell stories of ghosts and suicides.The household, including and awesome number of uncles and aunts who recount tales of the suicides of impoverished lawyers by “gold cyanide” and aunts who have been dead for years are sometimes encountered in the hallways. There is also a constant supply of illegitimate sons who come seeking refuge with the Marquez family. (Some are brothers to the young Gabriel and others are the sons of his grandfather who is notorious for his love affairs. (He was sometimes found guilty due to his cologne which was detected on a pillow by a jealous husband.) There is an insane grandmother who has conversations with the dead and numerous tales of duels fought either by gun-toting lawyers or short-tempered relatives with a grudge.
All of this sounds like a bad environment for a young boy, but such is not the case. The suicides, the murderers, the lovers and the lost ghosts - all are the characters of the novels that Gabriel Garcia Marquez will write, and they will be given a kind of immortality denied to most mortals. At some point, I realized that my appreciation for this creator of “magical realism” was partly due to his resemblance to another writer - a North Carolina writer who also had a talent for writing narrative filled with sensory details, passages that linger in the mind long after the work is finished. I am talking about Thomas Wolfe, of course. That is not a new comparison, since other readers have also noted that both Wolfe and Marquez share a talent for rich descriptive details, especially descriptions of journeys, of night time and of food. Both share a gift for celebrating lost love.
In reading Living to Tell the Tale, I had considerable difficulty in remembering that Marquez died two years ago, having only finished the first of his three-volume autobiography. (He chose to stop with his marriage in 1954, leaving some sixty years to celebrate in the last two books. When I went back to read a few of the tributes to Marquez, I found several heart-felt account of his final days. His friends remember that he never stopped believing that he would finish the remaining two books of his autobiography. He was living in Mexico at the time of his death since his “political views” had made him an unwanted resident in Colombia. (Due to his celebrated friendship with Fidel Castro, his presence in the United States was awkward.
According to his brother, Marquez developed pancreatic cancer while working on Living to Tell the Tale. Eventually, the author received chemotherapy treatments which inevitably caused senile dementia. Friends noted that the chemotherapy halted the cancer but destroyed Marquez’ mind. As a consequence, this gifted man gradually developed Alzheimer's. In the end, he stopped writing and acknowledged that he would not write again. He died in 2014 at the age of 87.
For those of you who are devoted fans, rumors are circulating about an unpublished work that will possibly be published soon. The work is entitled “We Will See Each Other in August.” At his death, Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written fourteen major works. His most noted work remains One Hundred Years of Solitude which won the Nobel Prize in 1982.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
A Belated Mother’s Day Tribute
When I was a wilful child (which was most of the time), when I provoked my grandmother to the point where she lost her temper, she would grab me by the scuff of the neck (or my shirt collar) and would march me to the front porch where she would point to a worn spot in front of the big white bannisters, and she would say, “There!” (Oh, I knew the speech by heart, for I had heard it often.) “That’s where I found you! Pitiful little young’en, just barely two years old, and you was holding a little paper sack with some clean underwear in it.” Then, she would look about with feigned puzzlement, and add, “But where is your Momma? Why did she leave this young’en on my porch? Where is she?” Then, she would pretend to look for her, peering down the dusty little trail that vanished beyond the barn.
“Do you know where she is, Gar Nell? Where is your Momma?”
That was my cue, and I would chirrup “She gone to Knoxville on the Trailways bus, Momma.”
Then my grandmother would say softly, “Who are you calling ‘Momma’?”
I would dutifully reply, “You.”
“That’s right. I’m the only Momma you got. I took you when nobody wanted you, cause your real Momma left you on this porch. Right there!” She would point at that same bare plant. Then, finally, she would say, “So, Gar Nell, you owe me.”
“What do I owe you, Momma?”
“You owe me respect, young’en. You owe me a load of stovewood so I can fix supper. You owe me some evening chores, because I am old and slow, so you fetch the cow from the pasture.” So I did that.
Many years later, a neighbor told me she saw my mother on the morning that she caught the bus. “She had a busted, little cardboard suitcase, and the clothes on her back. She looked frightened.”
My grandmother never forgave her. “What kind of a mother would abandon a two-year-old child? I can’t forgive her.”
Over the years, my grandmother built a hard case against my mother. “She said she was coming back to get you, but she didn’t. No, she married another man, a smily, smirky peckerwood and they had another son and went on with their lives ... like nothing had happened.”
On one occasion, she said, “You know your mother tried to kill herself?” Of course, I didn’t. “It was when she was courting your daddy, and one morning when he arrived to take her to school, Irene’s mother, who was not sane, ordered your daddy to leave. That is when your Momma found her
father’s pistol. In the middle of the old lady’s rant, Irene shot herself. I always wondered why she didn’t shoot her mother. She lived, of course, but her arm was still in a sling when she got married.”
All of that happened over seventy years ago, and a lot of things have happened since. When I graduated from high school in 1953, my mother came to the graduation ceremony. She had bought my class ring and the high school principal gave it to me before the graduation. The next day, she came and stood in the dirt road in front of my grandparent’s house. I was in the bedroom reading (yes, I was always reading) and my grandmother came in and said, “Gar Nell, a woman who says she is your Momma is out here in the road. Now, there ain’t no way that she is coming in my house, but you can go out there and talk to her if you want to.”
Went I met her in the road, I remember that she was beautiful .. as beautiful as the picture that I had of her that I kept hidden in the attic. So, we walked through Rhodes Cove, sometimes stopping to rest. My “real” mother’s parents lived nearby, and finally we walked there and sat on the front porch and talked. We talked for two days and although I went home each night to my grandparents’ house, I returned the next day to talk to my mother. We made plans. I would come to live with her in Knoxville and she
would send me to a university.
It didn’t happen, of course. That summer, I rode the bus to Columbia, Tennessee, where my half-brother greeted with screaming tantrums. My would-be father-in-law talked as though I were not present. “Irene,” he would say, “ask him if he wants some more mashed potatoes.” Or, “ask him if he would like to go to a movie.” My week-long visit was reduced to a single day, and I was delivered to the bus with a ticket for Sylva.
But I had learned that things were not quite what my grandmother reported. At one point when my mother was attempting to explain why she had left, she showed me an ugly scar behind her knee. “My own mother did that,” she said. “Did it with a white-hot poker. She was not sane and my brothers and sisters lived in terror of her. After your father’s death, my mother told me that I was not to bring you home as she would not allow it.” I learned that all of my mother’s brothers had run away from home by the age of twelve.
So, my mother lived in Columbia, Tennessee and I lived in Sylva, N. C. We made no further attempts to correspond until ten years ago when I wrote a book and sent a copy to my mother. She sent me a letter with a single sentence: “Can you forgive me?” I went to see her shortly before she died. By then, she had lost everything and was living in one of those nursing homes with eight other widows (It was called “Home, Sweet Home.”) where she had a single bed and a black-and-white television. My unstable half-brother was a reluctant visitor.
On our final meeting, my mother was filled with anxiety, and kept saying, “There is so much I need to tell you.” She told me what her life was like after my father’s death and the painful details are difficult to repeat here. It was an account of petty cruelties that gave me a painful insight into what it was like to be a young widow in Sylva in the 1930’s. Not wanting to return to the home of her own parents, she tried to live in a small apartment and
attempted to keep my father’s old store, called “Hap’s Place” open. She received a lot of unwanted attention from drunks and was finally assaulted one night. At this point, she hit on the desperate idea of going to a “business college” in Knoxville and finding employment as a secretary.
When it was time for me to leave Home, Sweet Home,” my mother grabbed my hand and pressed a locket in it. “This is all that is left, dear,” she said. The locket had photos of my parents, young and smiling.
So, I had two mothers, I guess. Agnes Carden, (who was also my grandmother), and Irene Ashe Carden, my mother. In answer to my mother’s question, yes, I can forgive you, although I have come to feel that I need to be forgiven for being such a wilful child. When I conjure up a vision of my frightened mother standing at the bus station with her battered suitcase, or when I remember my grandmother pointing at that worn plank on the porch, I can finally say, “I forgive you.”
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Going to Pasaquan
Some thirty years ago, Jonathan Williams sent me a copy of Saint EOM in the Land of Pasaquan. It was an amazing book that was filled with radiant photographs of a fantastic place in south Georgia that resembled a southern Land of Oz. Towering giant figures guarded the entrance to a walled kingdom filled with sleeping pythons, pagodas, watch-towers and meditation rooms filled with murals of exotic figures. The Lord of this magic land was Saint EOM, a man dressed in flowing robes and a turban (and accompanied by two guard dogs with the ability to smell “bad vibes”). Saint EOM welcomed visitors to come inside for tea, fortune-telling and an apocalyptic message about a world betrayed by greed. I wanted to go.
It didn’t happen, of course. Life got in the way and instead of making my pilgrimage to south Georgia, I told stories, taught school and worried about my mounting debts. Occasionally, news arrived. Pasaquan was in trouble and there was talk of demolishing it. Luckily, it was rescued by a dozen foundations that established a preservation fund. Then, in 1986, Saint EOM, who was a man named Eddie Owens Martin, committed suicide. He was in failing health, suffered from dark depressions and was beginning to have serious doubts about his ability to change the world. There was also messages regarding the decline of Pasaquan. Time, freezing rains and the south Georgia sun was taking its toll, as concrete walls cracked and watchful gods faded. If I was going to Pasaquan, I had better hurry.
So, I talked two friends (Michael, the bookseller and Brent, the poet) into making a foolish journey to Pasaquan. It was not a good time, but then, it never is. My health is not good and when I attempted to get a prescription for heart medication, my doctor whisked me off to the emergency ward where I was told I needed to be “monitored” for a few days. Suddenly, I was in a hospital room, connected to a host of beeping machines and drips. I was told that my heart appeared to be damaged and I needed a few days of observations.
I must reluctantly admit that I have become what the world dreads: a willful and stubborn old guy who refuses tho cooperate with people who want to help him. “No way,” I told a half dozen attendants. “I am going to Pasaquan.” There was much whispering in the hall, but finally, I got my way. I was required to sign some kind of legal document that said that the hospital was not at fault if I dropped dead on the way to Pasawuan. So, I went home and packed a single bag. Michael, the bookseller, told me that he had talked to someone at Pasaquan who said that paradise was closed to the public; however, we would be allowed a solitary tour. Thanks to the preservation people, the entire place is scheduled for a million dollar facelift. When it reopens, it will be an exact restoration of the world that Saint EOM created.
So we went - the bookseller, the poet and a nice fellow named Justin who takes marvelous photographs. We endured four hours of Interstate traffic relieved only by a Cracker Barrel stop and arrived in Buena Vista, a remote little town surrounded by kudzu-choked pine thickets and bathed in the aroma of wisteria and the local Tyson’s chicken plant. We found Pasaquan six miles away, dozing under the Georgia sun.
It was exactly as I thought it would be. No surprises and no disappointments. The entire place seemed to be gradually vanishing, as Pasaquan’s radiant colors became more muted each day. The imposing statuary was cracking, surrounded by fragments of Sherwin-Williams coated concrete. We were assured that all would be as it once was, and indeed, restoration had begun on one of the wall murals. The work was reassuring ... as though Pasaquan was receiving a blood transfusion and its former healthy glow was already returning. I could only hope that at some point perhaps, we would hear Saint EOM’s war shout and he would emerge from his meditation chamber to welcome us the place where “the past and future converge.” (According to Saint EOM, that is the meaning of the word “Pasaquan.”)
I confess that I was not a good traveling companion, and it speaks well of the character of my companions that they did not cast me out on a remote Georgia road and leave me to find my own way home. Yes, I was sullen and spiteful when I was not allowed to participate in the conversation on the way home. So while my companions rattled on about their adventures: fights, concerts, artistic achievements, I was reduced to removing my cochlear implant and dozing fitfully in the back seat where I finally listened to the council of Eddie Owens Martin, the old trash-talking drag queen from New York. He cut the cards and smiled at me. “It is going to be alright, you old fool. Stop fretting. Take a nap. Drink a beer. Life is wonderful if you don’t expect too much.”
After several weeks passed following the trip to Pasaquan, I had a disturbing thought. When the renovations are complete and the public is invited to return, I am sure the visitors will be amazed by the awesome diversity of Pasaquan. All of those gods, pythons and pagodas glowing in technicolor! Ah, but there is one vital part of Eddie’s fortress against the greedy world that cannot be restored, and that is Saint EOM himself. I am sure that visitors will enjoy the wonder and magic of the place, but if Pasaquan is to truly be resurrected, it needs Saint EOM. Let us hope that ther preservation foundation will realize this and employ an actor ... one that is old and eccentric, but willing to don Saint EOM’s exotic turbans and flowing robes. Give him two fierce dogs (Alsacians) and let him patrol his paradise, invite his visitors to tea, tells fortunes, rant against the corrupt world. Only then can Pasaquan be resurrected. Come to think of it, I could probably do it myself.