When I first mentioned on Twitter that I was reading I, Claudius, a bunch of people piped up to say what a good book it is, even that it’s one of their favorites. I had watched and enjoyed the BBC miniseries several years ago and was pretty excited to finally get around to the book, so it was nice to get all those comments. A couple of people did comment on my Goodreads status that they found the book dry, but I brushed those thoughts aside. I love so many books that others consider boring that it’s a comment I hardly think twice about. I like boring books, I thought. Except that it turns out that I, Claudius is sometimes really boring for long stretches of time, and I did not like that.
Published in 1934, I, Claudius by Robert Graves is the “autobiography” of the Roman emperor Claudius. It begins years before his birth and concludes with his becoming emperor in 54 CE. For most of the book, Claudius, with his stammer and limp, is on the sidelines of history. As part of the imperial family, he’s close enough to see a lot, but not so involved that he cannot take on the role of impartial witness. (If he is indeed impartial, which is in doubt.)
The history itself is tremendously exciting. There’s sex, violence, war, incest, murder, madness, murder, suicide, exile, more murder, and forced suicide. Claudius’s grandmother, Livia, is a schemer who will do anything to promote herself and her favorites, and even (especially) her own family cannot trust her to look out for them. After she’s gone, the mad emperor Caligula makes himself a god and torments his subjects with his changeableness and violence. There’s no denying that there’s drama.
When it comes down to it, however, the most dramatic story in the world still needs to be well-told to hold my interest, and I just did not find this story to be particularly well-told. The biggest problem for me is that there was no overarching storyline, no single source of tension. It’s just one exciting (or not) incident after another. I think Claudius himself is supposed to be the character who draws the reader into the narrative, but he’s often too far removed from the action for the tension to be palpable. When he’s writing about things that happened to him, the story is engaging, but too often, he’s reporting on events that he’s heard about secondhand. The effect is similar to reading a history book, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that if that’s what I wanted, I’d read a history book!
As I reflect on the book, though, I wonder if Graves was trying to get at something about the writing of history. Early on, there’s an exchange between Claudius (who was then beginning his work as a historian) and the historians Livy and Pollio:
Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he write history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”
Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”
“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”
“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. The spoke to them in a conversational manner. They did not orate.”
I get the impression that Graves’s Claudius is on Pollio’s side in this argument, and while I sympathize with that position when it comes to reading what are supposed to be factual accounts, I think Livy’s version of events would make for more exciting reading. Pollio’s textbook-like history would be for study; I’d turn to Livy for entertainment. It seems, however, that Claudius used Pollio as a model, and so his autobiography (and thus Graves’s novel, to get all meta) suffers as a work of readable literature.
Claudius’s textbook approach to history, with its lack of narrative tension, makes one of the novel’s other problems, the level of detail, far more serious than it otherwise would be. Graves revels in the names and places and dates and events from the period, and it ends up being a lot of information. In the early parts of the novel especially, it’s hard to keep track of who is who and what happened when. (Claudius’s tendency to backtrack makes the problem worse.) I love detail in historical fiction; the brilliant Dorothy Dunnett packed her novels with ridiculous amounts of detail and so many characters that it’s impossible to keep them all straight. But her novels also have a single compelling character at the core, and first-time readers can easily focus on that one story to find the narrative force that pushes the novel along. All those details and incidental characters serve as dressings and garnishes that enhance the main course. In I, Claudius those details too often become the main course.
It’s telling that when Graves puts Claudius in the center of the action, the book is better. Almost every single moment I enjoyed centered on Claudius. Claudius may not be the most interesting character in the story, but he at least gives readers something to focus on and someone to care about. All the other characters never quite seem to be more than the “good” or “bad” Claudians that our narrator made them. There’s little to no moral complexity here.
All my complaints aside, I did push through to the end, mostly because I wanted to understand why people love it so much but also because there were a few random moments that I enjoyed. Jenny told me that she really liked the audiobook version, read by Derek Jacobi, who put a lot of emotion and drama into the various voices. I considered giving up the print version and going that route, except that my library doesn’t have the Jacobi version. I’m not completely sorry I persevered because the last several chapters, after Caligula becomes emperor, are by far the best. The tension starts to ratchet up and this point, and Caligula is just wackadoo so there’s no telling what he’ll do. (Livia was much more predictable—murder, murder, and another murder and maybe an exile or two.) My absolute favorite moment in the book occurs shortly after Caligula tells Claudius that he has become a god and that his sister Drusilla is now a goddess:
I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”
“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip. I’ll pass it along to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? Then I’ll tell her.”
“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”
Ah, snark. That’s what this book needed all along.
I know that my reaction to I, Claudius is far from the usual one. Only 2% of the ratings at Goodreads are below a 3. It’s rare for reviews to be that overwhelming positive. (In comparison, 6% of the ratings of Pride and Prejudice and 8% of the ratings of Jane Eyre are that low.) So if you’re considering reading this, don’t avoid it because of my review. I’m clearly in the minority. However, if you’ve read it and didn’t like it, take heart, you are not alone. At least one other perfectly intelligent, reasonably sophisticated reader (assuming that I am a perfectly intelligent, reasonably sophisticated reader) has felt the same. Shall we start a support group?