Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading List: London the Biography

London: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd

I've been a fan of Ackroyd since reading The Plato Papers more than a decade ago.  He's a British writer who has steeped himself in the rich heritage of his culture, and has made a career of turning that appreciation into both novels and nonfiction.  Until this point, I've only read his novels.  London is his most monumental work of nonfiction, and as its title suggests is a broad scope of history pertaining to one of the world's most famous and enduring cities.

Thoughts on Alexander the Great

In reading Robin Lane Fox's Alexander the Great, I cannot help but also comment on Oliver Stone's Alexander.  There are at least two ways to view Alexander of Macedonia today, academically and as part of our collective popular culture.  As Fox makes clear in his book, Alexander would've enjoyed being a part of pop culture, being obsessed as he was with Achilles from Homer's The Iliad.  Today we have a complicated enough relationship with Homer.  There's plenty to talk about.

As one of the most notable figures in history, Alexander the Great will always capture the imagination.  He stretched the boundaries of the classical age, uniting it as never before and helping to make our modern age possible.  He belonged very much to his own time, and yet he looked backward as much as he pushed everything forward.  It may be easy today to view him as a typical conquering tyrant.  In Stone's vision, he becomes a fallible man obsessed with the demons of his past.  Is there any middle ground?  As Fox makes clear, the truth of the man is a little difficult to know at this point.  He lived a long time ago and all the existing records are secondhand at this point, not primary source, and even then, Alexander's own myths were already forming around him, which he encouraged, accepting versions of Zeus and Dionysus as his father as much as Philip, who paved the way for his ambitions if nothing else (but was probably, lets face it, his father).

Today it's hard to imagine that someone like him could be lost to the popular consciousness.  I read through several versions of The Iliad earlier this year, and have long been fascinated with the tale.  Yet in high school I found myself in the extraordinary position of writing a paper on the identity of Homer. Like Shakespeare after him Homer became lost to history and was presumed to be as much a fiction as his legacy.  Alexander didn't care so much about Homer as he did Achilles, the perfect example of a warrior, not even a king, and that may be the distinction that created the man, who became king but became one of the greatest warriors history has ever known.

Fox strives to find the truth of the man and succeeds, with a style that is very familiar to me, since I tend to write in it myself, though he can sometimes lose focus, nowhere greater than a rambling ending that reads very much like an academic exercise rather than the vital vision evident in the rest of the book.  I've read other biographies this year, too, about men whose lives cannot be definitively known, but Fox does a remarkable job keeping himself focused without becoming too lost in contextualizing Alexander.  (Writers, this is always the fatal poison.)

At the start of the millennium pop culture developed a fever around Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, a series of three films (soon to be expanded into six with additional installments inspired by the prequel The Hobbit).  Stone came along with Alexander a year after the last of these films, and as I've said instead of featuring the incredible journey and vision of his subject the director elected to explore the man and his effect on those around him.  Based on what I now know better from Fox's book, an epic trilogy could easily be made of Alexander's achievements and would probably be more popular, but even Troy, based on Homer's tale, failed that year.

Critics at the time were underwhelmed by Stone's effort, suggesting that the subject was lost in the swirl of emotions, that none of his genius was evident.  I can probably admit now that the details are swallowed up in this vision, though the scope is massive for a single film, regardless of the approach.  It would have been impossible to say everything there is to know about Alexander in a single film.  What Fox makes plain and how Stone represents it, however, is that Alexander was not just a sum of his experiences but rather a giant who ultimately overwhelmed his contemporaries.  If Stone fails to allow those around him to appreciate Alexander the Great, it's because that's exactly the way it was, and Fox backs up this assessment.

It may be worth noting that Stone used Fox as a primary source for his film.

Even Fox, though spending a great deal of time interspersing Alexander's life with what others thought of him and were inspired by him later, doesn't truly explain how Alexander deserves to still tower over mortal men.  He's depicted as a self-styled successor of Achilles and Heracles (the Greek form of Hercules, the Roman name you know better), and chasing after gods who in this version of history are founding fathers almost more than divine beings.

To me, it's fascinating.  Fox writes the history, Stone began the modern effort to make the story.  Hopefully more will follow.  Alexander the Great deserves to live in both worlds.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reading List: Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
by Robin Lane Fox

Ever since Oliver Stone's Alexander, I've developed an appreciation for one of history's, well, great figures. I assume none of my teachers was quite so fascinated with the Macedonian conqueror.  This is a book that I've had waiting on the Reading List (and in fact off of it before the List came about a few years ago), and now that I've reached it am just as glad now and when I first got it to have had on it.  Stone used it as once of his chief sources of inspiration.  I understand that Alexander has a poor reputation, but you must understand that it's my favorite movie (as in out of all the movies I've ever seen), so I hold the distinction of the connection between the book and film seriously.  Hopefully I will understand Mr. the Great all the better upon reading it.

Thoughts on Our Mutual Friend

Like most students, I read Charles Dickens in grade school, the classic Great Expectations.  While I'm pretty sure that covers the extent of my practical experience with him, Dickens of course is also well-known for The Adventures of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and numerous other books besides.  In modern culture, he may best be remembered for A Christmas Carol, which has been adapted many times for the stage and screen, the story of how Scrooge rediscovered his love for humanity after spending a regrettable part of his life as, well, a scrooge.

It might be said that Dickens loved to write about the struggles of society to reconcile itself from one level to the next.  His final completed work, Our Mutual Friend, may yet prove to be his definitive statement on the subject, a tapestry of lives ruined and salvaged by a sizable fortune left unclaimed by the apparent death of the heir and instead bequeathed to a working man besieged on all sides by those looking to benefit.

Judging from the merits of the work itself and the footprints I see in later English literature, I think that the book left a sizable impression at the time that history has all but forgotten.  Part of that is no doubt due to the celebrity of one of the most famous novelists in history.  In modern times Our Mutual Friend resurfaced as a reference in the TV series Lost, no doubt for the parallel narrative device of reinvention after disaster.

Dickens emerges in this late work as a talented if bloated writer, endlessly lively in his prose but too unsparing in his admiration for a large cast of characters, sometimes very tenuously expressing useful commentaries to the central plot.  The author famously serialized his stories (something Stephen King attempted to reintroduce with The Green Mile), and perhaps it was this format and his own reputation that prevented him from a more concise version of the story, which itself plays out almost like an alternate and more skilled version of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, although again for some reason neither works as well as it could.

Like Madding Crowd, there's a name that's resurfaced in popular literature (Bella, as in the Twilight saga, whereas Hardy inspired the name for the lead character in The Hunger Games).  That's just to say.

The edition I read ran to eight hundred pages.  I would've been fine with a version that ran half that long.  Once I got to the part where the climax came, I didn't see the point of the book continuing.  The essay at the start of the edition remarks how the arc of John Harmon contrasts that of Bradley Headstone, though the latter is used less than is suggested, and thus his arc has less impact than it could.

In all, it's a story that is greatly fascinating, but even though it's written by an acknowledged master of the form, could easily be improved.  There's even a version I have in mind that would make it a story worthy of Dostoyevsky (much as I admire Dickens, I adore Dostoyevsky).
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