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(Yup, this is me still catching up on 2010 book reviews. The good news now is that there is just this one and another I've already written to go, and then at last I can make a start on 2011! You know, one day before the year ends. Thankfully, the 2011 reviews shouldn't take too long themselves, as I have been so miserable about my huge reviewing back-log this year that I have only read five books. :-/ I'm really looking forward to getting those written up, and being able to return to a more enjoyable regime of instant, enthusiastic reviewing pretty much straight after I've watched / read things. Oh, and sorry for the pedantic page numbers in this review - this one is related to my work on receptions of Augustus, so I may need to be able to return to this review and cross-check details quickly and easily in the future.)

This particular book was recommended to me by my very good friend hollyione, on the grounds that it would be relevant to my interest in fictional portrayals of Augustus, and tap into my love of the Art Deco era as well. It manages to tick both boxes by presenting a retelling of the fall of the Roman Republic, transposed to the world of high finance in the 1920s and '30s. The role of the burgeoning Roman Empire is taken by America, where Paul Van Zale as Julius Caesar dominates Wall Street, while Egypt with its fading power and strange ancient customs is represented by England - and particularly the Norfolk Broads - where Dinah Slade struggles against hostile half-siblings and financial hardship to preserve her crumbling ancestral home, Mallingham. I'm sure there are some parallels I didn't spot, but as far as I could work it out (and because no-one else seems to have placed such a list on the internet), these are the equivalencies which I recognised:

Character nameHistorical equivalent
Paul Van ZaleJulius Caesar
Dinah SladeCleopatra
Vicky Van ZaleJulia, Caesar's daughter
Alan SladeCaesarion
Lucius ClydeLucius Cornelius Sulla
Jason Da CostaGnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Greg Da CostaSextus Pompeius
DollyCornelia, Caesar's first wife
MariettaPompeia, Caesar's second wife
Sylvia Van ZaleCalpurnia, Caesar's third wife
Elizabeth ClaytonServilia
Bruce ClaytonMarcus Iunius Brutus
Charley BlairCassius Longinus
Terence O'ReillyPublius Cornelius Dolabella (I think - not quite sure about this one)
MildredAtia
Wade BlackettLucius Marcius Philippus
CorneliusOctavian
EmilyOctavia
Steven SullivanMark Antony
Luke SullivanLucius Antonius
Caroline SullivanFulvia
LewisLepidus
Sam KellerAgrippa
Kevin DalyMaecenas
VivienneScribonia
Alicia FoxworthLivia
Ralph FoxworthTiberius Claudius Nero, Livia's first husband
SebastianTiberius

I should explain that the matches are not always straightforward. For example, Lucius Clyde is an investment banker and Paul Van Zale (Julius Caesar)'s uncle, who helps to pay for Paul to go to Oxford - which might suggest he is equivalent to Gaius Marius. But what Lucius Clyde actually does in the novel is to order Paul to divorce his first wife Dolly (i.e. Cornelia) and then make it impossible for him to get a job in any of the major New York banking houses when he refuses, which is closer to the behaviour of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Given the resemblance between their names (both are 'Lucius C...') and the strength of the match between their behaviours, I have listed him as Sulla, but arguably the role of Marius is collapsed into the same character as well. From one angle, that's slightly weird, because in real Roman history they were such bitter enemies that they started a civil war against one another, but it reflects the fact that their conflict is not the main story Howatch wants to tell here.

Basically, though, all of the main characters in the story of Caesar's fall and Octavian's rise are in place, while the famous scenes and events of the story are reworked for the early twentieth-century setting. Dinah Slade, for example, first brings herself to Paul Van Zale's attention by sneaking into his London office inside a Fortnum & Mason's hamper, matching Cleopatra's legendary entrance in a carpet. And Howatch has fun playing around with her and our awareness of the work as a reception of the Classical world. Explicit references to the late Roman Republic are regularly worked into the story, such as Dinah and Paul quoting Catullus at one another (p. 14), or Paul Van Zale's metaphorical comment before bringing down Jason Da Costa (equivalent to Pompey) via a financial and political scandal - "Then with the fatal die cast I crossed my Rubicon and took Sylvia on a vacation to Bermuda."

In fact, Howatch's characters consciously consider the relationship between the New York which they are experiencing and ancient Rome for themselves - as when Dinah decides that "Ancient Rome was not dead after all, but reincarnated in the Western Hemisphere" or reconciles herself to the idea of drinking whisky there with the words "When in Rome..." (p. 218). Meanwhile, Paul Van Zale counters that 18th-century England is a closer parallel, acknowledging the possibility of variant interpretations, and positioning Howatch's work in relation to the popular tradition of drawing that very link between the British empire and the Roman. Howatch is very much aware, too, of the most comparable reception to her own - The Great Gatsby, which similarly translates ancient Rome to 1920s America, and which Dinah finds a copy of on Terence O'Reilly's bedside table (p. 258).

I wondered exactly how Caesar's assassination would play out, and whether it would be associated with the most dramatic event of the financial world during this period - the Wall Street crash. But that in the end happened after Paul Van Zale had already been gunned down in his office and was (I think) instead treated as equivalent to the uprising led by Mark Antony's brother, Lucius, against Octavian, culminating in the siege of Perusia. Certainly Steve Sullivan's brother, Luke, gets into serious hot water as a result of the crash, and Cornelius (Octavian) demands that Steve himself come back from his attempts to expand the banking business into Europe to deal with it, which matches up with the aftermath of the Perusia incident. After this, Steve returns to Europe with Dinah, and things continue much as the historical model determines. Steve pretends his business ventures in Germany have been a great success, but they are later revealed by Cornelius as a disaster (like Antony's Parthian campaign), while the battle of Actium is portrayed as a simple confrontation over dinner between Sam Keller (Agrippa) and Dinah Slade. He makes her an offer to come back to New York and re-establish her cosmetics business (i.e. to abandon Steve). She refuses; he calls her a fool; and she finally calls him a Nazi and storms off.

Though Howatch's work is a less direct telling of the rise of Octavian than others which I have read, the story is still faithful enough to its source material for her knowledge of the period to come across very clearly. She makes distinct and usually well-judged decisions about issues of debate - so, for instance, she establishes clearly that Bruce Clayton (Brutus) can't be Paul Van Zale's son, as Elizabeth (Servilia) and he were on different continents at the time of the conception, but Alan Slade (Caesarion) most certainly is the product of his affair with Dinah Slade at Mallingham. I was especially pleased to see Dinah Slade's relationship with Steve Sullivan being portrayed as above all a business alliance in the beginning, developing into a more serious love affair only later on, as I get very frustrated with students and popular historians who fall for the idea that all of Antony's actions in relation to Cleopatra were motivated by passionate romance right from the very beginning - more likely the product of Octavian's negative propaganda than a historical reality.

Indeed, on occasion, the ancient primary sources hover very close to the surface, and I was particularly struck to notice this happening with the famous letters between Octavian and Antony about each other's sexual partners preserved by Suetonius, which pop up in appropriately modernised form on pp. 521-4. These were also used more directly in Allan Massie's Augustus - and I'm not surprised that the combination of the snarky / salacious content and the fact that they (purportedly) relate the exact words of major historical figures makes them irresistible to modern authors. Historical mis-steps are very few in this novel, but I can't agree with Howatch that a volume of Cicero's letters would be 'slim' (p. 473). Not unless it were very selective, it wouldn't.

Obviously my main reason for reading was to assess the portrayal of Cornelius (Octavian). This comes from various different angles, as the book is divided into six sections, each told from a different first-person perspective. But from almost every viewpoint, including his own, Cornelius comes across as very much in line with the standard portrayal of Octavian in narratives of this period - that of a cold and manipulative villain, against whom Antony and Cleopatra (Steve Sullivan and Dinah Slade) can be played off as tragic and romantic heroes. His background is nicely reworked to suit Howatch's American setting. His natural father is a well-to-do, hard-working Ohio farmer - that is, a reasonable equivalent to Octavian's Italian land-owning father, although not quite capturing the fact that the real historical Octavius was a senator in Rome and actively involved in Julius Caesar's political circle. After Cornelius' mother, Mildred, remarries, his step-father moves them to "Velletria, one of the most exclusive of the Cincinnati suburbs" (p. 118), which picks up well enough on the Octavius family's origins in the Italian town of Velitrae, although this was really the home of the natural father rather than the step-father.

Cornelius is introduced as "a silent fourteen-year-old who looks as if the faintest puff of wind would blow him away" (p. 48), but at this early point only through the thoughts of Paul Van Zale, who keeps meaning to 'do something' for him, yet is always too busy to get round to it. His first actual entrance comes on p. 124, when he appears as a guarded yet precocious teenager, who lacks social warmth but is able and willing to turn Paul Van Zale's questions back round on him - much like Roddy McDowall's Octavian in Cleopatra (1963). Elizabeth (Servilia) accurately describes him as 'cold and withdrawn', while Sylvia Van Zale (Calpurnia) thinks he is shy, but polite and well-mannered, and self-assured once he has got over his shyness. When Paul first meets him, his only real interests are technology and gambling, encapsulating his rather passionless yet competitive character, but Paul tests him by seeing whether he is prepared to learn Latin and Greek in order to impress him. Once he has proven himself by taking this challenge up, Paul takes him under his wing and begins to cultivate him - but of course the process is cut short by Paul's death.

After the death, Cornelius moves boldly into action, just like the real Octavian. He takes the name Van Zale, and goes straight to Steve Sullivan (Mark Antony), declaring his intention to keep the capital in the bank which Paul Van Zale has left him and demanding to be made a partner. Sullivan has to comply, because Cornelius has $20 million which the bank needs, but he believes that he is just humouring the boy and can control him. Interestingly, Sullivan also thinks that Cornelius is gay, and that the practical, working-class Sam Keller (Agrippa) is his boyfriend - but this is never confirmed from any other point of view, including Cornelius', and appears to be another manifestation of Sullivan's misjudgement. Cornelius continues to be ambitious and ruthless to the end, taking all opportunities which come his way and pursuing them mercilessly until he has complete control of what was once Paul Van Zale's bank. But he does get one episode of genuine emotional turmoil during his own point-of-view section, when he learns from a doctor that he will never be able to have another child due to an attack of the mumps, and wanders despairing through impoverished downtown bits of New York, accompanied by the language of stench, sweat, disease and decay. This in turn has plot significance, since it spurs him to investigate further into the paternity of Alan Slade (Caesarion), and then to decide to re-double his efforts to destroy Dinah - so there is at least some degree to which Cornelius' motivations in this book have an emotional basis, rather than being purely about the acquisition of power.

The most interesting and prominent character, though, is clearly Dinah herself - and this is reflected in the fact that she gets two out of the six point-of-view sections to herself, while nobody else gets more than one. She is bold and strong throughout - very independent, very clear about what she wants, and determined to get it no matter who tries to stand in her way. She bursts in upon Paul Van Zale's world at the beginning, bullies him into loaning her enough money to save her ancestral home of Mallingham, and then goes on to set up her own business, run it extremely effectively, and later insist on being allowed to become an investment banker when Steve Sullivan is trying to expand the Van Zale business into Europe. This latter development in particular works really well in the 1930s setting, since it prompts exactly the same reactions from the men around Dinah as Cleopatra's parallel insistence on playing a role in planning Antony's campaigns also did - scorn and hostility towards a woman daring to encroach on their territory, which results in the same damage to Steve's reputation as Antony suffered.

Dinah's two point-of-view sections cover first her affair with Paul Van Zale, and then later that with Steve Sullivan, and she changes distinctly between the two. Though always strong, she is nevertheless girlishly playful, idealistic and sometimes rather naïve while she is with Paul, but has become much more dominant, mature and self-assured by the time she is with Steve. Indeed, by this time, she is being drawn as a direct female equivalent to Cornelius. After Steve's brothers have lost money in the Wall Street crash, Dinah and he have a huge Antony and Cleopatra-style row, narrated from his point of view, during which he comments that "I was just about to find out that the Lady of Mystery, Miss Dinah Slade, was no ordinary protégée of that goddamned best friend of mine [i.e. Paul Van Zale] but a made-to-measure replica of Cornelius Van Zale in drag." But although they are well-matched adversaries, she remains far more vivid and captivating than Cornelius. In fact, I think she is probably one of the most complex, fascinating and well-rounded Cleopatras I have ever come across. Perhaps ultimately the relatively modern setting means that her strength in a male-dominated world carries a greater impact for me than a remote Egyptian queen can quite manage, especially while we only know her through the eyes of contemporary men? Anyway, she is a great character, and easily the most powerful reason for picking up and reading this book. I'm glad I did.

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Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
hollyione
Dec. 30th, 2011 11:54 pm (UTC)
You'd already mentioned you'd enjoyed this book, but it's great to see such a well rounded review (you should post it on Amazon!) Most of my knowledge of this period of Roman history comes from I Clavdivs and researching on Wikipedia once I'd read the book and realised the parallels, so I got some of the characters in my head, but nowhere near as thorough as you have done! There is a strong (cult) Susan Howatch following on the ether and I definitely think they'd love this review too.

The sequel is "Sins of the Fathers" which, apparently, follows the fortunes of Vicky Van Zale (Julia?). On Wiki I couldn't find much about her to verify whether Howatch has still stuck to historical allegories, but you probably know more about that than I do. In any case it's a stunning book and I'd recommend that too.
strange_complex
Dec. 31st, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
Yes, I definitely owe you one for this recommendation! And I have Sins of the Fathers lined up to read too, so I will write all about how it treats history too in due course (though I haven't even read it yet).

As for this review, I will put it on my real-name blog eventually, which is why I have friendslocked it here, so a wider audience will get to read it. But I need to put up a few other posts on that blog first about my plans for research based on receptions of Augustus, and some of the other historical novels about this period which I have read.
hollyione
Dec. 31st, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
Would you ever think of writing your own Augustus book? (I'd also like to see Commodus written about in novel form)
strange_complex
Dec. 31st, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
Heh - I could see it being a lot of fun, but also very time-consuming and difficult to do well. Maybe in my retirement!
surliminal
Dec. 31st, 2011 12:03 pm (UTC)
Oh Sins of the Father is marvellous. I read em all in the day. Must go see what is on Amazon!
rosamicula
Dec. 31st, 2011 10:39 am (UTC)
Ooh I loved Susan Howatch when I was a teenager, and often used to go on to research the historical template she used. An excellent review1
strange_complex
Dec. 31st, 2011 11:10 am (UTC)
Yes, I understand it's something she does quite a lot, and not just with the Roman period. From what I've seen in this book, she's extremely good at it.
surliminal
Dec. 31st, 2011 11:39 am (UTC)
I read that book when I was somewhat young and loved it but had no idea it was based on Augustus!! and me a classicist too! I must re read ..
strange_complex
Dec. 31st, 2011 11:47 am (UTC)
I think it's a strength of the book that it still works really well even if you don't know about the allegory. But there's a whole extra experience in there if you do know - so definitely worth re-reading for that.
surliminal
Dec. 31st, 2011 12:01 pm (UTC)
Ha I do remeber thinking it had a slightly odd style - but just out that down to Howatch who was being marketed as an airport-family-saga bonkbuster at the time pretty much but in fact is a damn fine writer.
kissmeforlonger
Dec. 31st, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC)
Yes - me too! I read that review thinking I must read the book again and see if I can pick up on the parallels I missed at the time.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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