Dissertation Days (33): On the Cusp

Well, today wasn’t a terribly productive day. Had a bit of a gall bladder attack last night that really disturbed my sleep, so I’ve been a bit out of it all day.

However, I did accomplish what I set out to do, which was to read through the whole chapter and make sure that all of the egregious errors were taken care of. I’m happy to say that I excised some extraneous prose and padding, so it is that much leaner. I’m sure there is still much to do, but I’m happy with the way that it stand now.

I also, I think, managed to note all of the sources that I need to complete in my Works Cited. I’ll need to take care of that tomorrow, along with a few footnotes and in-text citations (mostly page numbers). I know those are little things, but I hate doing them. They are always the last thing I do and, to be quite honest, I see them as a huge pain in the ass. But, all the same, I know that they are a necessary part of the whole research process, and so I shall finish them.

All in all, I’m on track to submit it either Wednesday or Thursday. Then it’s onward to Chapter 4.

I think tomorrow I am going to spend mostly researching and possibly doing some free-writing on Chapter 4. I didn’t get around to re-watching Cleopatra as I had hoped, so hopefully I’ll get around to doing that. Once I’m finished with the current research book I’m reading about empire, I hope to move on to one about the role of Antony in popular culture. He is, after all, a key part of the film and of Cleopatra’s iconography more generally, so I’m hoping that it will be useful.

All in all, I still feel pretty good about the project. Things slowed down a bit today, but I just have to remember that I have all of July (though I have a couple of other projects that are clamoring for attention). I may even start my introduction later this week. I’m thinking it will help bring Chapter 4 into closer focus, as well as show how it connects to the other facets of the argument.

Dissertation writing is hard, y’all, but I know that I will get through this process, and one day, hopefully soon, I’ll see it in print.

Dissertation Days (31): Work, Work, Work

Overall, I think this was a better work day than yesterday. I actually managed to go beyond my 1,000 word goal for Chapter 4, and my re-reading of Chapter 3 made me feel like it’s not total dreck after all. Of course, that could be the caffeine talking, but I do like to think that this draft shows significant improvement from its predecessor.

If I have one complaint about Chapter 3, it’s that I think it’s still a bit bloated. If my adviser suggests it, I think that I will take out about 10 pages of excess, both in the context and close readings sections. It’ll work for right now, but there’s no question that the project as a whole can be a bit leaner. There is, though, a certain appropriateness to having a chapter about epics be too long. However, I’m not sure that my adviser, or my committee as a whole, will view it in the same light. There is something to be said, after all, for concision.

Chapter 4 is still coming apace. I felt better about the material I produced today than I did yesterday, both in the section about Cleopatra and about Fall of the Roman Empire. I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this will be the least dynamic and original of my chapters, but I suppose that’s an acceptable thing.

I am also not entirely sure how I’m going to fit my discussion of John Huston’s The Bible in there, though there are moments when I see how it fits. If I have to, I may eventually end up moving it to some sort of conclusion, but for the moment I’m going to keep it where it is and continue to hope that its connection to the other parts of the chapter becomes clearer as I go along.

Tomorrow, I am going to start my final read-through of Chapter 3, focusing on smoothing out any remaining rough edges, as well as making sure that the bibliography I have is the updated one (especially since I deleted some entries for this revision). I’ll also have to make sure that I fill out some of the footnotes that are still missing information.

Furthermore, I think I will only write 500 words of Chapter 4 tomorrow. I really want to get Chapter 3 knocked out ASAP, so I’m afraid that has to be my priority.

Onward and upward, as I always say. Onward and upward.

Reading History: “The Confessions of Young Nero” (by Margaret George)

The release of a new novel by Margaret George is an event that occurs every six years or so. The author of such well-known works of historical fiction as The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII is well-known for her extraordinary detail in her magisterial works of historical fiction, in which she inhabits not just the mind but the very time of her subjects.

Imagine my delight, then, when release day at last dawned, and her new masterwork, The Confessions of Young Nero finally saw the light of day.

The novel, narrated in first person by the emperor himself, starts with a horrible moment of cruelty when he is tormented by his uncle Caligula, and moves through Nero’s childhood in the house of his aunt. Gradually, however, he is drawn into the poisonous atmosphere of the royal court, particularly after his mother Agrippina replaces the adulterous Messalina as the wife of the Emperor Claudius. Of course, he eventually comes to power as the emperor, all the while continuing to indulge in his true passion: the arts.

Nero as George depicts him is a man tormented by the demons of his childhood. Brought up in a nest of vipers in which the blood of royalty can be as good as a death sentence, he struggles to be a good person, even as a darker side of him gradually emerges, the side that will, we are led to believe, lead him down the road of madness and cruelty.

However, he is also a man who can see the beauty in the world. He is not the vain and awful faux artist as he normally appears in the popular media, but instead a man genuinely driven to create. He idolizes the Greek world and the beauty that it created, and he does everything in his power to create it. In this novel’s imagination, at least, he succeeds, several time entering into that beautiful and orgiastic state in which true art is produced. There is, though, a slight note of ambiguity, as we’re not quite sure whether those who flatter him are doing so because he’s the emperor or because they genuinely think he is good at what he does.

Just as he loves the world of beauty, so he often falls in love. His abiding love is the freedwoman Acte, who sees him for who he really is, for both good and ill. She, along with the famous poisoner Locusta, make infrequent appearances throughout the novel as a sort of Greek chorus, providing commentary on the events of his life and offering a counterpoint to his own perspective. Unlike Nero, whose perspectives on the world are more than slightly skewed by both his upbringing and by the art that is his solace, they are able to see what he refuses to.

Then there is Poppaea, the woman who gradually becomes the focus of all of Nero’s affections and attentions. At first she is married to his friend Otho, but she manipulates the emperor into coercing her husband to divorce her. She and Nero quickly marry one another. It’s rather difficult to determine how we should feel about her. Is she indeed the agent of her own destiny, or is she merely the screen upon which Nero seems determined to project his desires? Or is it some combination of the two? I suspect it’s a combination, and this allows her as a character to trouble the narrative that Nero tells and which he uses to try to make sense of the life that he has led.

Given that the majority of Nero’s reign was peaceful in terms of international politics, this gives George the opportunity to really dive into Nero’s psyche. In both its prose and its narrative, The Confessions shows a tortured and battered soul attempting to make its way in a milieu that is as dangerous and deadly as it is beautiful. Haunted by the spirit of his predecessors–including Augustus–and hectored by both his mother and his tutor and adviser Seneca, Nero tries to forge his own path. When the novel ends, right as the great fire has begun to consume his capital, Nero knows that this will be the greatest challenge that he has yet faced. Of course, we as readers know that this event will mark the beginning of the end for him.

While the novel seeks to explain Nero’s actions, some of which are quite terrible, it doesn’t excuse them. It doesn’t paper over the fact that Nero did indeed have his mother Agrippina killed, but she does go to pains to point out the lengths to which his mother is willing to do to solidify and maintain her hold on power, even if that means doing away with her own son. While Agrippina, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges as the villain of the novel, one also gets the sense that she, like her son, like her brother Caligula, is the product of a poisonous and traumatic environment that leaves many scars. When we finish the novel, we’re left in no doubt that the shadow that has already fallen on Nero’s psyche is one that he will never entirely leave behind; some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal.

As always with George’s work, the book is saturated in period detail, bringing ancient Rome to piercing and vibrant life. There’s even a delicious little detail that I found particularly lovely: Nero ends up meeting the aged Alexander Helios, the son of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (and therefore Nero’s great grand uncle). As a result of George’s prose, we get a surprisingly strong sense of what it must have been like to live in the Rome of the first century of the Common Era.

All in all, The Confessions of Young Nero is a story of a broken and tortured young man thrust into a power he did not want who nevertheless does everything he can to be a good emperor to his people. I know that I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the second installment, which will cover the last years of Nero’s reign.

I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!

Reading History: “Lady of the Eternal City”

Lady of the Eternal City

I have been following the writing career of Kate Quinn since her debut novel Mistress of Rome caught my eye at a local Wegman’s.  I’m always hungry for a new historical novel about ancient Rome, particularly one in the vein of I, Claudius and other delicious costume dramas that explore the sexual and viscerally violent politics of ancient Roman life.  Luckily for me, Kate Quinn never disappoints, and her newest novel, Lady of the Eternal City, is a riveting drama that highlights the latter years of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, through the eyes of the tale’s four heroes:  Vix, Hadrian’s reluctant bodyguard; Sabina, Hadrian’s headstrong wife; Sabina’s illegitimate daughter Faustina; and Hadrian’s besotted lover, the young Antinous.

Picking up where Quinn’s previous Roman-centered novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, left off, the novel follows the ways in which the lives of these four extraordinary individuals continue to intertwine with one another and the larger fate of the Roman Empire.  In one way or another, each of the four main characters finds his or her fate tied to that of the unpredictable and often volatile emperor.  The characters, in typical Quinn fashion, are likable yet irascible, individuals not afraid to take what they want and do what they want, the consequences be damned.  Most exemplary, however, is the emotionally resonant way in which Quinn manages to bring to life one of the ancient world’s most touching and tragic love stories.

It is not every author who manages to capture the vibrant, visceral intensity of same-sex attraction, and it is especially rare among historical novelists writing about the ancient world.  Mary Renault and Madeline Miller are two that come to mind, and both of them wrote about ancient Greece, wherein male same-sex attraction operated according to different logics than its Roman counterpart.  Indeed, it would have been easy for Quinn to paint the love between Hadrian and Antinous as one-dimensional, or just another aspect of Hadrian’s deranged character, a way of him manipulating the younger man into a sexually diseased relationship.  Instead, what emerges from her words is a haunting and evocative portrait of two souls who find absolute completion in one another.  Antinous, the epitome of youthful purity and a paradoxical worldly innocence, tames the baser and more dangerous aspects of Hadrian’s character, and they both benefit from it.

However, Quinn doesn’t shy away from pointing out the ways in which the relationship between these two men raised not only eyebrows, but the ire of many of Rome’s elite, who saw the greatest amount of shame and decline of Roman virtue in this relationship.  Indeed, it is precisely this relationship, and Antinous’s acquiescence to it, that leads to his death (I won’t reveal anything, so those who haven’t read it won’t have one of the novel’s central mysteries solved too early).  Quinn manages to solve one of the ancient world’s most puzzling and saddening mysteries in a way that allows the reader to feel both vindicated and yet also saddened at the course of events that led up to the ending of a truly beautiful relationship.

If the love of Antinous and Hadrian is, as we know, doomed to tragedy, the fate of Vix and his wife Mirah is equally fated for tragedy in the form of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its aftermath.  Quinn does a masterful job of showing us the very real and very human consequences of one of antiquity’s bloodiest and most brutal conflicts, one that would shape the fate of the Jewish people for centuries to come.  Here, we come to understand that this conflict had very real, human costs, and that entire families were torn apart by the suppression of the revolt.  The fact that we never definitively know what happened to Mirah makes this particular section of the novel all that much more gut-wrenching.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning the central triad of Sabina, Vix, and Faustina.  These three characters are in some ways the moral and narrative center of the entire story, and though it remains mostly focused on their personal lives, it also shows the ways in which the personal can become quite political when one is the wife of an emperor, the bodyguard of an emperor, and the beloved of a future emperor.  When you have three intensely powerful characters, it’s easy to see how their lives, hatreds, and loves can come to shape the fate of an empire and the world in which they live.

All in all, Lady of the Eternal City is the strongest offering yet from one of today’s finest and most consistently talented historical novelists.  This is a story that is full of violence and tragedy, the joy and the anguish of love, and the cruel and merciless machinations of time and politics.  While Quinn has not yet announced her next novel, one can but hope that it will continue to follow the eventful life and actions of the fiery Faustina, an empress who was not immune to the taint of scandal (she was rumoured to have consorted with gladiators, an all-too-common slur hurled at many an empress by those seeking to discredit her).

Quinn once again proves herself an adept at showing us what life might have been like for those living in the ancient world, a world where life and order were far more uncertain than we assume is the norm today.  Just as importantly, however, Quinn also continues to showcase the types of strong women whose presence in the historical record, particularly for ancient Rome, is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst.  Let us hope that she continues to bring these extraordinary women to such vibrant and compelling life.