As Quick As Boiled Asparagus!
I decided that I had to read I, Claudius as soon as possible because of Brian Blessed.
I was watching a documentary about the famous BBC miniseries based on the book (which I desperately want to watch) and saw Mr. Blessed — one of my favorite people to ever exist, who should really be a “Sir Blessed” — discuss his reaction to being offered the role of Augustus: he basically (I am paraphrasing) went “oh no, I can’t see myself as Augustus… maybe Tiberius, but not Augustus.” I was immediately struck with envy at the idea of being able to place one emperor or another so quickly, when, in the whole scope of Roman history, I really only knew Julius Caesar (who of course wasn’t actually an emperor), Caligula, Nero, and Constantine. I had already meant to read the book, but it jumped to the top of my list.
I, Claudius is sort of a really, really good textbook with poetic license. What I mean is, the book is much more concerned with cataloguing events and giving a real historical overview of Rome’s history within the years it’s set than normal historical fiction would be. This could have been a recipe for terrible, boring, unmitigated disaster, because when I describe it that way it sounds like Robert Graves just said, “Well, I want to write a nonfiction book about Rome, but with the license to make shit up.” Which I guess he kind of did.
His King Jesus: A Novel actually felt similar at times, and didn’t always work. But somehow I, Claudius does.
Like King Jesus, this novel uses the conceit of being written by a historian to explain why it reads so much like, well, a history. But the difference is that Claudius — whose autobiography the book purports to be — is writing history about people he knew personally, and remembering events as they happened, and only a few decades removed. (A depressing side-note: the real Claudius did write many long histories, and an eight-volume autobiography, all of which are lost.)
So even if our narrator isn’t present for his brother’s wars in Germany any more than a modern-day Roman historian is, he can remember how it felt to hear about the course of the war as it developed, and to talk to his brother right after the fact. He can recall that uncertainty and immediacy that events — and especially ancient events — lose over time. Claudius the Active Character is barely in I, Claudius, content to hang back and talk about everybody else, but Graves nails a wonderful voice for him (one that is, granted, extremely British) that makes the narrative really breathe and perspire, rather than feel like a bunch of facts culled from all the contemporary sources the author could find (which is largely what the book actually is).
Of course, the “fiction” moniker does help smooth things along for both himself and the reader, by letting Graves fill in the blanks, throw in his own theories here and there, and write dialogue (as well as a little poetry and matriarchal religion stuff, ’cause that was his shit). Some readers, especially those who see the miniseries first, may be disappointed at how little dialogue there is, though, because most of the book really does describe things that Claudius himself only hears of secondhand.
But no matter how much may be fabricated, it’s easy to tell how intense Graves’ research is, and to see that that most of the crazy things that happen in here probably actually happened in some form or another. This, in and of itself, becomes something of a mindfuck when you get to Caligula: his whole reign was like a satire of monarchy itself. Or maybe a farce. The motherfucker went to war with Neptune.
Graves manages one of the best things that historical fiction can do: he makes real life figures feel like genuine people that the reader can get a handle on and remember. It is entirely possible that his versions of them are completely wrong, but even so I’ll always be able to put faces and actions to them, instead of letting their names just melt away with the rest of the important terms I was supposed to remember from school. I already can’t recall every single event in the book, but I have such a better idea of the general arc of that history than I ever did before.
And the book is fun to read. That’s important. Come on, it’s mostly a quiet, catty underdog-type talking about how his relatives are all poisoning and fucking each other.
(Oh, uh, speaking of the underdog status: Claudius is so absent through most of the book that I forgot to even mention the whole “having a limp and a stutter and playing it up so everyone thinks he’s stupid in order to not be assassinated” thing. It’s nowhere near as present in the book as I think it probably is in the show, but it is still great.)
Now, all of that said, it’s kind of difficult to review as a book on its own for me, because the same day that I finished it I started on its sequel, Claudius the God. They read rather like one long book.