Colleen McCullough book on Antony and Cleopatra

From the Courier Mail

Christopher Bantick

November 30, 2007 11:00pm


EACH
time I speak to Colleen McCullough there¿s instant recognition. Her
voice has a voluptuous smoky barmaid timbre which puts you at ease.

It's a languid, welcoming kind of voice and when she laughs, you wonder if you've missed a fruity joke.

McCullough is 70 and arguably at the peak of her writing career. It is 30 years since The Thorn Birds
was published in America and effectively made her as a writer and
simultaneously catapulted Australian popular fiction into the
international mind. It is a legacy derived from McCullough success that
many authors have enjoyed subsequently.

Voted as one of Australia's National Living Treasures, McCullough is
a remarkably versatile writer. She can move effortlessly from
contemporary fiction to major historical works as revealed in her
Masters of Rome series.

Her new book, simply titled Antony and Cleopatra,
reminds us of McCullough's interest in things Roman. The book is an
epic that serves two functions. The first is to bring the reader into
an intimate acquaintance with these two compelling-yet-flawed
historical characters.

The second is to prompt in the reader's mind a reappraisal of other familiar takes on the story.

The Shakespearean play and influential film of the same name starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are obvious starters.

McCullough, simply through the power of story and factual acuteness,
shows that previous representations of Antony and Cleopatra are open to
review. Surprisingly McCullough says that she was not initially excited
by the prospect of writing about this “pair of failures” as she
describes the lovers.

“They didn't grab me at first. Having written six books about the
Roman Republic, I felt the story of Antony and Cleopatra had been
widely circulated and known. Still, the cycle of Rome would not be
complete without them so that is why I did it.”

It was also a question doing the story now. McCullough does not enjoy good health. With failing eyesight, she regards Antony and Cleopatra
as not quite her valedictory work. Even so, there is something about an
ending here. “It is the last serious book I will do,” McCullough says,
sighing.

She is well regarded internationally as a scholar of Roman history.
But she is a novelist who mines the seams of history and then cuts and
polishes what she has found. She says she works not by gradually
developing a research basis and then the story.

“I really start thinking when I start writing. The facts are in my
memory and as I began work on the book, I became fascinated. Antony and
Cleopatra struggled so hard without really understanding their
shortcomings. They express failure and vulnerability.”

McCullough comes back to ideas of failure and self-doubt with her
characters. In some ways she visits this on herself. There were times
when she wondered if she could simply carry off the task of not only
enlivening these two monumental historical figures, but get them
factually fixed. Her ambivalence is surprising

“I never wanted to do Antony and Cleopatra for one reason:
it's a story about failure. They both committed suicide – she with an
asp, he fell on his sword. I didn't know if I could sustain my interest
in two characters who were so inept. But I began to see the challenge
of producing a compelling novel about a great tragedy.”

Part of this challenge was representing Antony and Cleopatra with
integrity and clarity. McCullough says that Cleopatra presents us with
a contemporary focus on political behaviour.

“She's modern, emancipated and the equal of any man. Even so, her
political nous was not good. She was too distracted to learn. She was
not as interested in people the way Romans were. An example is when she
was on campaign with Antony she was stupid and the men hated her.”

McCullough does concede that the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra
does have lessons for us today. “I suppose you are not going to rule
the world by being that sort of person. It requires a lot of coolness
and detachment. When I began to write the book, the unconnected data
coalesced. I became very fond of them both. But once the book is
finished, I can let them go and I don't think about them.”

McCullough says that there was something that surprised her when she got into the research.

“I don't think enough has been made of the fact that the Romans were
so offended that Antony was to be buried in Egypt, next to Cleopatra,”
she says. “The Romans cremated their dead while the Egyptians mummified.

“The idea of mummification got to the Romans. They were appalled and shocked deeply.”

Antony and Cleopatra is a substantial book. So is
McCullough unsure that her core audience will be comfortable with a big
historically based read? Her response shows the no-nonsense approach
she has to her work.

“Let me say that a certain Thorn Birds audience won't be
attracted. Still, out of all my Roman books, this is the easiest read,”
she says. “If anything, I have been more succinct. It's a novel where
interpersonal relationships take a huge part. I hope that the general
reading audience like it.”

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Saturnalia today in Nuneaton

Roman way of making merry
Nov 30 2007

THE Roman feast of Saturnalia is being celebrated at Nuneaton's Riversley Park Museum and Art Gallery.

Romans
Geminus and Cinnamus will tomorrow be showing visitors their
preparations for the feast and will share some of their favourite
family recipes for the special seasonal food.

Long
before Christians celebrated Christmas in December, the Romans were
celebrating the feast of Saturnalia with merry-making, gift-giving and
eating and drinking.

Candles and
flames were a feature of their midwinter celebrations, social rules
were relaxed and slaves were even allowed to exchange places with their
masters.

The free living history event at the museum runs from 11am to 4pm.