The more historical fiction I read, the more I come to admire those who write it well. It is one of those disciplines, like tightrope-walking, where what appears effortless to the expert reveals its true perils only in the work of the less proficient. Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, a historical novel acclaimed by many good judges, certainly displays all its labours on the page.
There is much to admire in this stirring story of the three hundred Spartans who defied the Persian hordes in their doomed defence of Thermopylae. Pressfield is at his best in the battle scenes, where the horrors of warfare at close quarters are all too graphically realised, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors rings down to us through the ages. But for all that, I finished the book with a lingering dissatisfaction. The feeling of immersion I get from a really good historical novel was not there. So why didn't it work for me?
The book failed for me on two separate levels, the philosophical and the technical. Historical novels seem to me to operate in one of two ways: they can either embed the reader in the period addressed, or they can use that period as a means of commenting on the present. (I oversimplify for the sake of argument). As a matter of taste I prefer the former - the novels of Patrick O'Brian, say, or Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem which I reviewed recently. If I want to think deeply on contemporary events, I'd rather read a novel which explicitly addresses those themes. If I'm reading history, don't pull me out of the period.
Gates of Fire, is very much in the second category. It reminded me more of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's 1986 Vietnam film--particularly the early bootcamp scenes where the recruits are systematically brutalised to prepare them for combat--than any other novel about classical antiquity. The elegiac tone of much of the book(one of its best features) is for a way of life--but it's not, except indirectly, for the Spartans. What Gates of Fire is truly lamenting is the decline of a certain aspect of America's perception of itself (a reading admittedly conditioned by post 9/11 events, but nonetheless perceptible before that). Pressfield thanks in his acknowledgements the historian and commentator Victor Davis Hanson, and it is precisely Hanson's brand of libertarian self-reliance which Pressfield so admires in American culture. I'm indebted to Paul Rhoads for quoting Hanson's recent observations on the American officer class on his blog: relics of an American past who believe in honor, duty, country, God, sacrifice, and the continuation of the American experiment. America, of course, is a country which deliberately modelled its governance on Greek and Roman models, and by taking us back to Thermopylae Pressfield is returning to the root of the 'American experiment'. I don't have any quarrel with the position articulated by Pressfield (or if I do, it's not to the point in a literary review) but I do have rather more difficulty with it being smuggled in under the guise of historical fiction.
On an artistic level, the hazard of Pressfield's philosophical approach is that it requires him to present the lives of the Spartans as a hagiography. All the main characters have been forged in the Spartan school of adversity, and though they feel understandable fear, keep it largely to themselves, a price they pay for the peerless esprit de corps of their brethren. Dienekes, the novel's moral exemplar, at times outlines his thoughts on the nature of fear for his disciples '(and of course the reader's) benefit. But because the Spartans all think alike, and all unhesitatingly follow the Code, all the conflict in the novel is external.
My other dissatisfactions with the book are around the prose itself. Pressfield has done an immense amount of research--and boy, is he going to make sure the reader knows it. He can't bring out a chamber pot without telling us the Greek for it; or he drags in an indifferent pun which only works if you know that the Greek words for "friend" and "foreskin" differ by only one letter. The truly great novelists who treat the classical period--Mary Renault or Allan Massie--don't let on to the reader that they've done any research: they just tell you the story. The result of Pressfield's scholarship is not to underwrite the narrative, it's to delay the flow of the story. Pressfield's voice is wildly variable; at one moment he will give us the argot of the common soldier (Full Metal Jacket time) while at others we are given prose of Homeric portentousness. Some writers can get away with this, but the narrative framework Pressfield has given himself, a retrospective first-person account by one of the grunts, makes the job almost impossible. The modern American idiom of the soldier-talk grates, while the high falutin' stuff doesn't sit well with the purported narrator.
I very much wanted to like Gates of Fire, if only to impress my swanky Macmillan New Writing pals; but although the book had many virtues, they were not enough to lift it above the mediocre, for this reader at least. But at least it's reminded me just how surpassingly good Mary Renault is...