Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar


“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”

– Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian

Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?

Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.

My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.

Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.

*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.

Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

riseandfallSad to say, since I received this for free from Goodreads, but this is just not a very good book. The characters are two-bit stereotypes, the sense of place and setting is unconvincing, the writing is dull, and I came to find myself zoning out on the bus, listening in to other peoples’ conversations — addiction, rental prices, who’s dating who — rather than return to this novel’s overpowering blandness.

Tooly, an American running a nigh-insolvent bookstore in rural Wales, is suddenly thrust back into the mystery of her past, which involved several irresponsible adult caretakers she was on a first-name basis with as a ten year old, and no “Mom” nor “Dad” in sight. The novel is split between 1988, 1999, and 2011, across Wales, New York City, Bangkok, Greece, and a few other minor locales, all of which are largely indistinguishable (but more on that later).

Tooly ends up searching for an explanation of her real parents, and for another character from her convoluted past: a predatory Canadian hipster named “Venn”. Venn has been transparently playing and manipulating Tooly since her childhood, though she is oblivious to this and worships the ground he walks on. Here is where the poor characterization takes hold. Incredibly charismatic but terribly manipulative people do exist — and thrive. But Venn, with all his high-minded speeches and beard-splitting grins, is entirely unconvincing. We have to rely on Rachman to tell, instead of show, how charming Venn is. The result is that we find Tooly foolish to trust him since there’s no reason for us to find Venn particularly compelling.

The Tooly-Venn relationship also ties into a troubling theme that runs through the novel; there’s multiple women who seem to be staying with/pursuing men who are awful to, or terrible for them. This includes a college professor whose boyfriend and later husband happens to be a student whose every element of description is used to accentuate how much of a giant asshole he is. Which is a problem unto itself. And a common one at that — several characters are just types, not people. The overworked lawyer who ignores his family. The washed up cougar who now hates young women prettier than she. The unbelievably cruel principal who authenticates our protagonist as true outsider.

The thing about these globetrotting novels, even the ones that don’t even get the locations right, is that they need a stellar handle on setting. You need to feel like you’re there. Or at least be awed or fearful of this strange locale. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers fails spectacularly. Each city is dull and flavorless and might as well be the same blank urban void. Bangkok has prostitutes, I guess*. And Wales has horses. New York city is established by name dropping locations everyone knows (Oh look, it’s the Empire State Building!). Minor details are misses as well. Describing the squalor of a college boy’s NYC apartment, it’s mentioned that the roommates avoid the shower and wash in the “basin”, which is an immediate tell that the author is not American, and it’s kind of baffling that this wasn’t caught in editing**. For any non-American wondering, we call it a sink.

Towards the very end, I did get somewhat invested in the story and came to care for Tooly, which is why I rated this two stars instead of one on Goodreads. And by “the very end”, I mean the last 20-30 pages and not the last page itself which involved an unfortunate and silly change of perspective.

The writing itself is unremarkable and tedious. Despite the crux of the novel being a mystery, the prose might as well be breaking into your house and drawing maps on your face for how little it leaves to the imagination. It does not even allow you to come to the most basic conclusions by yourself. In 2011, we are told Tooly is in her 30s and when the chapter swaps to 1999, we have to be told she is 21, and then again in 1988, that her exact age is 10. No basic math for you. There is a character that starts or ends every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. Despite the fact that this speech tic is itself obvious, Rachman has to laboriously explain to the reader that this character, Fogg, likes to pre-empt or end every obvious thing he says with “to be brutally honest”. This may sound like mere pedantry on my part, but it permeates the entire novel. The prose is how we are communicated this story, after all. When the basic sentence structure is so uninspiring and flat, it is no surprise when the book itself turns out to be so.

*Blogger Requireshate has mentioned in the past that when white people write of Thailand, if you look at the acknowledgements, the people thanked for Thailand-specific info on that section will inevitably have Anglo-sounding names (in other words, they’re expats) instead of any Thai names. I checked and this is indeed the case for Tom Rachman’s acknowledgements.

**The advanced reader copy warns: “THESE ARE UNCORRECTED PROOFS. PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL YOU CHECK YOUR COPY AGAINST THE FINISHED BOOK”. So I suppose you ought to take this part with a grain of salt.

The Unwinding by George Packer

unwindingGeorge Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.

The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).

Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).

Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.

Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).

The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.

Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.

*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.

**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.

***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others.