Saturday, September 30, 2006

Caesar by Colleen McCullough

 (Book Review)

When Lucretius, Guam and I got together over the summer, I noticed Mr. Lucretius had begun working his way through McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. I myself had been obsessed with these books when I was in high school, and they had a big influence on my own writing at the time. (I was a bit of a geek in high school, but if you follow this blog, I’m sure you know that already.)

The first few weeks of my freshman year at Calvin, I spent a lot of time huddled away in my dorm room reading “Caesar’s Women” when I probably should have been out trying to meet new people or studying. But interests change quickly at that age, and by the time the next book in the series came out, I had decided I was now more interested in modern history than ancient history, and I never got around to reading it.

But, after talking to Lucretius and Guam about these books, my interest has been rekindled, and I've decided to pick up where I left off now ten years later. (Has it been that long already?)

When I was going through my Classical History phase, I read a lot of historical fiction: “Flames of Rome” by Paul Maier, “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves, “Julian” by Gore Vidal, etc. McCullough’s series is by far the best historical fiction I ever read, in part because unlike these other books she focuses on Republican Rome as opposed to Imperial Rome. Once the Emperor takes over, there’s not quite as much drama to write about because the big guy is in charge. But in the Republican Senate there are always a lot of egos clashing and sneaky political maneuvering, and McCullough makes full use of this. As one reviewer said of her, “Her characters could easily walk into Washington DC today.”

The last 50 years of the Republic, the focus of McCullough’s series, is the most interesting part of Roman history. Partly because so much was happening and things were falling apart at the seams. But also because so many legends occupied the world stage at the same time: Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Cicero, Cato, Brutus, and others are all featured in “Caesar.”

Given how many gaps there are in world history, its also amazing how much we know about this period even two-thousand years later. McCullough’s series is to the best of my knowledge the most thorough fictional account of the last years of the Roman Republic, and yet even she has to severely cut and choose what she focuses on, as (she herself admits in her afterward.) “Caesar” covers the Gallic wars, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and the various political intrigues in Rome, each of which could easily have been a whole book in itself (or several books). Thus here, more so than in her other books, the editor's hand is very evident.

I was particularly disappointed that Clodius Publius and his reign of gang warfare was cut out. I've always thought this was one of the most fascinating aspects of Roman history (and one which I did my paper on at Calvin). Clodius's story gets set up very nicely in the previous book "Caesar's Women". But this book by all rights is the one in which he should have come to the forefront. Instead most of the gang violence, the intimidation of Pompey, and the recruitment of Milo to run a counter-gang, actually occurs between the two books, and is only recounted briefly by way of flashback. I was really disappointed.

But I suppose a historical geek reading a book like this is akin to a “Harry Potter” fan going to see the latest movie. No matter how good it is, you always walk out whining about how they cut out this or that part. After having done my high school paper on the Catiline conspiracy, I was disappointed with how brief a treatment that received when I read "Caesar's Women" ten years earlier.

And yet there are a number of things this book does do well. Clodius gets a nice death scene, and the trial of Milo is handled nicely. I also thought the political evolution of Curio and Mark Antony was done nicely. (Although I had been under the impression that they had begun to drift away from Clodius even before his death. McCullough portrays them as members of Clodius’s gang right until the end. Guam, Lucretius, either of you have any thoughts on this?)

I thought there was a very good portrayal of Quintuis Cicero. He’s one person I always thought got the short stick by historians. No one had really adequately explained to me where his loyalties lied if he was both Marcus Cicero’s brother and yet campaigned with Caesar in Gaul. McCullough does a good job on focusing on him as a man torn between family and political loyalties.

As in any good book, a number of these characters come into their own and seem to live lives outside the printed page (which I guess is essential in historical fiction, because all of these characters were actually living at one point). Cato comes off perfectly as the self-righteous moral ideologue, who could walk into any of today’s conservative organizations, (like maybe the Cato Institute, which is named after him). Cicero is a bloated windbag with a spine of jelly. And Mark Antony is great as a “Young Hal” type character from Shakespeare’s King Henry series; someone who is emerging from an irresponsible extended adolescence to take on serious political roles.

Every now and then though, I feel like McCullough has put too much of herself into the work. I don’t know her personally, but I can't help but feel a lot of the characters probably sound more like her than like themselves. Many of these characters sound more like old ladies than Roman Senators or Generals. Maybe this is partly due to the fact that McCullough is Australian, and the Queen’s English variant can sound effeminate to American ears. (“My dear Caesar, you simply won’t believe what is happening in Rome. Why everyone is rolling over the latest gossip concerning Cato....")

Also there’s a lot of big words in this book, and the result is all the characters come off sounding like librarians. When I was 15, I used to actually put Webster’s dictionary in my back pack so I could make sense of McCullough’s books when reading them after school. I’ve improved my literary skills to the point that I can read these books without rushing to the dictionary every two pages, but it does make the dialogue sound unnatural.

Even the passages where the characters are yelling obscenities at each other sound like a librarian trying to imagine what it would be like if men were swearing at each other. “I shit on your prick. I fart up your hairy nostrils.” Does anyone actually say this stuff? Maybe it’s an Australian thing. Or maybe McCullough knows something I don’t about the way the ancients insulted each other. But it sounds incredibly unnatural to me.

The character of young Octavius (the future Augustus Caesar) is absolutely terrible. Granted child prodigies are hard characters to write because they have to be both children and adult like, but McCullough completely blows this. It’s obviously not her strength. Way back at the beginning of this series the parts featuring Julius Caesar as a child were pretty bad as well, but McCullough has surpassed herself with Octavius.

The character of Caesar himself comes off as slightly larger than life for my tastes. He’s extremely confident in his success, and everyone who meets him is awed by him and concludes he can do no wrong. Of course with the benefit of history, we all know that Caesar will eventually win the struggle and become master of Rome, but people at the time didn't know it. When you’re actually living life, you have no idea what is around the next corner.

Along the same lines, there’s a lot of foreshadowing in this book I could have done without, such as Cato feeling in his bones that he won’t live to see Caesar die. Again, I suspect the actual Cato had no such premonition, but I guess when you write historical fiction, it is your privilege to re-imagine these scenes anyway you like.

This book, like the ones preceding it, is pro-Caesar. Wikipedia says of this series: The series has a thesis as Rome became more powerful within the Mediterranean world, the old ways of doing things -- through the deliberation of various interests, mainly aristocratic and mercantile -- became impossibly cumbersome. It became more and more difficult to govern an empire with institutions originally designed to administer a city-state. Certain wise leaders (such as Marius, and his nephew Caesar) tried to reform the old ways -- and to do so in a manner that would be consistent with Rome's basic character as a republic. But the conservatives (called the optimates by classical historians, though they themselves preferred the title boni or "good men") opposed reform so fiercely that they made inevitable the death of the Republic they claimed to cherish. The result was the birth of an imperial monarchy, and a radically different organization of power.
That’s over-stating it slightly. I think McCullough’s primary thesis is just to have fun re-imagining ancient Rome. Why else would she take so many digressions? But she is definitely pro-Caesar in her retelling.

And on the whole, I would agree with much of this. Caesar, like Napoleon, is a fascinating and controversial historical figure. Both Caesar and Napoleon instituted much needed liberal reforms, but did so at the expense of abolishing democratic institutions. (My German friend, after we made our peace, used to talk to me endlessly about how important Napoleon’s reforms were for Europe and for Germany). This allows the writer to paint the character as either a benevolent reformer or a dictator, and either interpretation has truth in it.

The only thing I’m slightly worried about is sometimes I feel McCullough is ignoring facts which don’t support her thesis. For example, I don’t remember her including the time during Caesar’s first consulship when he attempted to send Cato to jail simply for speaking out against him. But then again, it has been 10 years since I read the earlier books in this series. I might have to go back and review them before I say that with confidence.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Julius Schwartz has said that when he became editor of the Batman series he was conscious of the inferences that could be drawn from Batman's living arrangements, and that because of this he and writer Bill Finger had Batman's butler Alfred killed and his role in the stories filled by Dick Grayson's Aunt Harriet, providing in effect a female chaperone at Wayne Manor. After the Batman television show debuted with Alfred as a recurring character, he was brought back to life in the strip in order to be consistent with the television version.

Link of the Day
More Japanese Music. A couple more fun songs by The Candies: "Yasashii Akuma"--my sweet little Devil. I thought this song was so funny. It always used to put me in a good mood when I heard it driving to school.
This song, "Ban Ban Ban" is actually originally by "The Spiders" (The Japanese version of the Monkeys), but the The Candies do a nice cover of it. They then go into a song by the Japanese band "Drifters" which has the same "Ban ban ban" chorus.
This was a favorite Karaoke song of mine because it was pretty easy to sing "Ban Ban ban ban ban ban ban". There was also a student of mine named "Ban" in the junior high school class, and I had to resist the urge to sing this song every time I called on her.


Whisky Prajer said...

So do McCullough's books sit lower in your estimation than, say, "I, Cluadius"?

ジョエル said...

I think the subject material McCullough focuses on, the last years of the republic, is a lot more interesting than the imperial age of Claudius. And for that reason I tend to enjoy McCullough more. But Robert Graves is probably a superior writer. Then again, it's been so long since I read "I Claudius" (I think I was 14) that I probably can't say that with too much confidence until I go back and re-read some of it.