Did I enjoy I, Claudius? This is the question I've been asking myself for the last week. When I posted about it at the mid-way point, back in February, I was full of admiration for it and still am, in some respects. It is a wonderfully clever, salacious, witty, violent and ironic novel; its place in the pantheon of historical fiction is well secured. But did I enjoy it? I change my mind every time I think about it.
Robert Graves wrote I,Claudius (and its sequel, Claudius the God) to make money, and make money it did. When it first appeared in 1934 it became an instant best-seller, and hasn't been out of print since. In the 1970s it was made into a very successful and still popular television series,, with Derek Jacobi as the unlikely 'idiot' who becomes an Emperor. I note on IMDB that there is an I, Claudius (2013) listed as 'in development', so a film re-make is just around the corner. All this suggests that this is a book with a mass and enduring appeal. Which is not inexplicable - afterall it is very good - but is ever so slightly strange to me. Because as well as all those other things, it is also a novel grounded in Classical allusion, occasionally monotonous and with a pedant for a narrator.
I, Claudius, as you probably all know, is the story of the Emperor Claudius (c. 10BC-54AD), told in his own words. Speaking from a position of hindsight - after his accession in 41AD - he is determined to give long posterity to his own history of events under his predecessors: Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. It gives him particular joy to do this because of a prophecy that tells him 'it will be found again some 1900 years hence', and then 'when all other authors of today whose works survive will seem to shuffle and stammer, since they have written only for today, and guardedly, my story will speak out clearly and boldly'. The text 'found', of course, is Graves', who makes his narrator complicit in the very act of the novel writing. Claudius is as smug as can be about that, and about nearly everything else; and why not, when he has successfully survived the many plots and purges that have decimated his family?
Claudius lived through interesting times. His paternal grandmother was Livia, the third wife of the Emperor Augustus and, arguably, the most influential woman in the Empire. His uncle, Tiberius, was Augustus' heir; and his nephew, Caligula, Emperor after that. He lived at the heart of a poisonous family drama rivalled only by The Sopranos: patricide, fratricide, infanticide, incest, adultery, you name it, the Imperial family did it. Twice, at least. Claudius father, brother and a whole posse of cousins are poisoned or otherwise killed off during the course of the novel. Claudius himself survives only because he cultivates and perpetuates the belief, widely held by his relations, that he is no threat in the halls of power. Born with a weakness in his legs, and suffering from fits, spasms and a stammer, he is branded an 'idiot', not to be trusted with any public office or responsibilities. Reviled by his grandparents, mother, uncle and, later, his three wives, he only finds affection in his much loved older brother, Germanicus, his cousin, Posthumus and his concubines.
This early rejection, and the instinct for survival that it engenders, is the keynote of Claudius' narratorial voice. He speaks, always, as a wounded man under siege. He maligns his bullies, painting particularly villainous portraits of Livia and Tiberius, while he glorifies his allies, turning Germanicus into a saint. He swiftly glosses any action of his brother which could be interpreted as cruel or unusual. Thus he breezes over the terrible mass exterminations Germanicus orders in retribution for a rebellion of the German tribes, saying only that he was 'a most gentle and humane man' who 'must have had good reasons for ordering it.' Although he allows for the administrative skills of Livia - whose ambition, he says, 'knew no limits at all' - and the positive achievements of his Uncle Tiberius, his bias is clearly stamped.
Claudius is that famililar beasty - the unreliable narrator - although he works hard at the pretence that he is reliable. Left to his own devices by his family for so long, Claudius chooses to expend his significant intellecutual energies on the writing of history. In this he is tutored by Athenodorus and by Livy, author of The History of Rome. He sets the theory of historical writing front and centre, reporting to us a debate between himself and his tutors, about whether fact or feeling are more important to historical narrative. Is it a historian's duty to tell us exactly what happened, or is it a historian's duty to emote, conjecture and expand? Thus throughout his own book he reassures his reader that he doesn't make anything up, and that he only reports from reputatable sources that he has double-checked. But can he, himself, be a 'reputatable source'? Can a person so intimately connected to a family write an unbiased history of them? Absolutely not, and Claudius knows it. Or at least Graves' knows that Claudius knows it, and engages him in the business of tricking us into believing otherwise.
I'm no Classicist, and I'd wager I'm not alone in that these days (though typically, I share Alexandria with two people who are!). When Robert Graves was a public school boy, in the first decade of the 20th century, Classics and Classical authors were at the very heart of a good British education. I would bet you ready money he had read Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the time he was 13, the text that gives I, Claudius its narrative backbone. The novel's first readers would probably have been as well-versed in Suetonius as its author. Which means, I imagine, that unlike me they recognised and understood a lot of the Classics jokes that pervade the story. I know they're there - because I can feel the drumroll before them - but I'm afraid they nearly all passed me by. Although the book is 'modern' in many respects - all the sex and the drugs - in this respect it is very much of its time.
It is of its time in other, more positive respects too. Claudius has a lot to say about the character and nature of the German tribes and their civilisation: 'As for German cowardice, all barborous peoples are cowards...They seem, however, to be an exceptionally nervous and quarrelsome people...' Which is particularly interesting, given Graves' own German heritage, his service in the Great War and the contemporary rise of facism and of Hitler. Like all historical fiction, the book is as much about the period in which it was written. It adds to the strange, timeless vitality to this Emperor's eye-view of the world.
Graves' use of the first-person also allows him to look at Imperial Rome in new ways. For one thing he can develop the female characters, whose actions loom large. Their back-room influence can be placed front and centre, especially because Claudius himself is often in the back-rooms. It isn't just Livia either, but every woman, from this 'Mother of the Empire' down to the freemwomen who care for Claudius as a boy and 17 year old Calpurnia, his concubine. Graves' shows a world in which women can grow their own power, even in a society externally dominated by men. Of course, it might mean poisoning a few of the men along the way, and its difficult not to cheer the likes of Livia on, even when she's being a bit murderous!
So yes, I admire I,Claudius definitely, as an experiment in narration and as such an unlikely vision of a long-ago world. But after much uhming and ahhing and vacilation, I admit that I'm never going to be a fan. Why is that? Probably it has more to do with the time and place of reading and with me, the faulty reader, than with any fault of the book. It comes down to my dislike of Claudius, I think.
Claudius is the gatekeeper of his story, and everything comes through him; and so disliking him and distrusting him casts a pall over the whole novel. I know, I know. A novel doesn't need likeable characters; it isn't a necessary function of fiction to give us what we like. Nevertheless, I think mostly when we say we like a novel with disreputable and nasty characters we imply that we *like* the dislikableness. So I *like* Livia for being dislikeable - she's wonderfully evil - but I dislike Claudius for his likeableness and dislikeableness both, which is intractable. I'm glad I read his 'memoir', but I won't be embarking on Claudius the God any time soon.