The novel by Stacy Schiff, does not start out as seeming to be all that well written. It’s filled with overly general clichéd statements about power, territory and legend. “At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great Kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment, she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man. Three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational.”
According to the cover, the author apparently won the Pulitzer Prize at some point. The start to this novel is odd as it is a lot of very broad information that is not well connected, it only happens to be about the same person. It’s not totally disjointed either, but it’s not what one would expect from such a hyped novel. The first paragraph is only missing three or four exclamation points in a row.
It’s also very condescending to the protagonist, whom has not been properly introduced to any given audience. There’s a difference between knowing vague generalities about a person and actually being introduced to a character whether biographical or not. “Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress.”
For the majority she is perhaps best known as the lover of Mark Antony and a ruler of Egypt. It’s like the author is really saying Cleopatra is a whore no matter what she really did with her life. It was written in 2010. I’ve read novels from the 18th century that are more advanced, in the sense they are about the complexities of circumstance as tried upon human nature and the inevitable outcomes to it all, rather than any one female protagonist being a good or bad girl.
Such writing does make one wonder if the future of novels is going backward or forward. For instead of an educated ruler with a control over vast domain, for her short life, one instead gets the picture of a Pretty Woman prostitute who was a good girl all the same and remembered to use dental floss: the well behaved wanton temptress. It seems Cleopatra is made into a modern American fantasy prototype than anything having to do with ancient Egyptian and Roman Empires.
It’s not expected that everyone who writes a biography should be Antonia Fraser nor that every writer should introduce character with the alacrity of Collins or Dickens, but still, the writing has too many ideas that very broadly connect even in the body of the novel.
Though, the body of the work is more specific than the introduction, it seems more of a judgment of a historical apparition than a biography at all. In Schiff’s view; poor, defenseless Caesar was forced by circumstance and Cleopatra’s wiles to do her bidding and get her pregnant. Somehow, one doubts this was really the case.
“Cleopatra – or Egypt – tended to have this effect on poor, vulnerable Romans. Her country itself was a tease and a temptation…She roundly confirmed the myth of the propagative powers of her magnificent country.”
It might be said Schaff could incorporate more emotive sophistication. There does seem to be research done for it, that would be difficult to undertake given the time lapse, but it might arguably not be a biography as it lacks professional objectivity.
By Sarah Bahl