Dead Men Talking

<i> Peter Green is the author of three historical novels, of which the most recent, "The Laughter of Aphrodite," Sappho's fictional memoirs, was reissued in 1993 by the University of California Press</i>

“To bring the dead to life,” Robert Graves wrote in one of his most memorable poems, “is no great magic.” Maestro of the historical novel though he was--who can resist the insidious spell of “I, Claudius”?--this mock-modest throwaway line was a plain lie. Resurrecting the past (as I or any other historian knows too well) is about the hardest task a novelist can undertake. How many unquestioned successes, Graves apart, come to mind? Precious few: H.F.M. Prescott’s oddly named “The Man on a Donkey” (1952), a dramatized reenactment of the Pilgrimage of Grace in Henry VIII’s England; from the ancient world, Naomi Mitchison’s “The Corn King and the Spring Queen” (1931), a portrayal of Hellenistic Sparta; Arthur Koestler’s “The Gladiators” (1939), a politically riveting take on the Spartacus slave revolt; Marguerite Yourcenar’s magnificent “Memoirs of Hadrian”; and some--though certainly not all--of Mary Renault’s steamy ventures into Greek history, particularly “The Persian Boy” (1972). Most of the rest are either unashamed bodice-rippers, full of orgies, marble-columned halls and slaves under the lash or else the work of propagandists using antiquity to advance a modernist agenda. Even Prescott, Mitchison, Koestler and Renault variously, and anachronistically, use their themes to promote or attack Catholicism, fascism, Stalinism, Freud and homosexuality.

In fact, it’s hard for a historical novelist to shake off contemporary preoccupations even when resolved to do so. (Margaret George recently, in would-be Gravesian mode, wrote a first-person version of “The Memoirs of Cleopatra” which took about 1,000 pages to suggest that the lady was just a nice housewife from Madison, Wis., in a fancy dress.) Add to that the eternal problem of how to make one’s characters speak. Try to infuse a touch of the archaic, and you risk making them deliver what Robert Louis Stevenson called “tushery” (“ ‘Tush, fellow!’ quotha. . . ' "). Besides, they didn’t suppose they were either ancient, quaint or historically challenged (“Hey, this living in the Dark Ages sucks”), did they? As a friend of mine once complained, why do all characters in historical novels talk like characters in historical novels? Yet make them talk like real human beings, like us, and at once every kind of anachronistic modernism is liable to creep in. The result sets the writer on a tightrope of artifice, off which it’s only too easy to slip on one side or the other. So, let’s see how Mark Merlis and Steven Pressfield measure up.

Merlis lives in San Francisco, and his blurb-writer describes “An Arrow’s Flight” as “a profound meditation on gay identity, straight power, and human liberation.” Ample room for modern attitudinizing here, and in fact Merlis goes flat out after every kind of anachronism too, from records to fashion magazines, from coffee to whiskey, from frozen fries to vodka martinis, from cigarettes to leatherettes. In clever hands this game can work. The Greek poet Yannis Ritsos used it with stunning skill to elide past and present when constructing the great Mycenean soliloquies that make up “The Fourth Dimension.” By an odd coincidence, one of these explores exactly the same theme as Merlis: the mission undertaken, late in the Trojan War, to bring the great archer Philoctetes and his all-powerful bow--a gift from Heracles--to Troy. Only Philoctetes, it had been prophesied, could win victory for the Greeks. But would he come? Years before, they had abandoned him in disgust on Lemnos because of a stinking, suppurating wound he had received from a snake that obstinately refused to heal. How, now, to persuade or coerce him in their need?

This diplomatic conundrum provoked various solutions in antiquity: Sophocles’ version is the best known. It is also the one that Ritsos and Merlis follow most closely. For each of them the key figure is Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, sometimes known as Pyrrhus, dispatched with Odysseus to Lemnos as hero bait. Antiquity made him the embodiment of virtuous innocence, accompanying pragmatic deviousness and suffering badly torn loyalties. Merlis, on the other hand, revamps him as a homosexual go-go dancer in the Big City (never named), who’s press-ganged into the mission to serve as bait of a more fleshly sort. (Philoctetes gay? Well, the Roman epigrammatist Martial thought so.) The result is sometimes touching, often delectably funny but never quite sure of its tone or focus: past and present, in marked contrast to the way they interweave for Ritsos, here obstinately refuse to jell. It even gets to the point where the bow has to be explained away (illogically, considering that it is needed afterward to win the war) as a metaphor.

Merlis can deal with myth neatly as anecdote (the story of Apollo and Admetus is told with the appropriate admixture of flip black humor), and sometimes he packs a nice allusion for the knowing, as when Pyrrhus-Neoptolemus, on first reaching Lemnos, remarks: “I never saw so many dykes in one place.” The naval fun-and-games en route to the island leave one reflecting (as was obviously its purpose) that sailors don’t change much down the ages. Indeed, the amount of time everyone in this novel spends having, fantasizing or agonizing over easy (or, in several cases, distinctly painful) sexual encounters got me wondering--so up-to-date was the atmosphere, so like some contemporary gay scenes in, well, let’s say San Francisco--whether Merlis hadn’t originally written a modern novel, only to be told by his attorney that he risked half a dozen libel suits unless he took his story right out of the here-and-now, so what about setting it in ancient Greece, where this kind of thing (he’d heard) was all the rage?


Steven Pressfield, the author of “Gates of Fire,” also hails from California but, in his case, from Malibu: a smart ambience rather than a gay one. His only admitted previous work (though other names and pseudonyms haunt the catalogs) is a so-called “mystical golf novel” entitled “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” about a black caddie: not the background one might expect for a shot at rendering immortal Spartan courage--and, let’s face it, stupidity--in 480 BC when they briefly blocked Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates,” so called because of the thermal springs there) against Xerxes’ advancing Persian forces. The Persians broke through and moved across the peninsula (but not the Peloponnesus) in spite of Spartan resistance, but the battle at Thermopylae remains significant in the way that the Alamo is: as a famous moment of historical self-sacrifice. Still, with Herodotus as his main guide, Pressfield probably decided, he couldn’t go wrong.

The landscape today is difficult: The sea has retreated several miles, so the pass is a pass no longer. But there are some topographical details that are easy to detail and will still send a shiver down your spine. (I vividly recall retracing the route that the Persian Hydarnes and his Ten Thousand took by the Anopaia track over Kallidromos, and at the point of descent--just as they did--kicking up drifts of dried winter leaves. This had been the noise that warned the Spartans of their approach. From the mound where Leonidas and his men made their last stand, too, I could clearly smell the Hot Springs: Those Spartans died with the stink of rotten eggs in their noses.)

I have to assume that Pressfield has been over that ground, but immediate details of this sort aren’t really his forte. His structure, too, is awkward, putting the main story in the mouth of a Greek prisoner, Xeones (improbable name: Why not use a real, well-attested one?), framed by a Persian historian’s running commentary in italicized type. There are irritating misspellings: Thespaians for Thespians, sarpinx (a trumpet) for salpinx. Pressfield supposes the past participle of “stride” is “strode” rather than “stridden” (“he had strode” really grates on the ear) and lets his hero Dienekes (the Spartan who quipped, when told the Persian arrows came so thick that they blotted out the sun, “Good, then we’ll fight in the shade”) go “poring [sic: pawing?] through the dirt” after a sword. He acknowledges the help of a nonexistent E.V. (in addition to the real W.K.) Pritchett, behind whom I sense the ghost of historian Eugene Vanderpool. A good copy editor should have caught these embarrassments; a good novelist--above all one doing ancient necromancy--should never have perpetrated them in the first place.

Pressfield has several ways of trying to sell Spartan heroism. He introduces long near-Homeric similes: “As when a hailstorm descends unseasonably from the mountains and hurls from the sky its icy pellets upon the husbandman’s newly sprouted crop,” et cetera. He outdoes Homer in bloodiness of combat description: Heads are lopped; marrow gushes from grayish severed spines; one Spartan uses the rim of his shield like an onion-chopper, driving it into his opponent’s throat. He throws in convincing technicalities, such as the fact that you don’t use spears against wicker shields because they get stuck in them. (I didn’t know there was an International Hoplology Society, but Pressfield has clearly learned a good deal from its director about the realities of ancient hoplite battles.) If you’re into slime, gore, trailing guts, mayhem and muddle, there’s plenty of it here, and for the most part it’s uncomfortably convincing.

This is more than can be said for Pressfield’s recruit training. Having rightly scotched the misconception that Spartan military education was “brutal and humorless in the extreme,” he then goes on to describe sessions in which the mildest ordeal for a recruit was having his nose smashed flat with his shield or being forced to urinate in it. This is nonsensical. Pressfield dwells, lovingly I can’t help feeling, on a field exercise that makes the Marines’ Parris Island look like a Sunday school outing. As far as characterization goes, his Spartans, men and women alike, are surprisingly like Naomi Mitchison’s: full of honor and given to discussing very little else.

But of course, what we’re building up to is that last heroic defense at the Hot Gates, and here Pressfield tips history by assuming that (never mind public assurances) the Three Hundred were in fact deliberately sent to what was known to be certain death as a gallant sacrifice. He wants the emotion and, in getting it, he makes rubbish of good strategy: another too-frequent weakness of the historical novelist.

The Greeks built an amphibious defense line between Thermopylae and Artemisium that neither fleet nor army could survive alone. Leonidas and his advance guard had simply to hold the pass until major reinforcements arrived. These didn’t get there in time: not because of some mad plot of honor as Pressfield or the historian Diodorus would have us believe, but through inefficiency and dilatoriness. Even then, Leonidas could still have saved the day if he’d stationed a really strong force to block the Anopaia path over Kallidromos, instead of stupidly sending the Phocians, who scuttled out of harm’s way at the first approach of the Persians. The trouble is, making this clear drives home to the reader that the defense of Thermopylae was screwed up both on site and back at base, which isn’t the message a romantic novelist (and in fact Pressfield, for all the gore and machismo, is as romantic as they come) really wants to give his readers.

And that raises what may be the most fiercely argued general point about historical fiction: How far is a novelist allowed to use his or her fancy, and how far is he or she obliged to stick to known facts? My feeling is that trashing established history is a no-no but that filling in the personal lacunas ignored by historians is a legitimate and valuable task for the creative imagination. However, since the fashion today is to claim, sweepingly, that there’s no such thing as truth anyway, I’m probably doing a Leonidas on it myself.