Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Gates of Languor

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...

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Unknown said...

I completely missed all the American angst subtext. I feel a bit ashamed now.

Verification word - barrew. A Spartan word for being physically restrained from fleeing battle by being sat upon by your largest classmate (and enjoying it, of course).

Tim Stretton said...

Well, I got to miss out on blubbing like Fanny, so I feel pretty ashamed too...

David Isaak said...

Geez, I'm with Aliya there--I didn't notice there was a political agenda. No one else I know who has read the book has ever mentioned it.

I agree that his research elements might have been snuck in more unobstrusively--or, at any rate, differently. That is one of the things O'Brian does so masterfully--but, then, he's often grinning and winking at you as he does so, so the novel has to carry a high humor coefficient to get away with it.

On the other hand, much as I admire O'Brian, his hurdle is set a little lower by his stories being placed in a historical period so recent and familiar; the world of Nelson and Austen is still very much part of our consciousness, and he can use our existing knowledge (and the gaps in that knowledge) as both a platform to build on and as a way of surprising us when he reveals many of our preconceptions to be incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, when someone reads O'Brian, they come away feeling as if they really know what it was like during the Napoleonic Wars.

With Renault and something like "The Persian Boy", on the other hand, the gulf in time and outlook is huge, and, skilled as she is, Renault can only hint at how different their live and worldviews were; I come away feeling I have more insight, but I certainly don't have the conviction I've been on a time machine. (Don't get me wrong--I think it's a magnificent book.)

One thing I note is that Pressfield uses the same device as O'Brian and Renault, which is the outsider (Maturin in the O'Brian novels, the eponymous Persian Boy in Renault) as a means of exposition. I think for this to work at its maximum impact, the wider the gap between our world and the historical world the further away the origin of the outsider ought to be. Even if the Spartans were very odd to the other Greeks, I think picking a refugee from another Greek city-state may have given us an observer too close to really juice the strangeness of another time and place for all it is worth.

I quite enjoyed the book. But, then, I quite enjoy the movie "Ben-Hur," too, despite the heavy-handed religiousity, and despite the fact that Charleton Heston was a right-wing nutjob. And I like Beethoven's Third, even though he copmposed most of it as an ode to Napoleon (before he decided Napoleon was evil incarnate; I note that he kept the notes but eliminated the dedication.)

A lot of stuff goes right past me. I suspect I'm happier for it.

Tim Stretton said...

Yes, I might have cut Pressfield a bit more slack if he'd had O'Brian's sense of humour (now I can imagine O'Brian making a joke about foreskins and it being funny...)

I'm with you on Ben-Hur. Whenever it comes on the TV it's better than I remembered. They really don't make 'em like that anymore (although Gladiator was a damn good try).

The outsider is a tremendously useful narrative strategy - perhaps one you'll touch on in one of your POV pieces.

mattfwcurran.com Web Admin said...

It's like being told Santa doesn't really exist!
Didn't see the subtext either - there's parrallels with Frank Miller's 300 in that.

Still love the book though, subtext aside - though your points are valid. I haven't read O'Brian's books (shameless, I know, from someone who has written a largely Napoleonic novel) but I'll add him to the must read list.

David Isaak said...


I'm sure Tim would join me in envying you for not having read O'Brian yet, because discovering him is such a joy and revelation.

Tim Stretton said...

20 volumes of the sublime await, Matt.

Chuck said...

I just read O'Brian over the last few months. Great stuff! My father-in-law (from whom I borrowed them) has a cookbook called Lobscouse and Spotted Dog that has recipes for many of the dishes featured in the various feasts and shipboard dinners described in the books. I'm simultaneously trepidatious and intrigued by things like puddings, such as Spotted Dog or Drowned Baby.

Nobody can get more mileage out of a joke than O'Brian. A pun on friend and foreskin would have set him for life. "Why is it called a dog-watch?" 'Nuff said.

A glass of wine with you, sir!

Anonymous said...


I read when it came out, i.e. before 9/11. As such I never perceived any agenda related to a particular conception of the US. I am not USAn as well - I am from South America where USA bashing is a sort of sport, but then again, I did not perceive any hidden agenda...

Tres nice blog, btw, kudos.