“Cluentius Took It Badly”

A recent post on the website Brevity quotes the grandmaster essayist Philip Lopate on the creation of character in nonfiction, developing one’s “I” into a recognizable personality with enough complexity to be capable of variation, change. As Lopate says, “the writer needs to build herself into a character. And I use the word character much the same way the fiction writer does.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I especially appreciate the equality that’s implied between the fiction and nonfiction writer (being both myself). But that phrase about the fiction writer reminds me of different occasions, when I’ve heard or read an assertion that creative nonfiction “borrows” fictional techniques. I’d say, if you look a little closer, it may be quite the opposite.

The historian Herodotus, for example, is one of the earliest Greek prose writers whose work has survived largely intact; his work has been widely influential for millennia, and was certainly read, often in the original, by those 18th century giants who went on to create the modern novel: Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne. These writers were probably also influenced by Anabasis, the major work of the Greek memoirist Xenophon, which was long used as a text for students of classical Greek. And it’s a good bet they were familiar with the work of Cicero, the Roman who was a major influence not only in his own time but throughout the Middle Ages, and his letters are said to have been an initiating force behind the development of the Renaissance; his Murder Trials, a collection of his legal summations, is a rollicking good read.

But let’s start with Herodotus, and his incisive psychological portrait, in The Histories, of Amasis, who was considered to be the last great Egyptian pharaoh:

“It is said that Amasis in his private life, before he came to the throne, was just as fond of his joke and his glass, and was never inclined to serious pursuits; indeed, if ever he found himself short of means to continue his round of drinking and enjoyment, he would go out on the prowl and steal, and people who claimed that property of theirs was in his possession would, if he denied it, take him off to the nearest oracle. Sometimes the oracle would convict him, sometimes not. In consequence of this, when he came to the throne, he had a low opinion of the gods who had acquitted him of theft; he neglected their temples, contributing nothing to their adornment, and never frequented them for sacrifice, on the ground that their oracles were false and they were worth nothing; those on the other hand who had convicted him, he held in the highest honor—for their oracles were true, and they were gods indeed.”

I love the elegance of this characterization, which makes me want to read on about the further doings of Amasis, the ruler who seems to respect most those who know him at his worst. He comes alive as a curiously flawed person, whose honesty stems from his dishonesty.

The attraction for me of Cicero’s Murder Trials is the author’s voice, as alive on the page as could be. Here is an eloquent lawyer (whose clients usually went free) making his case, doing his best to characterize his client in the best light, while casting other personalities in the trial into dark shadow, as can be seen in this excerpt from “In Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus,” where a mother seduces her daughter’s husband, forcing a divorce, and then promptly marries the man herself:

“She actually gave orders that the identical marriage-bed which she herself had prepared, two years previously, for the wedding of her own daughter should now be got ready and adorned for herself, in the very home from which her daughter had been expelled and hounded out. And so mother-in-law married son-in-law, with no one to declare the omens or give the bride away, amid the gloomiest forebodings from everyone.

“What unbelievably atrocious behavior that woman displayed! Indeed, her conduct must surely be quite unparalleled and unique. Her sexual desires must truly have been insatiable. Even if the might of the gods, the judgment of mankind, did not frighten her, it is strange indeed that she did not feel overawed by the torches, by the threshold of the bridal chamber which contained her own daughter’s bridal bed, by the very walls themselves which had gazed upon that other union. In her sensual frenzy there was no obstacle which she forbore to break through and trample down out of her way. Modesty was overcome by passionate lust, caution by unbridled recklessness, reason by mania uncontrollable.

“Her son Cluentius took it badly.”

Reading this, I imagine I can hear Cicero’s voice, the measured indignation rising before the jurists as he sets the scene of the marriage night, then quieting as he lowballs Cluentius’s reaction to his mother’s appalling behavior. Here, Cicero not only works hard to transform living, breathing people into something like fictional characters who can be efficiently understood and judged, but he spins it all with such an engaging narrative voice that he himself is added to the dramatis personae.

Finally, if there’s a fiction writer out there who can quietly and effectively build narrative tension and anticipation as well as Xenophon, please notify me immediately. Here is his portrait of a seemingly doomed military situation: ten thousand Greek soldiers abandoned hundreds of miles within Persian territory:

“With their generals arrested and the captains and soldiers who had gone with them put to death, the Greeks were in an extremely awkward position. It occurred to them that they were near the King’s capital and that around them on all sides were numbers of people and cities who were their enemies; no one was likely in the future to provide them with a chance of buying food. They were at least a thousand miles away from Greece; they had no guide to show them the way; they were shut in by impassable rivers which traversed their homeward journey; even the natives who had marched on the capital with Cyrus had turned against them, and they were left by themselves without a single cavalryman in their army . . . With all this to reflect upon they were in a state of deep despondency. Only a few tasted food that evening, and few lit fires. Many of them did not parade by the arms that night, but took their rest just where each man happened to be, and could not sleep because of their misery and their longing for their home lands and parents and wives and children, which they thought that they would never see again. In this state of mind they all took their rest.”

Xenophon slowly sets up the narrative tension by clearly laying out the hopeless particulars, and then follows by imagining the thoughts and feelings of his fellow soldiers, their worries and resignation. And the reader thinks, Well, how will they be able to survive? And reads on. Another notable feature of this book is that, though many believe that Xenophon based his memoir on diaries he wrote at the time, he takes the curious tactic of writing about himself in the third person: “Xenophon thought,” “Then Xenophon stood up and spoke as follows.” By turning himself into, in effect, a character at some remove, he manages to balance intimacy with emotional distance.

Whether in translation or the original language, these three ancient writers were certainly familiar to Sterne, Fielding, Defoe and Swift, all members of the educated class of their time. I’ll bet a nickel that they absorbed enough of the techniques of these nonfiction authors to begin spinning out their own narrative tricks of the trade into the novels we still know so well centuries later.

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    1. […] Philip Graham’s Blog Post: Cluentius Took it Badly […]

    2. Katya says:

      I found this very informative and interesting.

      I’ve enjoyed reading your posts.

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