Friday, August 9, 2013

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Few figures of the Ancient World hold so powerfully the allure of myth and mystery as does the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.  Much of the historical record of this most wondrous monarch is unknown, clouded in mystery, or garbled by a millennia of material penned by her enemies.  Most of what we know was written by Roman historians in a language – Latin – unsympathetic to her and to her world.  But despite these hindrances, the historical and mythical Cleopatra looms large in our consciousness.

Cleopatra has inspired artists as diverse as William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Cecil B. DeMille.  Even P. G. Wodehouse had a crack at her in this inspired lyric:

In days of old beside the Nile
A famous queen there dwelt.
Her clothes were few,
But full of style.
Her figure slim and svelte.

On every man that wandered by
She pulled the Theda Bara eye.
And every one observed with awe,
That her work was swift,
But never raw.

I'd be like Cleopatterer,
If I could have my way.
Each man she met she went and kissed.
And she'd dozens on her waiting list.

I wish that I had lived there.
Beside the pyramid.
For a girl today don't get the scope
That Cleopatterer did.

And when she tired as girls will do,
Of Bill or Jack or Jim,
The time had come, his friends all knew,
To say goodbye to him.

She couldn't stand by any means,
Reproachful, stormy farewell scenes.
To such coarse stuff she would not stoop,
So she just put poison in his soup.

When out with Cleopatterer,
Men always made their wills.
They knew there was no time to waste,
When the gumbo had that funny taste.

They'd take her hand and squeeze it.
They'd murmur "Oh you kid!"
But they never liked to start to feed,
Til Cleopatterer did.

She danced new dances now and then.
The sort that make you blush.
Each time she did them, scores of men
Got injured in the rush.

They'd stand there gaping in a line,
And watch her agitate her spine.
It simply use to knock them flat,
When she went like this and then like that.

At dancing Cleopatterer,
Was always on the spot.
She gave these poor Egyptian ginks,
Something else to watch besides the sphinx.

Marc Antony admitted,
That what first made him skid,
Was the wibbly, wobbly, wiggly dance,
That Cleopatterer did.

But that’s not all.  Cleopatra was the lover of the two most powerful men of her age: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.  Her name is a synonym for feminine sexual power, for seduction, for unbridled ambition and for wanton sexuality.  (We should all be so lucky.)  With such baggage, what good does it do for the contemporary historian to set the record straight?

Well … much good.  With Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff has written what might be the single most readable biography of this fascinating figure.  Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra, like most of the ruling elite in Egypt, was Greek, descending from a long line of Ptolemies that traced ancestry back to Alexander the Great.  Family relations were a complicated affair – brothers married sisters and most questions of succession were settled by inter-family butchery.  But the Ptolemies had a genius for leadership and statecraft, and Cleopatra was one of the most accomplished of her line.

Cleopatra ruled from Alexandria, the most glorious city of the Ancient World.  It had the world’s greatest library, was richly laden with civic art and treasures from Greece, and was populated by a worldly, educated and cosmopolitan people.  It had a taste for luxury and spectacle, and may have been the richest nation in the civilized world.  However, by the time Cleopatra had come to power, her empire was in decline and it was necessary to maintain good relations with the rising Roman republic.  This she did through a heady mixture of bribery, bluff and bedroom shenanigans.  Most dramatizations of Cleopatra, Schiff argues, are always weak tea in comparison to the genuine article: Cleopatra’s combination of genius, guile and the grandiose are too heady to load into a single artistic construct.  Poets, playwrights and filmmakers often emphasize one component of her cosmic personality over another, distorting the complete picture.

Schiff’s book suffers somewhat from an overload of feminist sentiment.  While it is important to appreciate that Cleopatra was out-maneuvering the boys in the all-male game of world domination, Schiff seems to argue that Cleopatra was history’s only significant female world leader, which surely would be news to figures as diverse as Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and the Empress Dowager Ci'an.  Schiff certainly would have scored higher points by detailing more of Cleopatra’s genius, sense of style, mastery of sexual politics and gift for statecraft and by harping less on her womanhood.

Where Schiff’s book excels is in her masterful evocation of the Ancient World, and the sense of scale, opulence and magnificence of Cleopatra’s Egypt.  Reading the story of Cleopatra and her relations with both Caesar and Antony, you see giants walking the world stage, and get a sense of how beautiful and wondrous Ancient Egypt must have been.

Aesthetes have been tormented by visions of Egyptian beauty, and Schiff’s pages emit the rich, heady perfume of a bygone era.  Here, in a particularly wonderful and particularly purple passage, Schiff details the preparations of Cleopatra and her barge for her first historic meeting with Marc Antony:  The queen of Egypt’s presence was always an occasion; Cleopatra saw to it that this was a special one.  In a semiliterate world, the imagery mattered.  She floated up the bright, crystalline river, through the plains, in a blinding explosion of color, sound, and smell.  She had no need for magic arts and charms given her barge with gilded stern and soaring purple sails; this was not the way Romans traveled.  As they dipped in and out of the water, silver oars glinted broadly in the sun.  Their slap and clatter provided a rhythm section for the orchestra of flutes, pipes, and lyres assembled on deck.  Had Cleopatra not already cemented her genius for stage management she did so now: “She herself reclined beneath a gold-spangle canopy, dressed as Venus in a painting, while beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood at her sides and fanned her.  Her fairest maids were likewise dressed as sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the oars.  Wondrous odors from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.”  She outdid even the Homeric inspiration … Earlier that evening or on a subsequent one Cleopatra prepared twelve banquet rooms.  She spread thirty-six couches with rich textiles.  Behind them hung purple tapestries; embroidered with glimmering threads.  She saw to it that her table was set with golden vessels, elaborately crafted and encrusted with gems.  Under the circumstances, it seems likely that she, too, rose to the occasion and draped herself in jewels.  Pearls aside, Egyptian taste ran to bright semiprecious stones – agate, lapis, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, malachite, topaz – set in gold pendants, sinuous, intricately worked bracelets, long, dangling earrings.  On his arrival Antony gaped at the extraordinary display.  Cleopatra smiled modestly.  She had been in a hurry.  She would do better next time.

This is delicious stuff, and your correspondent read Cleopatra: A Life with considerable relish.  This is a biography not to be missed.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

On a Chinese Screen, by William Somerset Maugham (1922)

We have made little secret here at The Jade Sphinx of our love for writer William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965).  Maugham was a great literary artist and a rare one – often his books are related in first-person narration, but the point-of-view is seldom intrusive or misleading.  Maugham had the gift of being everywhere and nowhere; equally at home in a native hut in Burma as at a London society party.  Having earned a medical degree but never practicing medicine, Maugham cast a cold, clinical eye on human behavior, and mercilessly robbed us of our pretentions and affectations.  His is a voice that is missed.

Maugham’s biography makes that of overly macho writers like Hemmingway pale by comparison: world traveler, espionage agent, playwright, art collector, literary stylist.  Maugham travelled long enough and far enough to make Indiana Jones envious, and he used his wide experience as the basis of several of his most successful novels, including The Razor’s Edge (1944) and The Moon and Sixpence (1919).  For those who long for a world that is still exotic, or yearn for places before they were spoiled by fast-food chains and American consumer culture, a diet of Maugham is just what the doctor ordered.

In the winter of 1919, Maugham travelled 1,500 miles up the Yangtze River.  While on the road, Maugham noted down acute and finely crafted sketches of those he met on countless scraps of paper, gathering them together for publication in 1922 under the title On a Chinese Screen.  These scraps include views of Western missionaries, army officers and company managers who are culturally out of their depth in the immensity of the Chinese civilization.  With his typical precision, Maugham sheds light on the most vulnerable parts of their lives.

On a Chinese Screen is, in many ways, the perfect summer book.  There is no through narrative, and most of the ‘chapters’ run no more than a few paragraphs.  It is the perfect book for dipping or gobbling up – the vignettes that Maugham parades before us are mesmerizing.  Reading more like the rough notes of never-realized novels or short stories, the scraps in On a Chinese Screen will resonate in your memory much longer than more sustained and fully-crafted narratives.

Here, for example, is Maugham (celebrated playwright!) talking with a Chinese professor who has studied English theater:  "Does it require no more than that to write a play?" he inquired with a shade of dismay in his tone.

"You want a certain knack," I allowed, "but no more than to play billiards."

"They lecture on the technique of the drama in all the important universities of America," said he.

"The Americans are an extremely practical people," I answered. "I believe that Harvard is instituting a chair to instruct grandmothers how to suck eggs."

"I do not think I quite understand you."

"If you can't write a play no one can teach you and if you can it's as easy as falling off a log."

Here his face expressed a lively perplexity, but I think only because he could not make up his mind whether this operation came within the province of the professor of physics or within that of the professor of applied mechanics.

"But if it is so easy to write a play why do dramatists take so long about it?"

"They didn't, you know. Lope de la Vega and Shakespeare and a hundred others wrote copiously and with ease. Some modern playwrights have been perfectly illiterate men and have found it an almost insuperable difficulty to put two sentences together. A celebrated English dramatist once showed me a manuscript and I saw that he had written the question: will you have sugar in your tea, five times before he could put it in this form. A novelist would starve if he could not on the whole say what he wanted to without any beating about the bush."

"You would not call Ibsen an illiterate man and yet it is well known that he took two years to write a play."

"It is obvious that Ibsen found a prodigious difficulty in thinking of a plot. He racked his brain furiously, month after month, and at last in despair used the very same that he had used before."

"What do you mean?" the professor cried, his voice rising to a shrill scream. "I do not understand you at all."

"Have you not noticed that Ibsen uses the same plot over and over again? A number of people are living in a closed and stuffy room, then some one comes (from the mountains or from over the sea) and flings the window open; everyone gets a cold in the head and the curtain falls."

Or, better yet, here is Maugham, on a Chinese junk, thinking about the nature of adventure and romance.  This passage, perhaps more than ever, parses closest to the center of the Maugham persona, and provides a greater understanding of the sustained sense of living he sought abroad:  Then suddenly I had a feeling that here, facing me, touching me almost, was the romance I sought. It was a feeling like no other, just as specific as the thrill of art; but I could not for the life of me tell what it was that had given me just then that rare emotion.

In the course of my life I have been often in situations which, had I read of them, would have seemed to me sufficiently romantic; but it is only in retrospect, comparing them with my ideas of what was romantic, that I have seen them as at all out of the ordinary. It is only by an effort of the imagination, making myself as it were a spectator of myself acting a part, that I have caught anything of the precious quality in circumstances which in others would have seemed to me instinct with its fine flower. When I have danced with an actress whose fascination and whose genius made her the idol of my country, or wandered through the halls of some great house in which was gathered all that was distinguished by lineage or intellect that London could show, I have only recognized afterwards that here perhaps, though in somewhat Ouidaesque a fashion, was romance.

In battle, when, myself in no great danger, I was able to watch events with a thrill of interest, I had not the phlegm to assume the part of a spectator. I have sailed through the night, under the full moon, to a coral island in the Pacific, and then the beauty and the wonder of the scene gave me a conscious happiness, but only later the exhilarating sense that romance and I had touched fingers. I heard the flutter of its wings when once, in the bedroom of a hotel in New York, I sat round a table with half a dozen others and made plans to restore an ancient kingdom whose wrongs have for a century inspired the poet and the patriot ; but my chief feeling was a surprised amusement that through the hazards of war I found myself engaged in business so foreign to my bent. The authentic thrill of romance has seized me under circumstances which one would have thought far less romantic, and I remember that I knew it first one evening when I was playing cards in a cottage on the coast of Brittany. In the next room an old fisherman lay dying and the women of the house said that he would go out with the tide. Without a storm was raging and it seemed fit for the last moments of that aged warrior of the seas that his going should be accompanied by the wild cries of the wind as it hurled itself against the shuttered windows. The waves thundered upon the tortured rocks. I felt a sudden exultation, for I knew that here was romance.

And now the same exultation seized me, and once more romance, like a bodily presence, was before me. But it had come so unexpectedly that I was intrigued. I could not tell whether it had crept in among the shadows that the lamp threw on the bamboo matting or whether it was wafted down the river that I saw through the opening of my cabin. Curious to know what were the elements that made up the ineffable delight of the moment I went out to the stern of the boat. Alongside were moored half a dozen junks, going up river, for their masts were erect; and everything was silent in them. Their crews were long since asleep. The night was not dark, for though it was cloudy the moon was full, but the river in that veiled light was ghostly. A vague mist blurred the trees on the further bank. It was an enchanting sight, but there was in it nothing unaccustomed and what I sought was not there. I turned away. But when I returned to my bamboo shelter the magic which had given it so extraordinary a character was gone. Alas, I was like a man who should tear a butterfly to pieces in order to discover in what its beauty lay. And yet, as Moses descending from Mount Sinai wore on his face a brightness from his converse with the God of Israel, my little cabin, my dish of charcoal, my lamp, even my camp bed, had still about them something of the thrill which for a moment was mine. I could not see them any more quite indifferently, because for a moment I had seen them magically.

On a Chinese Screen is available for free download at the invaluable  This is the perfect book with which to beguile the closing days of summer.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Place of My Own, by Michael Pollan

Perhaps one of the most compelling of individual dreams is to have a place of one’s own.  Whether that be a study, studio, off-limits bedroom, basement hideaway or personal garage, many of us yearn for a secluded place situated to our own personalities, where our will was law.

Author Michael Pollan (born 1955) found himself in much the same place shortly before the birth of his first son, Isaac.  A writer and editor for Harper’s Magazine and a columnist for House & Garden, Pollan moved to a few acres in rural Connecticut in the late 1990s.  But while there, he began to dream of a little shack, a ‘writer’s hut’ where he could work, look at nature and collect his thoughts.

This dream took Pollan on a personal odyssey.  Though more at home with words and concepts than tools and building materials, Pollan decided to build his own little writer’s hut behind his home.  He hired an architect to design it up-to-code, but, other than that, he strove to build it himself with just the help of a local handyman.

The project, which should’ve taken just two months, took more than a year and taught Pollan a great deal about both the natural and theoretical worlds.  Though buildings first exist as constructs and drawings on pieces of paper, they must be translated into solid, three-dimensional entities.  And, more importantly, the materials must first be converted from raw materials – trees, stones, etc. – before they can be turned into building components.

While building, Pollan developed a new understanding of wood, of the complications that come with the execution of plans, and of landscape.  He investigated the mysteries of architecture, as well as such philosophies as feng shui and postmodernism.  He also had something of an imaginary dialogue with Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who faced many of the same challenges while building his shack at Walden Pond, and much of Pollen’s book detailing his experience, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, is a prolonged discussion with the now-dead philosopher.

A Place of My Own benefits from Pollan’s jaunty writing style, as well as from his self-deprecating honesty.  He admits upfront that he is not handy, that he has no grasp of math, and that the idea of building something is entirely alien to his experience.  However, he also felt that dealing in a purely theoretical world of words and ideas kept him separate from some vital part of the human experience.  Moreover, he also believed that our technological advances had somehow separated us from some component of our basic humanity, and that building something that would last – like his writer’s hut – was a way of reconnecting with that missing link.

Here is Pollan on why he did it: For if the wish for a room of my own answered to a need I felt for the literal and psychic space, the wish to build it with my own hands, though slower to surface, may have reflected some doubts I was having about the sort of work I do.  Work is how we situation ourselves in the world, and like the work of many people nowadays, mine put me in a relationship to the world that often seemed abstract, glancing, secondhand.  Or thirdhand, in my case, for I spent much of my day working on other people’s words, rewriting, revising, rewording.  Oh, it was real work (I guess), but it didn’t always feel that way, possibly because there were whole parts of me it failed to address.  (Like my body, with the exception of the carpal tunnel in my wrist.)  Nor did what I do seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.  Whenever I heard myself described as an “information-services worker” or a “symbolic analyst,” I wanted to reach for a hammer, or a hoe, and with it make something less virtual than a sentence.

A Place of My Own is a fascinating meditation on our relationship to man-made spaces, as well as how we incorporate ourselves into nature.  The main flaw of the book, however, is that it seems as if Pollan has never had an unrecorded thought, and many of his ruminations pad a fascinating story with irrelevancies.  Think of A Place of My Own is much like the world’s longest New Yorker article – filled with great stuff, sometimes numbingly repetitious or padded, but ultimately rewarding.  Recommended for anyone who is feeling penned in by our modern world.