I, Claudius is well-known to the modern reader for its evocation of ancient Rome and its terrible cruelty and vice. Brought to a wide audience by the BBC mini-series, the book is the most famous historical novel dealing with the period. The book is meticulously researched and conjures up a picture of Rome and its principal characters that at once seems real and allows the modern reader to understand. The author Robert Graves was an expert in the ancient world. Principally Graves was a poet, but he also excelled as a scholar of myth, Greek myth in particular. His research of the historical period and its culture appears to the lay-reader to be first class.
The book deals with the murderous family history of the Claudians and their relatives which gave Rome its first emperors starting with Augustus through to Claudius himself and his nephew Nero. The degree of cruelty and vice is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader especially as the book was written before the horrors of the second world war. The main character is the narrator Claudius who is also positioned as the writer of the book, having wished to leave a testament of his times to the readers of the future, in perhaps nineteen hundred years time. The unlikely hero narrates the story of the rulers of Rome from his grand-uncle Augustus down to the end of his mad nephew Caligula’s reign. The style is very much as if the book were a work of history with only the occasional descriptive passage of events witnessed by Caligula or dialogue that involves him. In an early commentary on this style Claudius compares the history writing of Livy, who was fond of creating speeches for his historical characters, and Pollio who would only recount the facts. Claudius’s method is to follow Pollio in style.
As a reader this was not what I expected. I had vague memories of the TV drama and was expecting an exciting and in-depth novelisation of the times rather than a faux-history. The book lacked immediacy for me because of the narrative construct, although I can’t fault Graves’s commitment to historical veracity (although he pushes hard his speculation that Livia, Claudius’s grandmother, was the power behind the throne for most of this period). As a novel the book didn’t stand-up well.
As a reader of this text I feel like I am in the middle of a postmodern laboratory experiment. For this set of clinical trials the Eco research unit is testing the application of intertextuality theory to the comic novel, having undergone two previous trials that I know of on the murder mystery – The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. The subject of these earlier excellent novels leant itself well to the fictionalisation of Eco’s main theme of the interpretation of truth. This latest novel, with its comic tone does not succeed as well.
The book (or perhaps I should say text?) centres on the character of Baudolino, a poor peasant boy catapulted to the court of Frederick Barbarossa, the German Holy Roman Emperor in the twelfth century. He rises on the basis of his own wits and ability to tell a tall tale to become Frederick’s adopted son and a key advisor. As such he finds himself connected with a number of the key events of the age and in particular the legend of Prester John, the Christian King who was supposed to live to the East beyond the lands of the Muslims. The book revolves around the search for this king. The theme of the book, however, is the main driving force of the narrative. Truth, its interpretation, its fabrication, its composition in texts and the metaphysical and scientific nature of it are at the heart of Baudolino.
As mentioned above truth also formed the theme of Eco’s other fictional works. Umberto Eco’s day job is as a Semiotician, a postmodern study of signs. His work is concerned with how perceived truth is constructed by texts. This interest seems to have become the raison d’etre for writing this novel. Unfortunately it takes away too much from the plot of the book and the actual narrative connected with the characters. Baudolino himself, the main character, is interesting and he certainly experiences enough events. However, the author rarely keeps his narrative sharp enough and connected enough to drive the story forward with tension. The book reads like one of those dull medieval travel books which recounts a series of remarkable events, but with no unifying theme to connect them. Only twice in the book are there moments of real tension, which were hinted at early in the book. Unfortunately Eco does not use his narrative skills to keep these going through the rest of the story.
I was looking forward to reading this book as I had really enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, partly because of their setting and themes, but mostly because Eco was a good storyteller. For some reason he seems to have left his fiction writing skills at the door on this one. This experiment has failed.