Tuesday, 1 January 1980

The Life of Alcibiades

Non-fiction ~ biography/Ancient Greece
Published 1928
Approx 82,000 words

There are things of EFB's that I will never ever read, that wild horses armed with Kalashnikovs couldn't induce me to read.  This is one of them.  If you have the stomach for this kind of thing, the whole book is available online here.

THE CRITICS
Athens of the fifth century B.C. is an episode of human history of which the world is never likely to grow weary, and, as long as people care more for brilliance than for stability, Alcibiades is sure to be the most attractive figure in the latter half of that century. We are well informed as to his character and works, chiefly by Thucydides, who wrote as his contemporary, and by Plutarch, the professional biographer, to whom the fifth century was already ancient history. No one, perusing those two sources, could fail to have a vivid impression of Alcibiades, favorable or otherwise; but, of course, the readers of Thucydides and Plutarch are no longer common, and Mr. Benson has decided to publish a biography combining the evidence of antiquity with the inferences which he thinks may fairly be drawn from that evidence.

Now the first question that presents itself is "How far should such a biography be supplemented by imagination?" And this is a question of considerable importance. Alcibiades is exactly the kind ofperson whose mental processes one longs to know. He was a roué, a spendthrift, and a traitor, yet he exerted an almost magic fascination over his contemporaries. For these facts we have plenty of evidence, implicit or explicit; but for the actual emotional texture of his life we must rely largely on our imaginations, and their contributions are, of course, fiction.

Either the fact or the fiction might dominate: Mr. Benson has tried to hold the balance even, and the result is neither a good novel nor a good biography. It is not a good novel because the fiction is too scanty and generally too slight to add very much to what is contained in the historical sources or to create a character which is a true work of art. Moreover, the style is repetitious and hyperbolic and sometimes cheap. We are told half a dozen times that Alcibiades advised the fortification of Decelea; the superlatives in the language not sufficing, the word 'supremest' is created, and 'superbest' (!); and it is charitable to suppose that such a phrase as "the Bolshevist committee (the Council of Four Hundred!) must commit hari-kari" is due to haste of composition.
 
~Alfred R. Bellinger in The Saturday Review, 20/07/1929 [much abridged: the original is 1,315 words]

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