I, Claudius by Robert Graves

First read: 1/2003
Reviewed on: 1/30/2003
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I was reading The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, and then I lost it. In no hurry to find it again, I picked up As I Lay Dying (Faulkner) and read that a while, then I found The Rainbow and went back to that, lost it again and by that point I didn't want to read more of As I Lay Dying. So I read other books and had a grand old time. Fiction, nonfiction, genre fiction, Winesburg, Ohio etc. And I also played a LOT of Civ III and Yahoo! Scrabble (called "Literati") and all that sort of thing. Oh yes, I also had a full-time job and a book project. So yes, I was fine without thinking too much about the Top 100 Novels Of All Time.

I picked up I, Claudius and brought it with me on a plane trip. After one chapter I realized I was not going to be able to follow it. The relationships among the characters are ridiculously complex. Octavia is Augustus's sister, but her grandchild is also his stepson, who marries his 2/3 step-grand-niece named Califlowerus and has a child named Chlymedia who is then adopted by Augustus bla bla bla. So I swallowed my pride along with my airline pretzels and started writing a family tree on the inside back cover.

After the first two chapters, I didn't have to write anymore, and I was able to enjoy the story in earnest. Normally, I don't like "prophecy" as a plot device, but there was one in particular which, although it killed the suspense, it was so ominous that I found myself referring to it often. I would type it out here, but that would be a copyright violation. Ah heck, click here to get it. Claudius interprets what is meant by phases like "son, no son" letting us know it is not just poetic license.

I took the character of Claudius very personally. I remember the frustration I felt when I was very little, when people spoke down to me, or spoke in front of me as if I weren't even there and couldn't possibly understand what was being said. Here you have a narrator who is proven literate by the very fact you are reading his book. And everyone thinks he's an idiot. Maybe its my age, or what I've been eating for supper, or whatever, but I found memories of my own past coming into my head as I read his memories of his own.

Livia is one of the best villains I've encountered since I was despising Arturo in Geek Love. Had I read more stories about palace intrigues, etc. I may have thought her more run-of-the-mill. And we all know the type from television and movies - poisoning HIM, framing HER, lying about HIM, etc. When Claudius finally found a woman who not only loved him, but could joke with him and understood him, and they got engaged - well, Livia didn't let it happen, let's put it that way. And that scene with Livia and Claudius and the woman he wound up marrying - oh god I wish I hadn't resolved to stop using profanity in these reviews. The last scene with her, the debriefing, was wonderful. I always wished I could do that - go up to some really mean person, and ask them every question I like, and get a candid, calm answer. "Hey, HK, why did you arrange to have my name taken off the book we wrote together?" And then to get a true answer, whatever it was.

Here's a problem I had: Two months before reading I, Claudius I read the first three books of that delightfully horrible series of children's books A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett. I loved them, but eventually got bored because they were so predictable. The orphans are in a bad position. It looks like something good is going to happen to them. But something happens to spoil it. Then the evil Count Olaf comes in. Nobody believes the orphans when they say, "It is Count Olaf!" Repeat. I couldn't stop thinking about those books as I read Claudius. It seems the best way to guarantee your own death in Ancient Rome was to go to Claudius and say, "Hey, Claudius! You really are NOT an idiot! I believe you about all those things you've witnessed, and I'm going to help you." After the first time it happened, I saw the pattern, and then the book got hard to read. (Another book that had that format was Virtue Rewarded by the Marquis De Sade, but I won't admit that I've read it)

So "suspense" was not a big strong point of this novel. In addition to the pattern just discussed, there was also my minimal historical knowledge. "My nephew was quite a spoiled brat. And when people doted on him, it just made it worse. His name was Caligula." Hmmm... I wonder what's going to happen when HE grows up.

Throughout the book there was a wonderful sense of ... decline. You never really got to see the Roman Republic at its peak, but you got to experience the feeling of decay as you went through the novel. Claudius didn't make a huge deal of it, which made the effect all the more realistic for its subtlety. At the beginning of the book, there is a certain degree of manners and pride, and by the end, there isn't. Most of what I know about Ancient Rome comes from the few Gladiator-type movies I've seen, and spoofs of them. So a lot of the things that might seem like old hat to non-ignorant readers were very interesting to me.

THAT is the word that best describes this book. "Interesting." I was fascinated throughout. But once I realized that this was the same story as the Lemony Snickett books, I stopped getting that emotionally involved. The fate of Germanicus was very sad, but I didn't get sad reading about it. I was able to say intellectually, "Wow, that's really sad. If only those letters from Claudius had got to him." But I never was able to feel sorrow. I don't have a problem with books that intellectually stimulate me, and that teach me something. Heck, I'm a college professor - we like learning. And I found myself unable to put this book down once I got to the halfway mark. So this was a Good novel. If it had been a Great one, then it would have touched my gut as well as my brain. And these days, frankly, my gut is a much larger target.

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... P.S. After writing the above, I went to Amaz*n.com and looked at the user-reviews of this book. I recommend them; they are much better than mine. Darn it.






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