Every bibliophile has go-to authors, authors whose new book will be in your shopping cart regardless of title, subject or reviews. Some of mine are Michael Chabon, Anne Tyler, and Stephen King, and I’ve also been steadily adding to my list of biographers. It’s a bit trickier, because biographers can go years and years between their books, and don’t often get as much press as novelists. But David McCullough (John Adams, Truman), Ron Chernow (Alexander Hamilton, Washington: A Life), Nancy Milford (Zelda: A Biography, Savage Beauty): these are biographers I have learned to trust, and writers I have grown to love. With her newest book, Stacy Schiff has well earned her addition to my list.
Cleopatra: A Life accomplishes an incredibly difficult task in bringing to life a person who has mostly been obscured in the historical records. Little to no evidence of Cleopatra’s actual thoughts, words or feelings has survived the centuries since her lifetime, and even during her time, she was already becoming the inspiration for one of the greatest myth-making machines of all time. Schiff is simply amazing in her ability to glean every existing scrap of information about Cleopatra, as well as sifting through misinformation, gossip, scandal and lies to assemble a portrait as close to reality as is possible. We see what her capitol, Alexandria, might have looked like at the peak of her reign, but more importantly (and impressively), Schiff makes us feel as if we are walking down one of its bejeweled boulevards, on our way to one of the greatest libraries the world has ever known or a ceremonial feast to rival any modern epicure’s delight. Based on her descriptions alone, I added modern-day Alexandria to my must-see list.
The closest I had to background information was watching Rome: The Complete Series on HBO, in which we meet Cleopatra during the second season as she seduces both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony in succession. I loved that show, but reading Schiff’s biography showed me just how much I would have missed if I had only seen the show. Also, her work in depicting Cleopatra as a powerful diplomat, military leader, spiritual inspiration and bureaucrat supreme would be instructive for anyone studying female leadership or females in politics, as Cleopatra faced many of the same sexist stereotypes and difficulties that female politicians do today.
Schiff first came to my notice with her excellent Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), one of the most vivid biographies I’ve ever read and one I truly couldn’t put down. If you’re a Nabokov fan, it’s essential, but I think it’s also essential if you’re interested in the life of writers, in what a complicated marriage can look like, in what it means to truly be a “genius” and function in regular life, and if you believe that behind every absentminded male genius, there is a capable and intriguing woman with a particular genius of her own.
In short, Cleopatra is stunning, and a crucial addition to any bookshelf concerned with feminism, ancient history, politics, classics, Egypt, Rome or what it means to be a fascinating and powerful woman.
- Paper Cuts: Book Review Podcast: Stacy Schiff on ‘Cleopatra’ (papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Book Review Podcast: Stacy Schiff on the Life of Cleopatra (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Angelina Jolie’s Cleopatra will show Egypt’s queen as more than a sex kitten (guardian.co.uk)