Stacy Schiff: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> Today is a special vision to imagine a biography as literary,
you know, the story arc is not yours to chart.
A life was lived and an author as skilled as Stacy Schiff has
to respect the facts of that life.
But within those confines, she was among a very few writers
who can infuse true long ago stories with the benefits of storytelling.
Gorgeous sentences are essential, but also,
an ability to infuse emotion and enliven events that she did not see,
but surely, someone else did.
Prize awarding panels anticipate each of her next books
like a time travel experience
that readers could not have known were available to them.
Through her extraordinary efforts, readers get an intimate portrait,
for instance, of the half century Nabokov marriage, in which husband
and wife were equally committed, not just to a literally livelihood,
but to a transportation out of quotidian household woes
and toward a lofty, idealistic dual commitment to art.
Similarly, she has sent readers aloft into the mysteries
of "The Aviator" and "Little Prince" author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery,
and then later, endeavoring to revisit the Boulevard des years
of a founding father in Paris.
I keep thinking of her recent book as Benjie Franklin, The Sexy Years.
[ Laughter ]
>> That's preparation, of course, for her next, which is Cleopatra.
On behalf of the festival organizers
and the many indefatigable volunteers today, and of course,
my hardworking colleagues at the Washington Post,
I'm honored to welcome and to hear from Stacy Schiff.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
Thanks for turning out.
I suspect you're all melting out there 'cause I'm melting up here.
If you inferred from these remarks that I have no life
of my own, you are correct.
But I have been through this biography business a few times,
and I have the following observation to offer.
No matter how wisely, how careful you choose your subject,
you wind up with one of two problems.
You either have the needle in the haystack problem as I did
when I started out on the life of Mrs. Nabokov,
the wife of the writer, a woman who was pathologically private, stoic,
selfless, formal, all qualities that make for a lousy book, or--
and nothing could be worse, I decided after this.
And so, I went on to write a book
about Benjamin Franklin's exhaustively documented years
in France, thereby incurring the haystack in the haystack problem,
in which I assure you, nothing could be worse.
For those eight years that Franklin spends in France,
that they're the eight years of the American Revolution and the peace
that follows, the documentation here in America is two and a half times
as great as it is for the rest of his life combined.
And that's not counting the French materials.
In Paris, Franklin was surrounded by a net of French spies
who were surrounded by a net of British spies,
and as far as I can tell, each of these men was paid by the word.
Nothing, nothing-- I promise you--
was too trivial for them to report on, including the state
of Franklin's laundry, which was always immaculately white,
and his dinner menu.
There was a precocious amount of apple pie consumed
by his household, by the way.
Everyone who owned a pen wrote a memoir in the 18th century,
and those who didn't appear to own a newspaper.
They were both official French newspapers
and unofficial French newspapers,
and their reports reliably contradicted each other.
I might add that John Adams was also in Paris at the time.
He appears to have owned several pens.
He missed his wife dreadfully, he had very little to do,
and he wrote a great deal about Benjamin Franklin.
But that's another story.
I should also say, actually, in deference to Richard Holmes,
I thought of Richard Daley-- because I spent a year and a half
in Paris doing this research-- most of Franklin's materials did not get
through to the American Congress.
So the best place to read them is the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs in Paris.
And Richard has a wonderful line on one f his essays about the problem
with doing any kind of research in Paris,
is that if your editor calls you and they find that you're not home,
they assume that you're out having a good time.
I just wanna go in the record of saying
that I wasn't having a good time.
I was in the archives everyday, which was great
if you don't mind working under low light and turning over your passport
and arriving at the appointed time and reserving your documents
in advance and filling out a pass to go to the ladies room
and not complaining when the archivist go out on strike.
[ Laughter ]
>> So what then did Benjamin Franklin
and Cleopatra have in common?
Or put another way, why would a relatively experienced predominantly
sane biographer, who is neither Greek nor Latin, and who's happiest
in a dusty archive, attempt a biography of a 1st century queen.
Let me say at the outset that I didn't think entirely--
I wasn't entirely sure it was possible.
I'd had Cleopatra in my mind as a subject for a long time,
but I just didn't see a way to write a traditional chronicle of her life.
She fascinated me for every possible reason.
I kept thinking of her as that sort of rare combination
of Delilah meets Catherine the Great meets Jackie O, you know.
It was sort of history and legend all bound together.
And from the biographer's point of view,
this was really the Mount Everest.
The idea struck me less though as biography than paleontology.
We may live in the post-factual age as someone recently said,
but she lived in a pre-factual one.
I was probably most fascinated
because I was startled by my own ignorance.
Here was a woman whom we think of as Egyptian, but who was in fact,
Greek, whom we remember as beautiful,
but whom every ancient chroniclers swore was more intelligent
and more charming than she was beautiful.
Here was a woman whom we had somehow conflated with Nefertiti
who lived 1300 years before Cleopatra,
and to whom Cleopatra was not even related.
And here was a woman who successfully ruled a rich
and fractious country for over two decades.
She's the only woman in antiquity who ruled by herself,
whom we have reduced to the slinky seductress.
She was however, and not so incidentally, the richest person,
man or woman, in the Mediterranean world,
she lived in the most cultured city of her day.
Alexandria at the time is really the center of culture of all.
Rome is still a backwater.
And hers was the most enlightened of atmospheres.
She knew things that would be forgotten until the renaissance,
the value of pie, the behavior of linear perspective,
the existence of the equator.
And gender mattered less than competence in her palace,
as it did generally in Egypt at the time.
In Cleopatra's Egypt, women operated mills, and they owned land,
they leased vineyards, they divorced husbands, they inherited equally.
In short, they enjoyed rights that they would not again enjoy
for something like 2000 years.
And yet, after all of that, Cleopatra melt into a puddle
of myths and misconceptions.
She has become to us a cigarette, a mascara, a videogame,
a slot machine, a strip club, or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor.
And at this time of year, you will see her name all over the internet
because hers is the most popular of Halloween costumes.

Someone asked me recently when I realized
that this book could actually be written,
and I answered a little glibly but not inaccurately,
that I realized it could be written when I finished writing it,
but there was another moment.
There was one other moment in truth.
It was when I finally noticed that we had an act--
we had actual 2000 year old quotes from Cleopatra,
and that we could hear just the tiniest murmur of her voice.
For the most part, that's thanks to Plutarch.
On the one hand, it pays to remember
that Plutarch was writing a good century after Cleopatra's death.
He is as far removed from her as we are from Ulysses grant.
On the other, as a modern biographer recently reminded me,
there were no tape recorders in the 19th century either.
It goes without saying that quoted material is generally approximate.
And as I learned from Ben Franklin,
even the most comprehensive material can refuse to give up answers.
Probably, I couldn't see my way to writing Cleopatra
until those years buried in Franklin's archive.
Five years in those miles and miles of paper, and I still can't tell you
who the mother of his son was.
I doubt anyone ever will.
And I knew there were questions that could never be answered,
but I also knew that that had nothing to do with the millennia
that separate us from Cleopatra.
What went on between Virginia Woolf and her brother,
how did Shelley die, what was the problem really
with Emily Dickinson, where is Jimmy Hoffa.
None of these questions have answers either.
In some cases, they have answers--
they don't have answers because we have an overload of information.
Too many accounts can spoil the truth.
How then was it possible to write about her?
I should probably mention at this juncture
that I'm here on false pretenses.
It is true that I have written a biography of Cleopatra,
but it is not true that you can buy it today, because it isn't
on sale for another two weeks.
But then you can buy it.
You could buy several copies, in fact.
And the one-- and it's beautiful, so you might wanna buy one
for your living room table and the other to read.
And the one you wanna buy is the one with my name, Stacy Schiff,
on it, not the other one.
Anyway, its publication date is November 1st.
But let me go back to that line of dialogue and Plutarch for a minute.
>> It comes in the course of a marvelous account of Cleopatra
and Mark Antony out fishing on a carefree Alexandrian afternoon.
Plutarch meant to use the incident
to illustrate what he calls Antony's boyish pranks,
but it offers something else as well.
The most accomplished military commander of his day,
Antony is unable to lure a single fish
from the fertile waters of Egypt.
Humiliated, it's always worse when you have your girlfriend
at your side and even worse when she's the queen of Egypt,
he arranges for one of his servants
to attach several pre-caught fish to his line.
And these, he begins to reel in one after the other with great gusto.
The scam is not lost in Cleopatra.
She is competitive by nature, and she has very impish sense of humor.
And so, she arranges for all of their friends to come
and watch her highly skilled roman friend the next day.
When she also arranges is for one of her servants
to attach an imported salted herring to Mark Antony's hook,
and this he pulls from the waters of Egypt to peals of laughter.
On the spot, she advises him to forget about fishing and attend
to his real responsibilities.
He is meant to be hunting, not for fish, but for cities,
kingdoms, and continents.
She's sly and she's saucy, but there is also something a little bit
familiar on her tone.
It's one known to every woman whose husband owns a set of golf clubs.
Of course, it also made me wonder about Plutarch's wife.
So yes, there were some terrific constraints.
I was used to knowing what my subject had had for dinner
and what he or she fretted about before he fell asleep.
And in this case, the record was as skewed as it was spotty.
All bets were off.
The Nile is not where it used to be, ancient Alexandria is lost,
some of it is in the harbor of Alexandria, and I don't scuba dive.
The Egyptian coastline has changed, so have the language, the culture,
the religion on the calendar.
Don't even ask me about the prices.
And you have to get used to counting backward too.
I mean, Cleopatra was born in '69 and she dies in 30 BC.
This drove the copy editor crazy.
Essentially, you check all your preconceptions at the door
when you enter the world of Ptolemies, Cleopatra's dynasty.
It's difficult to write about maternity in a family
where children routinely poisoned their parents
and parents dismember their children.
This was admittedly new to me.
At the same time, great literature is about ambiguity, and it struck me
that biography could occasionally afford to be as well.
You can't demand order, even answers, at the classical world.
And arguably, you rarely can at all when it comes to the human heart.
But you can do a lot with it, especially given the last 50 years
of fine scholarship on the Hellenistic World.
Virginia Woolf once remarked of an imperfect novel
that the string didn't quite unite the pearls,
but that the pearls were there.
That was very much on my mind as I worked,
as was Julian Barnes' great alternate definition of a net,
a series of holes tied together by string.
There were huge unknowns, but there were no knowns among them,
several subjects that no one had really approached before.
For starters, there was Cleopatra's wealth.
There was her relationship with Herod
and how the two rulers dealt very differently with the rise of Rome.
There was her education about which we can be really specific
and which reveals a great deal about how she thought and spoke,
and of course, I have one terrific advantage.
Human nature is remarkably constant.
It has changed not one iota since the 1st Century BC.
You can read Cicero and how not to spoil a child,
you can read countless text and how women are shrill and unbending
in their demands, but loose in their morals.
They should stay home and take care of the children.
A friend of one's friend was already one's enemy.
Essentially, every problem that Cleopatra had
with Rome is the problem that a woman in power faces today
with very little variation and arguably, better birth control.
The successful woman is sexualized, shrill, and unnatural.
And when a woman sleeps with two of the most successful and powerful men
of her day, she is a seductress, even if both of those men happened
to be celebrated for their voracious sexual appetite.
It helps to remember, by the way, that the commentators are human too,
and we, all of us, write in the time in which we live.
Let me give you just one example.
At the end of one of the best 20th Century biography of Cleopatra,
we see Cleopatra preparing to meet Octavian who's defeated her.
She has been on a hunger strike.
It's the two of their first interview,
and its days before she will kill herself.
Here is how the biographer introduces this fraught
and critical moment.
I quote, "She was essentially a woman.
And now, in her condition of physical weakness,
she acted precisely as any other overwrought member
of her sex might have behaved under similar circumstances."
How we constitute and reconstitute history was
on my mind all the way through as I worked.
This of course, is a central problem always in writing history.
Those closest to events have the best information
and the most at stake.
The most informed source is also the most involved source,
the later chroniclers know less, but they can say more.
With each book, I've been well into the work before I realized
that there was something utterly rudimentary
that I had forgotten to research.
In this case, it was that I needed to understand precisely who the men
who left as Cleopatra's story were.
I had gone to the desert where Cleopatra was exiled.
I had soaked up the Alexandrian color, all of it before I realize
that I needed to know my sources, as well as I knew my subject.
Of those who actually knew Cleopatra and who wrote
about her, there are three.
Julius Caesar who was married to someone else during their affair
and focused on Rome and understandably reluctant
to mention Cleopatra, Nicolaus of Damascus,
the source for her dealings with Herod who had been the tutor
to her children and who changed sides after her death,
and Cicero who rarely had a kind word for anyone
and who could really not stomach a smart, rich, educated woman
with a quick wit and a better library than he had.
I tried to always keep in mind who was a sensationalist
and who was scold, who had set eyes on Egypt,
and who despised the place.
From those endless French newspapers of the 1770's,
I knew the difference too, between propaganda and hearsay.
In Cleopatra's case, we owe a huge debt to both.
Biased and inaccurate though they may have been,
the Romans who left us her story did us a tremendous favor.
Normally, women are difficult to write about,
they keep lousy records, and their lives tend
to slip through the cracks.
Cleopatra owes her immortality to her enemies.
Had they hated her less, they would not have preserved her for us.
She's one of the few women
in history whose detractors have enlarged, rather than erased,
her role, just one of the few losers whom we remember.
Had she been a man, she would have been forgotten today,
like most of the other eastern sovereigns whom Rome eliminated.
And for the record, had Rome not intervened,
had Cleopatra been dealt a stronger hand,
she would have faced a different but equally vicious enemy.
In the normal course of events, she would have been deposed, poisoned,
or hacked to pieces, or exiled by one of her own four children,
in which case, we would never have heard of her at all.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Any questions?
>> Yeah. Thank you.
Could you say something about how well Cleopatra understood the
strategies that the different Roman factions were practicing
against her, and therefore kind
of assess her political acuity and deftness?
Thank you.
>> That's a great question.
Essentially, what Cleopatra is left
with is a Rome completely pulled apart by civil wars, and especially
after Caesar's death, the great conundrum
for her is whom to side with.
I mean, she has banked entirely on Caesar, she's in Rome at the time
of his murder, she may in fact be contributing factor to his murder,
and all chaos, as many of you know, suddenly breaks loose.
So which of the possible successors should she side with?
And it's very clear that for the first year or so,
she tries to sit things out.
Everyone comes calling, it's almost like a fairytale moment where,
you know, each picture in turn comes to see if she will back them,
and she definitely temporizes.
There's a real hesitation there to figure
out whom she should ally herself with.
And of course, in the end,
she chooses Mark Antony, Caesar's protege.
It's interesting when you think about it
because had she allied herself with Octavian who becomes Augustus,
who would have seen the unlikeliest of choices,
all would have worked out very differently.
But at that time, he seemed like he was entirely the dark horse
and Antony made a great deal of sense.
And what's fascinating there is just the way she adapts herself to each
of the factions in turn and does try to do her best to supply everyone
with what he asks so as to hedge her bets.
There's a real sense of political strategy with her.
>> I wondered what languages besides Latin you had to work off
of for your original sources, and did you have any issues
with the translations that were made of these original sources.
>> The only two languages that-- as a smart person would have learned
for this book where Latin and Greek, neither of which I have.
What I did do, and which helped tremendously,
was to compare translations, because needless to say, over the years,
there have been rather a few translations
of Suetonius or Plutarch or Dio.
>> And in some-- in comparing those translations,
a lot of nuance falls out.
So there was a great deal for me of going back and back
over various passages with someone who is, in fact, an expert in Greek,
and trying to see what meanings I could leach
from sort of between the lines.
It's a nightmare for me not to be able to speak a language
in which these sources exist.
On the other hand, these sources are so much later.
These are-- these men are writing 100 and 150
and 200 years after Cleopatra.
I didn't feel as if the literal word,
there were no letters from Cleopatra.
There was, alas, no diary.
So I didn't feel as if my being unable to read her was going
to be an issue, as it would have with the Nabokov's.
The Nabokov's did me a huge favor, because in their letters,
when they wrote something intimate to each other,
they broke from Russian and they wrote it in French,
which I do speak and read.
So that they could be talking about, you know, who was gonna take
out the laundry in Russian, and then it would suddenly break
in into this wonderfully intimate romantic paragraph
of French, blessedly.
>> Would you-- can you hear me?
What do you think of Cleopatra's political background?
>> I'm sorry, Cleopatra's?
>> Political background.
>> Her political background?
>> Yeah.
>> That's a good question.
She was clearly schooled to rule and in those days what was great
or what was interesting anyway is that pretty much anyone of the--
any one of the children was educated in the same way.
And it's fairly clear to us today.
And this was something that fascinated me which it seemed
to me now when I touched before.
It's pretty clear what she would have read
and what she would have studied.
And in fact her education, her sense of rhetoric,
her training in rhetoric would have been nearly identical
to that of Caesar.
And the text that were known to her and memorized by her,
much of it Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides were the same texts
that anyone living anywhere in the Greek world,
anyone of an elite education living anywhere
in the Greek world would also have known
so that you very much spoke a common language.
And it was from those texts that you really drew your political lessons.
Did she know her Egyptian history?
I can't imagine she didn't.
Have we any proof of that?
No. Yes?
>> Would you say that there is any woman today
that symbolizes Cleopatra's situation?

>> I have a hard time thinking of anyone
who would dismember her children.
>> They may have political--
>> Although actually no, I don't I can't think of someone.
[Laughter] No.
I think that, I think the gustiness
of Cleopatra I mean I think there's a huge amount of strategy.
This was a woman who was a champion strategist and who could be ruthless
and who could truly plot out a military campaign.
Is there an exact parallel to that of someone today?
No. But I think there are numerous women we could all name who've shown
those qualities.
What's unusual about Cleopatra is that she comes
from a line of female rulers.
She has plenty of female role models.
So there have been, there were other women in Egyptian history
who had done what she did,
whereas for us this is now something of a novelty.
So she's coming at it interestingly
in a less traditional way than we are.
>> I think I've broken it.
I'm just wondering why you have chosen biography
as your particular form of historical writing.
Do you think biography helps us get at certain political
or historical social questions in a different way,
or do you think it lands more compelling research and writing?
>> You know, someone once described biography I think very accurately
as gossip with footnote.
[Laughter] I'm really good on the footnotes,
although I never knew I wrote vertical footnotes
until Richard spoke just now.
Human nature interest me greatly and I think as a reader I always prefer
to come to my history through the character of someone else
and through the live intelligence and personality of someone else.
It just makes it more accessible.
Somehow, it makes it more exciting, but that's my reader's answer.
My writer's answer is that I quick early on discovered
that I loved having this parallel existence,
that I loved living two lives.
I've long wanted to write an essay
about how the biographer's two lives, the life she writes about
but she understands and the life she lives
of which she is completely clueless.
And there's the sense there always of just being able to see the world
through two different optics which I find hugely appealing.
And the other and obvious reason I suppose is that when I began writing
and I have no idea how to write a book, although I had been an editor,
biography appealed because it has a very natural beginning,
middle and end.
And it's a very easy kind of--
it seemed to me a relatively easy thing to structure.
There's also a very gratifying element to biography of course
which is that no matter what happens,
in the end you get to kill your subject.
[ Laughter ]
[ Pause ]
>> Two quick questions.
What are you reading now and what are some ideas
for future biographies?
>> Just a little louder.
>> What are you reading now and what are some future ideas
for biographies, individuals?
>> What I'm reading now is almost inevitably fiction and I don't know
if that's because I feel nonfiction as homework but I--
or because I just-- I so-- and I'm such a sucker for literary style
that I would almost always prefer to pick up a novel then I were to pick
up a biography which I can always be guaranteed
to find perfect satisfaction.
And so what I'm reading now
and of course we're all reading now is the Franzen, and what I'm reading
after that is just 'cause it's on the night table is A Happy Marriage.
But it's all fiction.
There is nothing-- oh, that's not true.
Run true now is George Washington biography is on the table.
But you know what, it's gonna sink to the bottom.
I can tell you now.
As for my next subject, like Richard I don't have
to answer that question.
But if any of you has an idea, please talk to me later, okay?
>> Can you say a little bit more about the tradition of female rulers
that Cleopatra came from?
>> Cleopatra, as I said, is the only ruler, the only woman
in antiquity to have ruled alone.
For reasons that are not entirely clear at least to me,
there is a huge sense of equality among the Ptolemies, her dynasty.
The women and the men are equally gifted at making decisions.
Most of the other women who do rule either rule temporarily or rule
in tandem with a little brother or a husband or a brother
to whom she is married for that matter,
which is not Cleopatra's case.
But there doesn't seem to be a very serious distinction
between the genders in terms of ruling.
It seems either one of us it seems to have gone over perfectly well.
I'm sorry.
I just forgot what I was supposed to say.
And where this comes from, I mean, whether this is
because the goddess Isis is such a powerful influence,
whether it's because it is-- there's just a sense that women
and men have been ruling beautifully together for so long,
whether it's because some of those earlier Ptolemaic queens
where incredibly effective, cruel but effective, is unclear.
But what becomes abundantly clear is
that there was really no problem accepting a female pharaoh
when Cleopatra came to the throne.
It also-- it makes-- she makes it much easier by getting rid
of her brothers and her other sister which is always a helpful thing
to do when you're a monarch.
>> You mentioned that there are no letters or diaries from Cleopatra,
so how do we know so much about her personality?
>> I'm still looking for the diary.
How we know about the personality, I thought those little glimpses
like the line I talked about from Plutarch.
And again here you're squaring sources.
But what's interesting is how much the sources tend to repeat
or echo each other so that the impishness that I referred to,
for example her response to Antony
on the fishing expedition is very much mirrored in other accounts
in which she is irreverent and sly
and by no means a docile and unassuming presence.
So I was taking my cues from the material we have
which is I say is 100 or 200 or 300 years after her birth.
But time moved differently in those days.
I don't need to tell you this.
It was slower in those days.
And there is a sense that these stories that were handed
down were being handed down with some consistency.
>> In response to your request for a new topic,
I think John Hay [phonetic] would be--
>> Thank you.
>> -- a good one.
[Laughter] I don't think that there has been a one volume good biography
on him but I also do have a question.
As somebody who myself would one day
like to enter the historical writing field, so now as I feel overwhelmed
by the fact that so much has already been written and obviously
when you write something new you don't wanna repeat what others have
already said.
You want your own perspective, something new, something different,
something that's not gonna bore people.
How do you go finding your own personal perspective on subjects?
>> That's also a great question.
I long ago interviewed Joe Ellis [phonetic]
from something I was writing about the anxiety of influence
with the previous biographers and I asked him
where do you read the secondary sources?
I think I was working on Ben Franklin at that time.
Do you read the 376 other Franklin biographies, and he was very clear
about saying that is essentially a Bermuda Triangle.
Do not go there.
You will never emerge.
You will spend the next five years reading the secondary sources.
>> So what I have done in so far as I have been saying about that is
to decide that it's my Franklin or it's my Cleopatra.
And what's different are not necessarily the answers
or the materials, it's the questions we ask.
So I'm bringing to the subject questions or problems
that the previous biographer didn't bring
or the previous hundred biographers didn't bring and that
that those secondary materials are just gonna have to lie there.
It's easier when you don't have to read them.
For this book I felt there were some secondary sources I had to read
because there was so little primary material.
For Ben Franklin, it was really easy
to ignore all secondary materials except one
that concerned minor characters.
I mean, I think I read a lot of biographies of the Lee brothers,
the people who came in peripherally to my story.
>> How do you know somebody hasn't asked it if you haven't read them?
[ Laughter ]
>> That's a great question.
I don't. I could be wrong.
I'll just cross my fingers.
We're done.
Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
>> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress.
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