Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Agrippa's Daughter by Howard Fast

In order to begin to understand this story, it helps to have seen the television drama I, Claudius. That way, you can picture the actor who played Claudius' lifelong friend, the Jewish prince Herod Agrippa, and so you can at least place the heroine of this novel, Berenice, into a family, as Herod Agrippa's daughter.

The setting of this historical romance is therefore already unusual, as historical romances go. Not many take place in antiquity, and still fewer put Jewish characters, and the land of Israel, front and center. The climax of the novel deals with one of the most hideous events of the classical period or indeed Western history, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans concluding in the year 70 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer -- although I've always felt the use of B.C.E. and C.E. is a bit of an intellectual conceit. Granted not everyone wants to say Anno Domini, but what's "common" about the Common Era?).

Throughout this siege, as many as a million Jews were crammed into Jerusalem's few square miles, tragically fighting and murdering each other, starving, and still maintaining the ritual animal sacrifies twice a day inside the Temple, "while the most powerful legions in the world pounded at the gates" (this is not from the novel but from Abraham Leon Sachar's A History of the Jews). Tens of thousands died, thousands of survivors were sold into slavery. This was after the rest of the country, chafing under obnoxious foreign rule, had been subdued and more tens of thousands killed there. The Romans required a 50,000-man army and four years to do the job. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was on the spot in a most interesting way for part of this war, chronicled nightmarish stories of starving women, in Jerusalem's last days, eating their newborns.

(Is it any wonder that not many historical romances "go there"?) But before the Roman general and Emperor Vespasian's son, Titus, razes the ancient city and its Second Temple, we meet and follow the career of the beautiful, red-haired, green-eyed Berenice. She was a real historical figure, a client queen of Judea, or Chalcis, or Cilicia, or Alexandria, depending on whom she married, what liberties Howard Fast has taken with his tale, and depending on how one defines "queen" in an era when the whole Mediterranean world was a confused maelstrom of peoples, religions, and powers all being mixed up and sorted out by Rome. Fast has actually pumped even more complexity into Berenice's story. She was known, it seems, mostly for her scandalous love life -- ancient men writers chronicled her marriages and mentioned incest with her brother, also named Agrippa -- but Fast shunts the brother somewhat aside to give her instead a deep theological soul, and to thrust her into the company of all the political and theological parties blossoming in, or burdening, Jewish life at that time.

In a pit of existential despair after a number of sad adventures, she meets and marries a physician who is the head of the Sanhedrin and of the House of Hillel, a sort of family-run Bible study/farm/consciousness-raising school which would eventually emerge from the ruins of Israel with a moral survival plan for a people who, as of the year 70, would apparently have no more country, religion, God, or reason to exist. Life with Shimeon exposes her to the poor, ill, and enslaved, and to arguments with Shimeon's opposite numbers, spokesmen for real-life Jewish sects like the Zealots, the Sicarii, the House of Shammai (a bit like bad cops to the House of Hillel's good cops) and to the official Temple priesthood, the Sadduccees.

Because Berenice is always a queen, she also must deal with Roman governors and procurators, who can't decide what they want more, her beautiful self humbled before them, or the riches of the Temple filling their coffers at home in Italy. When the tragedy of the Jewish war falls upon the land of Israel and strips her husband from her, Berenice's fate is to fall in love afterward with Titus, who is responsible for the destruction. Though ten years younger than she is, he returns her passions, and this, too, appears to be a real-life incident. The queen actually went to Rome with Titus after the war, lived openly with him and might have married him except that Roman rage against the idea of an Empress from the most violent and impossible province of their world compelled him to stay his hand. He sent her away temporarily, to Gaul, in the novel; after he unexpectedly died, she disappeared from history and that is where Howard Fast also leaves her.

With apologies for the plot spoilers, -- this is no ordinary bodice ripper, obviously. A man's treatment of love, sex, and history in fiction is simply different from a woman's. No woman romance writer that I know of is capable of this insight about Biblical retribution, as early as page 37. The young Berenice is thinking:

She would come to understand that the "good" king is a thing that nature itself derides and deters -- even as it would be a derision to all the natural laws of things for water to flow uphill. Her own people, the Jews, had suffered a thousand years of kings, and if one was wicked, the most cursory reading of history turned up another more wicked. And since iniquity is always unstable and risky, justice appears to be done in the end. "Woe unto thee!" cried the prophets to their rulers, and time proved the logic of their predictions ....

The reader can't help but remember that this novel was published in 1964, only twenty years after the Shoah. It's just a historical romance, but the writer is concerned with suffering and with moral issues much beyond establishing the heroine's "spunk" or the glowering hero's development into a modern man who respects her in the morning. It may actually have a theme, which may be this:

In this, the Jews were apart from all the world -- in this defiance of all the tributes and implacabilities of fate; and possibly for this reason more than any other they were never tolerated, only hated or loved. ... The pagan lived in a world where defeat was accepted, where poverty and ignominy and slavery were accepted, where every turn and caprice of fate was accepted -- and where every opportunity for lust, conquest, thievery, or enrichment was also accepted. For this, the Jew despised him ....

Another reader dog-eared that page before I did, which makes me think it struck him, too.

Fast's writing is leisurely and lovely, especially in its descriptions of the scenery and climate of Israel. Sun-warmed stones, clear pools, shady farms, and sparkling morning air abound. He devotes himself to the character of a woman with a skill and sympathy that makes it startling and then irrelevant that he's a man. And what is pleasantly startling to the ignorant modern reader is the realization that, far from one mid-twentieth century author plucking one ancient queen from obscurity for whim's and creation's sake, in fact Berenice has been well-known to creative people for quite some time. Racine ... Corneille ... Mozart (La clemenza di Tito). There is even a constellation in the night sky called Berenice's Hair, but it seems this collection of stars honors the locks of another Berenice entirely, who lived two centuries earlier than our lady. But perhaps she could tell us almost as compelling, if not as horrible a story.

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