Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen, Review of Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra: A Life" (Little, Brown, 2010)

Nov 5, 2010 9:37 am


Jim Cullen, Review of Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra: A Life" (Little, Brown, 2010)



[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) among other books, and has embarked on a project with the working title of"Sensing History: Hollywood Actors as Historians." He blogs at American History Now.]

Over the course of the past fifteen years, Stacy Schiff has emerged as one of the nation's most esteemed biographers. With France as a geographic crossroad, her subjects have ranged widely: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vera Nabokov (a portrait that won her the 2000 Pulitzer Prize), and Benjamin Franklin. But Schiff's latest book takes her far afield in time and place. It's an audacious move, and as such is a form of fidelity to the life she limns.

In a way, Schiff's body of work is less a set of individual lives than an extended exercise in different kinds of biographical problem-solving. Saint-Exupéry was a shrewd choice of subject in that he's both famous and little-known to the general reading public that is Schiff's chosen domain; Vera is a foray into the fascinating life lived in the shadow of a powerful mate. Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, is almost too well-known (an issue Schiff finessed by focusing on his diplomatic career). So is Cleopatra; but while the problem for Franklin is essentially one of too much documentation, that of Cleopatra is a matter of having so little.

But of course this is also an opportunity, because the ambiguities surrounding Cleopatra's life give a biographer lots of license for informed speculation, a stratagem Schiff seizes frequently and boldly. (Was Caesarion really Julius Caesar's biological child by Cleopatria? Schiff acknowledges this long-running controversy in a footnote, but considers the child his and moves on.) In an important sense, the facts are really beside the point anyway; if ever there were a case where the truth resides in legend, this would be it.

But living legends are moving things. So it is that Schiff gives us a Cleopatra for the third millennium. I was not surprised to learn that Angelina Jolie is already said to be involved in a possible film version of the book; I kept thinking of her while reading it (perhaps because of the evocative jacket). Schiff is insouciant in deploying anachronism for dramatic effect, whether in comparing Cleopatra's wealth to that of the most successful hedge fund manager in history, or by emphasizing her Hellenic heritage by asserting that she was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.

It's only natural, then, that this Cleopatra is a feminist icon: intelligent, powerful, and patriotic. She uses her sexuality, but she isn't defined by it. Faced with a difficult geopolitical situation, she navigates it not infallibly, but nevertheless with an acumen that has largely escaped previous writers -- who are, to Schiff's credit, often classical ones. But she's not one to defer to antiquity, and she's pointedly critical of Cleopatra's critics."Cicero had two modes: fawning and captious," she says, calling him a Roman John Adams. (Given Schiff's Francophile orientation, we can safely conclude the comparison is not flattering.) Plutarch"sniffs" that Cleopatra pretends to be in love with Mark Antony; Dio's account of her meeting with Octavian is"so cinematic as to be suspect, too purple even for a Hellenistic queen." (A somewhat odd criticism coming from Schiff, who is nothing if not colorful.) Some readers will no doubt be thrilled with such prose; others may be unsettled by the glee with which she settles sexist scores -- which, of course, will not make her unhappy. But it may not be an accident that none of the impressive accolades that accompany the book come from Egyptologists.

This Cleopatra is thoroughly contemporary in other ways as well. Schiff filters her material through a postmodern sensibility. Whether or not Cleopatra actually believes she's the incarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, playing the part certainly confers strategic advantages. A sense of indeterminacy shapes relationships in which the personal is political; as far as Julius Caesar is concerned,"Cleopatra was in many respects similar to her country: a shame to lose, a risk to conquer, a headache to govern." (The ironically allusive language here, which evokes"veni, vidi, vici," is one of the many ways Schiff shows herself to be a master prose stylist.) Even those parts of the book that are presumably meant to showcase the distance between the ancient world and ours, like those that talk at some length about the literally incestuous character of the Ptolemy dynasty of which Cleopatra was the culmination, exhibit a multiculturalist's hearty embrace of Difference.

It is ironic, then, that the truth apparently remains: in front of every great woman is a man -- or, in this case, two: Caesar and Mark Antony. At different points in the story it almost seems they're going to run away with the book. Partly this a function of the fact that Hellenistic Egypt was closer to a pawn than a queen in Roman geopolitics. And partly it's a function that most of the extant sources are Roman, not Egyptian, and as Schiff notes, echoing observers like Edward Said, the West has long been constructed as masculine, and the East as feminine. Sigh, one might plausibly conclude. It's still a man's world.

Early reviews of this book have hailed it as myth-shattering, as uncovering lost truths about Cleopatra. It is probably more accurate to see it as a feisty piece of mythography that resonates with the spirit of its time. As another Francophile once said,"the earth belongs to the living." And Cleopatra, whoever she was, is now -- amid the struggles and uncertainties of history that provide the indispensable ballast for myth -- ours to claim. Schiff has done so with gusto.


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