I finally wrestled through Couperus’ book Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great. It was pure stubbornness and determination that made me read it to the end. I actually read it on the recommendations of a friend who qualified it as delightful reading in a fluent narrative, having read it in a German translation. My book was in the original Dutch of the 1920’s, a very awkward and old fashioned language usage, to say the least.
I found Couperus’ description of the women especially as theatrical as the characters encountered on the set of silent movies. Besides, I missed the action that inevitably should surround Alexander for he was either fulminating in rage or speaking in over-delicate tone to Sisygambis and her grandchildren – his military conquests were put on the backburner.
Although I’m very much aware that this is a novel and that the author is, of course, entitled to his own liberties, I had a hard time accepting Couperus’ constant referrals to Alexander’s greed (oh yes?) and megalomania, his uncontrolled fits of rage and his rough humiliation of Bagoas, whom he literally crushes under his feet! The latest may simply fit the general conception of a eunuch in his days, so I can forgive him for that. I found it rather comical to read that Alexander grew a beard according to the Persian fashion that he adopted after conquering the country. Just imagine what he would have looked like! And then I failed to find anything about his close relationship with Hephaistion, who in the beginning is set at the same level as Philotas - of all people! I have not found him to be “his pillar and his sanity” as one would expect, certainly in a novel. There hardly seems to be any communication between them at all!
The German version may have been an improvement on the original Dutch text. This is rather exceptional for generally books loose their true character in translation. A comparison with Mary Renault to which my friend compared the author, is out of the question as far as I’m concerned. Whereas I can loose myself entirely in Renault’s novels and walk with her through antiquity, Couperus’ story could hardly make it to the local newspaper, to be shredded next day. Sorry. This book will sit on my shelves, a dead weight.
Those who are curious about this story telling will have a hard time finding the book at all since it is out of print since 1995 or so. I got mine second hand, but I’ll gladly pass it on to whoever is interested. Otherwise you can look it up under ISBN 90 254 1403 6.