Monday, November 08, 2004

A Review of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander The Great, by Steven Pressfield

I begin by noting that, no pun, historically, I have hated historical novels. Loathed them. They take liberties with historical events, facts, and timelines. They write today's prejudices on worlds so long removed from ours, that our underlying assumptions might make no sense at all whatsoever to a man of that time. They are, usually, at best fantasy novels set in a definite time period, and, at worst, cheap polemics.

If it can be fairly said that I have detested historical fiction, there is simply no word in English for how I feel about first-person fiction. Perhaps it was too many epistolary novels in undergrad. Perhaps it is because of the awesome conceit attendant with writing from some great historical figure's voice, when one is clearly reading the author doing a particularly bad sort of impersonation -- like the joke in the Eighties that whenever someone claims to be reincarnate, one is always Cleopatra reborn, rather than one of the camp whores who followed Hannibal's army up and down Italy, or Napoleon, rather than a stable hand who once tended to one of Napoleon's horses, and who died of syphilis some years later.

I have since changed my mind.

When I was asked to review The Virtues of War, I honestly had no idea I'd be reviewing first person historical fiction. I would have said no, had I known. It would have been my loss. Fortunately, I'm also a classics geek, so I said yes.

Before I received Virtues, I decided to do some background reading, and so picked up Gates of Fire, one of Pressfield's earlier novels (this time, on the battle of Thermopylae). It, too, was an historical novel. It, too, was a first-person novel. It was incredible. (A good review of Gates of Fire can be found here.)

In fact, I was so taken with Gates of Fire that I actually approached Virtues with some trepidation. Gates of Fire was one of those rare novels in which you know the ending ahead of time, but still feverishly turn every page, trying to find out how it turns out. Truthfully, in such a case, I've never read a novelist's second effort that climbed the same height as the first.

Virtues is at least as good as Gates of Fire. Indeed, it may even be better. I won't know until I've re-read it (which I rather intend to do, just as soon as I get done writing this review). But before I gush too much, let me get my picked nits out of the way.

First, Pressfield takes, alas, some historical liberties, which, to his credit, he discloses up front. I'll spare you those, as Pressfield lays them out in some detail in the preface, and as they don't detract seriously from the novel's integrity. We'll count that as a minor strike.

Second, and this stems in no small part from the novel's structure and chief concerns, hints of Alexander's private life are virtually non-existent. While this hardly detracts from the novel's purpose, it does put a crimp on understanding why Alexander is who he is. We get cursory looks at his youth; at his relationship with his mother; at the awful pressure of growing up in the Macedonian court. His wives are mere phantoms. All but his comrades-in-arms, indeed, are mere phantoms.

Finally, and this is the recurrance of my old tic, Alexander is just a bit too aware -- of history, of the likely (and usually correct) course of the future, of, indeed, everything. It works to great effect, placing the reader in some historical context (for example, why the men of Thebes, rather than Sparta, are the dominant military power of the age of Philip); but it irks, slightly, to get obvious historical foreshadowings, such as Alexander's certainty on how his Empire will dissolve. And it tends, slightly, to bog down the narrative in pedantry. It also shades into Alexander as super-mortal, a god among men; while Alexander, and those around him, might have viewed him that way, gods don't die in their early thirties.

That is every single bad thing I have to say about this novel. Otherwise, this is a work of art; a beautifully written, delicately and expertly crafted, perfectly structured testament to the ability of an author to imagine a subject, and to share it with his readers. If that sounds like overkill, consider this passage (chosen at random):

All that being said, how does one make decisions? By rationality? My tutor Aristotle could classify the world, but he couldn't find his way to the village square. One must dive deeper than reason. The Thracians of Bithynia trust no decision unless they make it drunk. They know something we don't. A lion never makes a bad decision. Is he guided by reason? Is an eagle "rational"?

Rationality is superstition by another name.
What's great about that is not only the clear sentence structure -- it reads like someone would think -- but the way you would expect a warrior-king tutored by Aristotle, aimed squarely at a superhuman destiny, who traced his lineage through his mother to Achilles, to think. It's also a glimpse into a mind that is becoming ever-more obsessed with its destiny, and with a certainty that the gods themselves drive a man to greatness. Done incorrectly, this sort of prose can lend itself to mendacious trash like The Thin Red Line -- musings on the Platonic oversoul in the middle of an amphibious assault; done correctly, as here, it provides a textured background, a landscape on which the rest of the story unfolds.

And what a story. Alexander was the son of Phillip of Macedon, who had subjugated the Aegean peninsula, brought low the Thebans and Spartans, and planned on finally finishing off the Persian Empire once and for all. Phillip died at the hands of an assassin, and left behind a power vacuum into which his son (Alexander III, on ascension) stepped. Thereafter came, with the possible exception of Genghis Khan's empire-building, the fastest, most incredible creation of an Empire ever. Alexander marched, with the Macedonian phalanx and heavy cavalry, through Asia Minor, through the Middle East, through Central Asia, and into India, before being suddenly struck down with either a sudden illness or poisoning (historical sources differ). No army stood successfully against him; no general on an opposing battlefield truly thwarted his will. It is said of Alexander that he wept when he realized there were no worlds left to conquer. His name is legend even today. He was, in short, the sort of man coughed up only once every hundred or thousand years, if that; it is no wonder that he is called "the Great."

The novel is, as you might have guessed, Alexander's narrative (to his brother-in-law, a page in his camp) of his youth, his rise to power, his phenomenal march across the Persian Empire and beyond, and, inevitably, his demise. The novel begins on the banks of the last great river he will cross; the book carries a feel of imminent mortality, which only grows stronger as the narrative progresses, and Alexander wrestles more and more with his daimon, until it comes very close to consuming him. In a sense, it's almost as if his inner spirit, his daimon, consumes him from the inside (as Alexander is long fearful will happen), and this is the sickness that takes him. If Acton's axiom of absolute power has any truth, it is true not only on the spiritual, but on the physical level, as well; Alexander's flesh begins to revolt against him as his men cannot keep pace with his unyielding ambition. He rages. He grows feverish. He cannot speak. He is overcome and kills one of his oldest comrades.

To say that the military details are lovingly rendered is to engage in understatement. Pressfield brings the sort of love normally only an amateur historian can bring to the topic -- details about speed of hoof, armored cavalry charges, positions for lances, armor, tactics, and campaigns -- and somehow doesn't bog down the novel in the telling. Needless to say, I re-read those sections several times.

What really impressed me, at least as much as the storytelling and the narrative pace, was the structure of the novel. The novel is broken into Books, each of which describes an heroic virtue (such as "Contempt for Death") about which the Book loosely revolves. Impressively, without once conspicuously altering the narrative flow of the novel, each Book plays up that virtue through subtle emphasis and selective storytelling. The result is a novel that communicates those virtues; highlights Alexander's devout adherence to those virtues; and unsparingly demonstrates his ability to breach those rules, either by making a vice of them, or by ignoring them altogether. One cannot come away from Virtues without having absorbed, at least in some measure, those virtues. For example, is not our best brought out by striving against our enemies, and thus against ourselves; and should we not love our enemies for making us better?

A desire not to spoil the novel precludes further review. Suffice it to say, for the first time in something like four years, I have read a novel (other than Gates of Fire) that actually moved me in the reading. The best novels stay with you in your dreams and in your waking moments when you finish. I have dreamed of Virtues every night since I picked it up.

Even if Pressfield didn't bother to have Alexander slice the Gordian knot.

I heartily recommend Virtues, whether your penchant is for fiction, history, martial virtues, or, simply, a good time.

(A more political review can be found here.)