I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.
And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.
As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.
If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.
(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)
The last two and a half books of Civil War, while seemingly adrift and lacking the cumulative direction of the first seven, don’t make me think any less of the epic as a whole. Lucan’s talent was an emergent one: he was not about to construct a work of pristine beauty and organization. Any unity to the work would come out of the chaos that he was wrangling into magnificent and grotesque forms.
The artistic cost of dealing in such chaos is great, and while it’s frequently the poets who get the greatest acclaim for it (I’m thinking of Rimbaud), working with it in lengthy form and not having the entire mass collapse is in my mind a greater achievement. Melville’s two most psychotic books, Moby-Dick and Pierre, both throw aside almost all restrictive reins placed on their narratives and characters. Both engage in a digressive and barely controlled narrative style reminiscent of Lucan’s staccato jerks from one scene to the next. Interpolated tales like Moby-Dick’s “The Town-ho’s Story” serve a very non-picaresque purpose in such works.
In the 20th century, Catch-22 and the early works of Celine also pitch similar wrestling matches between disintegrating forms and visceral narrative force. Characters melt together. The threats of the past and the future blur the present moment. The plot is not a line, but a tree on which are hung different shapes and ornaments. For contrast, Pynchon’s works never let go in such an uncontrolled way. Pynchon’s starting point is always that of artifice, and so reality ends up peeking through his gaudy slats meekly, rather than rising up in force against the writer’s struggle to organize the material.
While the Roman Empire survived beyond what to Lucan must have looked like a terminal point of bad governance and corruption, epic poetry pretty much didn’t. Statius wrote his estimable Thebaid shortly after Lucan, but it is a retrenching in Greek mythology, albeit with a Lucan-esque darkness and bloodiness added. Silius wrote a very long and boring historical epic about Hannibal and the Punic Wars that has none of Lucan’s virtues. And while there are later works like Nonnus’s ridiculously long Dionysiaca, Dante is comfortable enough sticking to Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius in invoking his predecessors at the beginning of the Inferno.
So I see Lucan as really sounding the death of the classical epic and its nationalistic and preservationist ideals, ridiculously soon after Virgil had revivified them artificially. Virgil is probably the greater artist, the greater poet, but in their arguments and their representations of the world, I think Lucan stands toe to toe with Virgil.
Lucan’s point of view was a privileged one. The paradox is that he was simultaneously in a position of immense good fortune as well as great danger, and he apparently engaged with this position impetuously. James Zetzel makes a point about just how atypical Lucan’s circumstances were:
Roman writers are, and write for, an elite. Their perspective, above all that of a writer like Lucan, is extraordinarily narrow and self-serving. To invent a universal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the basis of what a Lucan felt or believed is neither good history nor good criticism–and it is also, quite evidently, deeply imbued with late twentieth-century preconceptions that would have left most Romans puzzled or revolted.
In the history of literature this is hardly unusual. Most pre-modern literary works were created within the context of some elite establishment, either out of patronage or for privileged audiences. The Aeneid is an extreme example. But it’s worth remembering that Lucan had unusual access to both power and information, and that he was exceptionally close to an unstable and inept ruler. Waves of force were emanating from a very close source while leaving him untouched, at least for a while.
But to read Lucan while being in the first world at this point in history is to be in something of an analogous position. Lucan does not and did not feel for all of the Roman people, but he did have a sense of how anonymous populations are swept up mercilessly into uncontrolled historical events. Now that we have the scientific and communications tools to track those phenomena, we first-world newsreaders get the actual accounts of Fortune’s caprices and its agents every day. It makes the Aeneid seem a little quaint, or at least more suitable to subversive readings than to enthusiastic fist-pumping for Rome. But Lucan, in his refusal to represent history and warfare as the human and the emotional, speaks in the dissociated machine-gun language of contemporary reportage.
In se magna ruunt: laetis hunc numina rebus crescendi posuere modum.
The Pharsalia … has no privileged center except for the energetic, bitter, and witty skepticism that devotes itself to demolishing the structures it erects as fast as it erects them; Lucan’s heroes lend their zestful assistance to this demolition, and that is their chief function.
W.R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes
I’ve said before that I think that Johnson overstates the case a bit and that there is a bit more coherence and structure to the Civil War than he allows. Nonetheless, I think his remark is accurate in spirit: Lucan’s ultimate message is one of upheaval and chaos, his commitments contingent and temporary. Book IX made the extent of how contingent humanity is. Book X breaks off at roughly its halfway point, which is as much of the poem survives and likely as much as Lucan wrote. Cato does not appear in Book X. Caesar follows Pompey to Egypt, only to find him already dead, and then allies with Cleopatra against her brother. (Lucan’s opinion of Cleopatra is about as low as you’d expect.) Caesar dodges an assassination attempt as well. Lucan attributes Caesar’s good fortune to Pompey:
Your shade, Magnus, came to his [Caesar’s] aid, your spirit rescued your father-in-law from bloodshed, lest the Roman people might come to love the Nile just less than it loves you.
Civil War X.7-10
Coming after the comparatively sympathetic treatment of Pompey in Book VIII, this is a shock. Pompey will not allow Caesar to die in Egypt lest Pompey’s own efforts against Caesar be forgotten. In other words, Pompey now wants Caesar to become dictator of Rome so that its people will see why he fought and think highly of him. This is hardly love of Rome or love of freedom, but just love of self. While Pompey’s brief appearance suggests more (figurative) power, Caesar is growing more and more brittle. Immediately after the battle at Pharsalia, he was already set upon by guilt and nightmares. The Caesar of Book X is savvy, but far less secure. Fortune is no longer quite so strongly at his back. Barricaded in the palace as one of the opposing Egyptian generals attacks, he experiences two very human emotions: anger and fear, reinforcing each other in a vicious circle.
Anger knocks his spirits; so do fears: he’s afraid of their incursion, and angry that he fears.
After Caesar makes his escape and the generals are killed, Lucan makes it explicit: Fortune is now on Pompey’s side.
So now a second victim is offered to your shades, Magnus, but Fortune does not think that this suffices. Banish the notion that this brings to conclusion your just retribution. The tyrant himself would not be vengeance enough, nor would all the royal court of Lagus. Until the fathers’ swords reach Caesar’s guts, Magnus will not be avenged.
It’s odd for Lucan to be talking of Fortune and justice in the same breath, but I suppose Fortune does permit justice to prevail sometimes. Or perhaps Lucan’s attitude is that Pompey will be avenged by definition at the moment of Caesar’s death. I won’t pursue this matter further except to say that the poem makes it clear that Caesar is now in eclipse. It’s difficult to say how the loss of Cato and Scipio’s army to Caesar would have played out in this thematic context. If the poem was to be 12 books long, as most think, the book would have ended with Cato’s suicide. Would Cato have gained some greater victory through losing, as Pompey now seems to be doing? Would he have died secure in knowing that he had stood his ground and that Caesar was as mortal as other men? Appropriately enough, Plutarch’s grotesqueaccount of Cato’s botched suicide reads like something straight out of Lucan:
Cato drew the sword and stabbed himself below the breast. But he could not apply much force because of his inflamed hand, and so this did not immediately end his life: writhing in his death agony, he fell off the bed and knocked over a geometric abacus that was by the bedside. The noise this made alerted the servants, who raised a shout, and Cato’s son and friends immediately burst in. They saw him covered in blood, with most of his entrails hanging out, but still alive and conscious. Everyone was appalled, and the doctor came to him and tried to replace the entrails, for they were intact, and to stitch up the wound: but Cato recovered enough to push the doctor away, then snatched the entrails apart with his hands and tore open the wound. And thus he died.
Plutarch, Cato, 70
A few scholars (such as Jamie Masters) have dared suggest that the poem is in fact complete as is, breaking off in the middle of Book X. For structural and other reasons I find this very hard to believe, and that seems to be the greater consensus as well. I can’t completely rule it out without knowing more, but it would lower my respect for Lucan if it were the case, since 2.5 more books would have permitted Lucan at least the possibility of making the latter part of the epic as satisfyingly messy as the first half. (Or else the first seven books should have been less satisfying, if this were his intent.) Yet even though I think the poem is incomplete, the point at which it breaks off is brilliantly serendipitous. Caesar reaches his lowest point yet, stuck on a ship surrounded by enemy Egyptian ships:
On the tiny causeway, with his army cramped, as he readies to move the fight to open ships, suddenly all the terror of war surrounds the Latin chief—on one side crowds of ships fringe the shores; at rear, infantry taunt him. No path of safety, neither flight nor valor, scarcely even hope for death with honor. No routed line or any great heap of carnage was needed then for Caesar to be conquered, nor any blood at all. Caught by his chance position he hesitates, unsure if he should fear or pray for death…. He looked back in the crowded throng for Scaeva, who already had earned titles of eternal glory on your fields, Epidamnus, when all alone, with the battlements breached, he blocked the walls being trampled on by Magnus.
He looked back. Caesar has lost all momentum, and at the critical moment, he no longer charges forward, knowing such a course to be deadly. Fortune is no longer with him. Knowing this, he has no resources of his own. He looks back for help from his talented lieutenant Scaeva, and in that vulnerable moment is contained the entire remainder of his life to his brutal murder. Caesar escaped this moment in fact, though Scaeva did not help him. Caesar jumped overboard and swam to another ship. His own ship sank along with most of the men on it.
And ending on that moment of crisis and humiliation, Fortune’s cycle having passed into a new phase and Caesar knowing it, is a sudden, haunting cut to black.
With Pompey dead, Book IX of Civil War, the action moves to Egypt, where Caesar will ally with Cleopatra. But most of Book IX is taken up by Cato and his army. Cato was a senator, but also an ascetic stoic, extremely stubborn, and utterly incorruptible. (Such traits seem to have run in the family. His great-grandfather Cato the Elder was even more irascible and draconian.)
Cato has been more or less absent from the epic since Book II, where he appeared briefly but memorably as an Über-stoic, remarrying his wife in a ceremony that made great use of one of Lucan’s favorite tropes, negation:
Her words sway her man, and though the times are strange for marriage, with fate calling for war, they agree on simple vows, without the empty pomp, and call the gods as witnesses for the sacred rite. The threshold was not crowned with festive garlands, no white wool ribbons twined round both the doorposts. No customary torches, no ivory steps by which to mount the bed, with gold embroidered blankets. The matron wears on her brow no towering crown nor avoids touching the threshold as she passes. No bright saffron veil, to lightly conceal the bride’s blush of timid shame, hid her down-turned gaze. No jeweled girdle bound a flowing toga, nor any lovely necklace, nor narrow linen bands hung from her shoulders, circling her bare arms….
He did not shave from his reverend face his bristling beard, and he let no joy crack his hard appearance. For since the time he first saw fatal arms raised up his white hair went uncut, flowed down his steadfast brow, and he let a grisly beard grow out on his cheeks. He was the only one, free from zeal and hatred, also free to mourn the human race. Their old bed is not tried again. His strength even stands against wedded love. It was his custom, the unwavering habit of tough Cato, to be moderate and observe the limit, to follow nature, to risk his life for his country. He believed he was born not for himself but the world. To conquer hunger was a feast to him.
Civil War II.373-407
For Cato the ascetic, even marital sex is immoderate. W. R. Johnson, in his excellent book Momentary Monsters, claimed on the basis of this passage and others that Lucan thinks Cato is a joke, a parody of the stoic not meant to be taken seriously as a hero. While that might possibly be true in Book II, Cato is far more grave in Book IX. He is reintroduced as the new counterweight to Caesar, and as a far more willing opponent than Pompey ever was. Although Cato will commit suicide (indeed, this is thought to be where Lucan would have really ended the epic), he does so with serious dignity.
Yet what Cato goes up against is drastically different than anything Pompey faced. For all of Book IX, Cato and his men are stuck in the African desert starving. Caesar is absent both physically and conceptually. Cato, for his part, is as merciless as Caesar, excoriating his men for any thought of desertion and enforcing rigid discipline. Cato was historically famous as a speaker, and his words are as binding and motivating soldiers as Caesar’s. Recall the power of rhetoric in this epic.
You were Pompeian, not Roman forces. But now, you aren’t toiling toward a kingdom. Now you live and die for yourselves, not for your leaders. Now you aren’t seeking the world for anybody, now you are free to conquer for yourselves. You’re fleeing war and longing for the yoke now that your neck is free! You don’t know how to bear life without a king! But now the cause is worth the hazard for men. Pompey might have spilled your blood—now, for your fatherland, you pull back your throats and deny your swords, when liberty is so near?…
His words called all the ships back from mid-sea, as when the swarms at once are leaving the combs of wax from which they’ve hatched, forgetting the hive, their wings don’t interweave or densely mingle but each flies lazily off on her own, no longer tasting bitter thyme….
So the voice of Cato impressed upon the men endurance for just war.
He decided to spur them on with constant work and labors of war, to exercise their minds, which had not learned to hold their peace.
Civil War IX.317-364
Cato uses freedom as a cudgel to berate the men for not standing strong for Rome in the face of Caesar. Both Pompey and Caesar, among many others, invoked freedom as well for all manner of free and unfree causes. Is Cato’s cause superior? Are his words more sincere, are he and his men more clear-minded and free of ate? I do not know if the poem gives a clear answer, nor if it is meant to do so. And I am not sure how much relevance the question even has, ultimately, for reasons given below.
I do, however, believe that Lucan’s praise of Cato is not sarcastic; the esteem is too well-proportioned. If Lucan had meant to ridicule Cato, he would have made Cato ten times more stoic. And notably, Cato does something that no one else has done: he ignores the oracles.
“It’s not oracles but the certainty of death that makes me certain. The coward and the brave both must fall. That is Jove’s word, and it is enough.”
For Lucan, this line is enough to grant Cato far more credibility than most characters.
But Cato’s fortitude meets unexpected foes. The starvation has just been the start. Lucan then throws at Cato and his men, in the most absurd way possible, a far deadlier hazard: snakes. A catalogue of them and the varied but always fatal effects of their venom.
Here, for one, is the seps:
A tiny seps struck poor Sabellus on the leg. Its curved fangs stuck there till he tore it off by hand and with his javelin pinned it to the sand. Just a little serpent, but no other holds so much bloody death. For the broken skin around the bite drew back, exposing to view the pale white of the bones, and as the abscess widened the wound stripped off his flesh. His limbs are awash in putrefaction, his calves have melted away, the back of his knee is laid bare, and all the muscles of his thighs dissolve, while from his groin a black pus oozes. The membrane holding the belly burst and his guts spilled out, but not as much poured on the ground as should have from one body, since the brutal venom boiled down his limbs and death constricted it all into potent poison. The unholy nature of that plague reveals all there is to man—the ligaments that bind, the texture of the rib cage, the hollow chest and everything concealed by the vital organs is laid bare in death. His shoulders and stout arms melt away, his neck and head flow down, quicker than snow thaws in the warm south wind or wax gives way to sun. It’s not saying much that his flesh was dripping, burned by the venom in his blood. Flame can do this too— but what pyre ever consumed the bones? These also disappear, along with the marrow that goes to rot, leaving no traces of his sudden fate. Of all the pests on Libya’s river Cinyps, the palm for harmfulness goes to you: the rest may take the soul, only you take the corpse.
Civil War IX.950-981
There are about half a dozen types of snakes, their venom’s effects all described in creatively gruesome detail. (Dante would make good use of them in Canto 24 of the Inferno.) The emphasis on bodily disintegration meshes well with the theme of the inhuman body that runs throughout the epic, but this section is too isolated too match the drama of earlier setpieces, however gory they were.
Yet I feel I have a sense of what Lucan was trying to accomplish, even if it was not quite successful. Up until now we have had Caesar as the opponent, and no matter how godlike and inhuman he became, he was still ultimately a person, and we the readers thought of him as a person. Book IX, I think, attempts to dissolve that distinction between the human and the inhuman. The snakes are meant to be no different from Caesar. The shock is meant to be that we realize that Cato’s men fighting (and losing to) snakes is no different from Cato’s men fighting Caesar’s men. Cato, trapped in the desert and set upon by natural forces, is just experiencing a different form of what Pompey had been experiencing. Cato recognizes that there is no difference, as does Lucan, but we the readers have not.
(Note that Nero’s place in the sky, all the way back at the beginning of Book I, would set him right above the desert. Rome and the desert are one and the same. And once more, to those who pine for a re-enchantment of nature: this is it, snakes and all, so be careful what you wish for. Nature does not like you.)
So just as Lucan has replaced the anthropomorphic Greek and Roman gods with the forces of the natural world, the purpose of Book IX is to replace the conflict of man against man with one of man against nature—or more properly speaking, one part of nature against another part of nature. He thereby undoes the primacy of the warrior that was established in the Iliad and maintained ever since.
This is, I think, a magnificent and sublime move on Lucan’s part. But I do not think he pulls it off successfully. Lucan simply does not evoke the snakes and the desert with the force and immediacy with which he evoked Caesar, Pharsalia, or Erictho. Yet to give unity to the poem, I feel that this must have been his intent.
Like Caesar himself, who suddenly turns vulnerable and human in the wake of his victory, Civil War deflates after the climactic battle of Pharsalia. The waning of conflict results in the waning of tension, even fatalistic tension. The remainder of the epic is a peculiar series of scenes and digressions that continue the narrative at a distinctly lower energy level.
To some extent, I think such a shift was inevitable, whether or not Lucan intended such a deflation. When an epic is built, as Civil War has been, on excessive setpieces that continually top their predecessors, the work could only avoid deflation by ending precisely at the moment of climax. Though it is hard to imagine how Lucan could have topped the demonically apocalyptic contents of books VI and VII, I suspect that he could have made the work yet darker and nihilistic.
For whatever reason, however, he chose quite consciously not to do so, and the final two and a half books read very differently from the first seven. Since he did not finish the work, we can’t know whether the dissipation would have been reversed. Given Lucan’s unpredictability, I can’t even guess.
Lucan is not without resources, however, and he employs strange strategies in order to continue giving shape to the work. In general, however, they lack (must lack) the overwhelming impact of what has gone before. The epic is less effective from this point on, and some sections are downright dull. Yet Lucan makes some brilliant advances in spite of the loss of his momentum, consolidating ideas and reexamining them in the light of that post-climactic letdown.
Book VIII serves as an extended memorial to Pompey, who flees to Egypt only to be killed there by rulers who hope to gain Caesar’s favor. Often, the elegaic tone is restrained and touching, and so utterly at odds with the entirety of the poem so far:
Fortune kept the faith and carried Magnus successfully through to the end of his fate, pursuing him in death from the heights of power to make him pay on one lone brutal day for all the disasters from which she kept him safe for all those years. Pompey was one who never saw blessings mixed with sorrows, his happiness no god disturbed, nor any spared his misery. Fortune held back, then struck him down at once. Beaten by sands, torn on the rocks, his wounds drinking the waves, a laughingstock of the ocean, when nothing of his form is left, one last sign— the missing head—will tell you it was Magnus.
Civil War VIII.862-874
I find this quite lovely, which only serves to make it so much more anomalous. I know some readers have claimed this praise of Pompey to be fatuous, but I can’t believe that to be the case. I do not think Lucan subtle enough to write in a fake beautiful elegaic tone without exaggeration.
In addition, there are enough contradictions even within Book VIII to make it evident that Lucan has still not adopted a decisive position toward Pompey. As the most striking example, there is Pompey’s brief emotional rally when he imagines gathering forces from the East to fight back:
“I wish my confidence in the fierce Arsacidae were not so great. Fates that inspire the Medes too closely rival our Fates. Their nation has many gods. I will uproot the peoples from this other land and pour them out, rouse the Orient from their homes and set them loose. Favor my endeavors, Rome. For what greater happiness could the gods above have ever offered you, than to wage your civil wars with Parthian troops, and destroy so great a nation by drawing them into our troubles? When Caesar’s armies clash with the Medes, Fortune will be forced to avenge either me or the Crassi.”
Civil War VIII.381-391
This may not appear so damning on its own, but as Susanna Braund and others point out, Pompey asks “Favor my endeavors, Rome” exactly as Caesar did in Book I. And Pompey’s fatalistic attitude toward the outcome—someone will be avenged at least!—doesn’t quite paint him as the Republican martyr that he is elsewhere. Even given that Lucan was a typical Roman imperialist, Pompey’s virtue is hardly pristine.
That ambivalence itself comes across to me rather brilliantly in a late image in Book VIII, where Pompey’s lieutenant Cordus cremates him:
Off in the distance he sees a small fire, cremating a poor man’s body with no guardian. From there he snatches flames and, stealing some half-burned logs out from under the limbs, says, “Whoever you are, so neglected by your own, unloved, but still a happier shade than Pompey, please forgive this stranger’s hand which violates your grave after it’s arranged. If any awareness survives death, you yourself would give up your pyre and accept these losses from your mound, you would feel the shame of being burned while Pompey’s spirits scatter.”
Civil War VIII.914-925
Cremates Pompey, that is, by stealing the wood from another cremation already in progress. Cordus insists that, after all, Pompey is the better man, and so more deserving of a proper death. This wholly gratuitous move on Lucan’s part points out, yet again, that Pompey, the dead loser, will still be better remembered and better loved than some anonymous man who died some way or another.