Saturday, December 22, 2012

Historical Fact

I started listening to Cleopatra:  a Life by Stacy Schiff with some trepidation.  I knew I liked the subject, but I wasn't sure I could handle listening to a biography on audio book.  The first time I heard a footnote, I almost ejected the disc.  So that you understand where I am coming from, this is what a footnote sounds like in audio form:  "Footnote:  This is an example.  End of Footnote"

Part of me thought "It's Christmas time and I am crazy busy.  I should listen to something light and fluffy".  The rational part of me thought "It won't kill me to get some historical facts, since my brain is growing mushy with all this historical fiction."  The first part of me argued that I didn't need any more real history after 21 years of public school education.  The rational part of me laughed out loud at that one.  And so, I kept listening.

My previous knowledge of Cleopatra came from Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which is, of course, historical fiction.  When I read Memoirs, I felt really stupid, because I had no idea that Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar.  However, since all of my Caesar knowledge comes from Shakespeare instead of from history classes, and since Shakespeare kept his Caesar and his Cleopatra in separate stories, I would guess that I am not the only one who never made the connection.

I learned more about Cleopatra in Schiff's book, as should be expected.  One thing that surprised me was that in Cleopatra's time, the Sphinx had already been buried in sand for a thousand years.  Another was that Cleopatra lived just one generation before Jesus was born.  Cleopatra died in 30 BC, and Jesus was born sometime around 4 BC.  In fact, one of Cleopatra's most reliable biographers, Plutarch, was writing about Cleopatra at the same time that some of the New Testament gospels were being written.

Cleopatra: a Life is a very good biography.  It was a NYT Notable Book in 2010.   My library has picked it as a book group book for February.  It seems like an odd choice at first, but I could see how this particular biography would appeal to people who normally prefer fiction.  Schiff researched her subject thoroughly, and throughout the book, she tells the reader whose story she is relying on for certain facts, and why she determined that one author might be more reliable than another for specific issues.  I liked how Schiff said things like "Cleopatra probably did this" or "It is likely that this happened in this way"  without being stubbornly definitive.  History is, of course, written by the victors, and Cleopatra was ultimately a loser.  She should have been relegated to being a footnote herself, but her reputation was so intriguing that even her contemporary conquerors couldn't keep from writing about her. 

I, personally, preferred George's telling.  But then, why wouldn't I?  Since she was writing fiction, George could invent juicy dialogue, and be creative with any "facts" that true historians now question, such as the method of Cleopatra's death.  Schiff is a Pulitzer winning biographer (for her biography of Nabokov's wife, Vera), and she manages to tell a story full of historical facts and details in a way that is interesting, and almost conversational.  Given her unbiased treatment of Cleopatra, I would like to propose another subject for her - Jesus.  If anyone could take apart the propaganda and the edits that were made after the fact to get to something as close as is possible to what really happened, that person would be Schiff.  I for one would read it, footnotes and all.

One thing that the "light and fluffy" part of me found really funny about the audio book, was that the reader pronounced Caesar and Cleopatra's son's name, Caesarion, as "Cesarean".  I am sure that she pronounced his name correctly, but if I had been reading it, I would have contorted it in some way to sound less like the medical procedure.  With the reader's pronunciation, every time I heard his name, I wondered if he was still hanging out with his friends, Epidural and Episiotomy.  Yep.  I'm that easily distracted this time of the year.

Next up on CD:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Still Reading:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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