Box Of Paperbacks: Cleopatra
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 51.)
Egypt is, of course, a real place, part of the continent of Africa, (if you're Sarah Palin and need such things explained to you.) But in fiction it practically belongs to another world. For Western writers, Ancient Egypt lends itself to the double exoticism of time and place. It's a culture linked, but not that closely linked, to the Greek and Roman worlds, one ruled by strange customs, strange gods, and centuries-old mysteries. And yet it's close enough to visit and familiar enough from movies and postcards (and, before that, museum exhibitions, paintings, and travelogues) that it has the feel of the familiar. It's perfect, in other words, for projecting Western notions of otherness, allowing fantasists to spin yarns filled with mysterious forces and morally dubious behavior (all those state-sanctioned incestuous marriages for starters), whatever relationship they might have with the real Egypt. H. Rider Haggard, the creator of Allan Quatermain and author of She, built his writing career around African fantasies. Rider was prolific, widely read (still is), and influential, inspiring virtually every square-jawed adventure tale and lost civilization story to follow, from pulp writers, to movie serials, to the Indiana Jones movies. He's been on my long writers-to-read list, but given the choice I almost certainly wouldn't have started with Cleopatra. But it's the one that wound up in the box so I started there. It's a peculiar book, with one foot in historical fiction, the other in an adventure tale. And while I'd be reluctant to call it a good book, it's a breeze of a read. The title's a bit misleading, though. Cleopatra figures prominently in Cleopatra but she's not the protagonist. That honor goes to Harmachis, born the son of a High Priest of Osiris prophesied to become King Of Egypt, reclaiming it from the pernicious influence of Cleopatra's Macedonian line, rising up to rival Rome and essentially performing all the good deeds Egyptians feel need doing. Haggard divides the novel into three sections, beginning with "The Preparation Of Harmachis," in which our hero grows up, shows all the signs of becoming an Egyptian messiah (Haggard's pretty liberal with the Christ parallels) and leaves on his mission. Guess what happens? Or, put another way, guess who happens? Harmachis meets Cleopatra and find she beggars all description. No, wait, that was Shakespeare's Enobarbus. Harmachis describes her thusly:
I looked upon the flawless Grecian features, the rounded chin, the full, rich lips, the chiselled nostrils, and the ears fashioned like delicate shells. I saw the forehead, low, broad, and lovely, the crisped, dark hair falling in heavy waves that sparkled in the sun, the arched eyebrows, and the long, bent lashes.
This goes on for a while until:
I knew that it was not in these charms alone that the might of Cleopatra's beauty lay. It was rather in a glory and a radiance cast through the fleshly covering from the fierce soul within. For she was a Thing of Flame like unto which no woman has ever been or ever will be. Even when she brooded, the fire of her quick heart shone through her. But when she woke, and the lightning leapt suddenly from her eyes, and the passion-laden music of her speech chimed upon her lips, ah! then, who can tell how Cleopatra seemed? For in her met all the splendours that have been given to woman for her glory, and all the genius which man has won from heaven.
That strikes me as an awful lot to conclude before hellos get exchanged, and Harmachis isn't even done yet. Thing is, Haggard doesn't really back up that heady description. The biggest problem with this book is that it's an awful lot of telling with only a little showing. The characters talk and talk in long blocks that could easily be removed without affecting the plot, or a reader's impressions, one bit. Trouble is, the book would shrink from novel down to novella. Maybe even something slimmer. But, boiled down, it's a pretty compelling story. (Spoilers ahoy.) Once in the position he's worked toward his entire life, Harmachis needs only to plunge knife into Cleopatra and claim the throne. He's got a cult of supporters outside just waiting for him to make his move but he just can't do it. He's fallen in love. From there some adventures follow, most of them tied to Cleo's promise to make him her husband. Used and discarded, he plots his revenge, a scheme carried out in a final section that rewrites history as we know it. It makes for a brisk, unsatisfying read. There's simply not a lot of depth to any of these characters, no matter how much talking they do. Yes, in spite of pages of windy speechifying, virtually every chapter ends with a cliffhanger that dares readers to stop before finding out what happens next. And even though what happens next isn't that exciting, Haggard's still a clever enough writer to repeat the trick again and again. It's hard to put down, and harder to fight a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Read between the lines and you'll find there's nothing between the lines to read. The sons and daughters of Haggards fill the shelves at airports everywhere. Curious?: The book is available online, for free, at Wikisource
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Next: The Three Suns Of Amara / Battle On Venus by William F. Temple (Ace Double)
"There was always something new under the Three Suns." Then: Flesh by Philip José Farmer