REVIEW: The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George
Dear Ms. George,
The Splendor Before the Dark is your epic sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero, which I reviewed previously.
I found it to be a touching, beautiful, sweeping story; and, like Confessions, it is very long—581 pages in the print version. I commend you for your heroic effort in your decision to rehabilitate someone who until very recently has been reviled by the status quo as someone who represents everything evil, crazy and perverse.
However, you do it with taste, skill and scholarship. It chronicles the story of Nero and the many tragedies and bad decisions in his life. You really get a sense of this guy’s character— you depict him as a good-hearted, passionate, idealistic aesthete, who struggles with his dark side but remains a romantic despite all the tragedies that befall him. SPOILER: it ends badly for him. But there are no spoilers in history, right?
It starts off with a bang, as Nero launches himself into fighting the Great Fire of Rome which is burning down half of the city. This is tremendously exciting stuff, with lots of action and cool details about ancient fire-fighting techniques and some fanatics setting buildings to keep things even more interesting.
But after the unbearable excitement of the fire, and his heroic relief efforts, the pacing afterwards becomes a bit sluggish. The blammo scenes with the Fire trickles off to repeated miscarriages by Nero’s wife Poppaea and a somewhat underdeveloped love triangle with Nero, Poppaea and Nero’s first girlfriend Acte, and then it goes into conspiracies and whatnot and a lot of aggrieved aristos going arghle-blarghle. Poppaea finally dies in a tragic miscarriage, and it’s a bit old movie-ish in the way it’s handled—I thought of Greta Garbo in Camille—and to be honest I was a bit disappointed with that, but it really fits in with Nero’s voice, which has been established in the first book as operatic and romantic. He constantly refers himself as an actor and someone who sees life as a play, so it makes sense he would see life this way.
At that point, the pacing slows a touch, but it never stops being readable, as our hero’s paranoia and isolation increases and he becomes increasingly stubborn and fixated on his ideas about bring Greek culture to Rome and becoming a savior of sorts to the Greek people.
Some of the language is pretty modern (the word paranoia in the contemporary psychological sense is used) but I didn’t mind, because your prose is so smooth and well-crafted. Like the last book, Splendor is a tapestry of the five senses; it evokes the taste of pine honey, the iridescence of murrhine glass, the taste of muddy water and the sublime glamour of the Golden House, the mammoth civic palace he builds in the aftermath of the Fire.
This is not a happy book. It’s not half as dark as The Dutch Wife, but it’s not tiptoeing through the tulips either. I wanted so badly to give Nero his happy ending— like he runs off with Acte to Egypt or something. Nope!
This isn’t a perfect book. Nero is a frustrating protagonist in that he is stubborn, immature and insulated by incredible amounts of privilege. The women in his life are forever telling him to be sensible. But he won’t listen to them, because he is stubborn to the point of being mule-headed.
To quote Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, “Like most intellectuals, he is intensely stupid.”
Sometimes I wanted to strangle him like Homer strangles Bart in The Simpsons… but in the end I realized this is the point. At first I thought that you made Nero too nice; but in the end I could see what you’re getting at. Nero is not only an oblivious, politically tone-deaf dilettante who makes increasingly poor decisions but also kind and sweet– a cinnamon roll, basically. He even jokes about his weight. He’s not fat, he’s “husky”! Awww.
Throughout the books, his overriding traits are his idealism and his romanticism; and this is what does him in. He’s smashed to pieces by a patriarchy that rewards ruthless politicking and brute force. He’s not stupid, but he has no taste for either, and in the end he runs away from it for a brief while to find his bliss. This ultimately destroys him. Too little, too late, he realizes what a blind fool he’s been—that he should have been more pragmatic– how he should have listened to his women in his life.
Yet, even though it ends badly for almost everyone, it’s not a grim experience. Like its hero, Splendor is a passionate and earnest… Elegiac, and with exquisite prose, it left me with a feeling that the Japanese describe as setsunai, that feeling between bittersweetness, pain and wistfulness.
This is a scene from the end, when Acte goes to Nero’s tomb.
“Why have you come?” I ask one of the families, a mother and two children.
“I have told the children about him,” the woman said. “As this is a lovely day, I thought I would take them here.”
“What have you told them?” That he was insane, a tyrant, a monster? That was the official story, peddled now by the Senate.
“That he was the most remarkable emperor we have had,” she said. “He was not a warrior but an artist; he wanted to please the ordinary man, not the aristocrat; he raced chariots!” She laughed. “When shall we have another?”
“Never, I fear,” I said. Never, I know.
The reams of pornographic crap written about Nero are legion, and I swear I’ve read half of it. I’m thrilled this book exists. It’s especially great to see it now, with the arts and humanities under siege, and the will of people subverted by wealthy powerful men who care more about themselves then the people they’re allegedly representing.
Nero was misguided in many ways, but he did try to encourage the arts and help the people, but this was too much for the entrenched senatorial status quo. The common folk thought for centuries he would come back to rescue them, like King Arthur. For decades, they left flowers at his tomb.
The flowers have long faded, and the tomb is gone, but you, Ms. George, have left flowers of a different sort for us to admire.
I give The Splendor Before the Dark a B+.