Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 4

This should no longer be titled "Initial Thoughts," as I'm almost 40% of the way through WiL already, but why change now, right?

Ursula is in love with Rupert Birkin. It is questionable whether he is in love with her. They are kind of dating, in the way Edwardian English people did that. Ursula (who is not 12 years old, but a grown woman) is sitting by the door waiting for Rupert to come visit her (unannounced, I might add). The day goes by, and he doesn't show up. So Lawrence gives us this straight from Ursula's mind.

She sat crushed and obliterated in a darkness that was the border of death. She realised how all her life she had been drawing nearer and nearer to this brink, where there was no beyond, from which one had to leap like Sappho into the unknown. The knowledge of the imminence of death was like a drug. Darkly, without thinking at all, she knew that she was near to death. She had travelled all her life along the line of fulfilment, and it was nearly concluded. She knew all she had to know, she had experienced all she had to experience, she was fulfilled in a kind of bitter ripeness, there remained only to fall from the tree into death. And one must fulfil one's development to the end, must carry the adventure to its conclusion. And the next step was over the border into death. So it was then! There was a certain peace in the knowledge.

Ursula, YOU ARE NOT 12!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mountolive

There are spoilers here. Be forewarned. Also forgive me if I get some of the details wrong about the previous novels. But then again, that’s partly what this post is about.

I am notorious for forgetting what happens in novels. I hate this. It is made so much more frustrating when I am reading another part of a series, and have trouble remembering what occurred in the previous novels.

This has been my #1 problem with The Alexandria Quartet. When I picked up Balthazar last year, I kept thinking about Mareotis. What was Mareotis? Oh yes – a lake. Didn’t somebody die there? Who was it? (Capodistra) With Mountolive, the third novel in this series, I kept thinking about the death that occurred at the ball – wasn’t someone (a guy?) mistaken for someone else (I thought Justine? Maybe Clea?) and murdered with a hat pin? Wasn’t it Narouz that murdered him?

This problem is my fault, as months have gone by between novels. I should have read them all in one shot, which was my initial plan. But that just didn’t happen. Someday, when I reread these novels – which I most certainly will – I will read them back to back, and then perhaps they will make more sense.


Mountolive takes an entirely different view from the first two. This is not a continuation of Darley’s tale, but rather told in the third person. It is also a very political novel – everything is through that lens. It is here we learn – I believe, as I don’t think it was mentioned in the other novels, maybe hinted at – that Nessim is smuggling weapons to Palestine for the Jews. (This is pre-WWII. There was no Israel.) As a Coptic Christian, he is mistrusted by the Jewish leaders he is working with: Capodistra, Balthasar, etc. In order to increase his credibility he marries Justine, a Jew.

Someone – was it Scobie, or did Scobie have Darley do it? – in one of the previous novels went to one of their meetings in the desert, and came back saying it’s harmless – just a bunch of Cabalists in the wilderness discussing metaphysics. Was that for the same thing? It must have been. Then Pursewarden investigates for the British and comes to the same conclusion essentially (except he witnesses the “transformation” of Narouz into crazy preacher with a whip). Mountolive also gives us a political motive for Pursewarden’s suicide. Through Melissa (Darley’s girlfriend who is also a dancer and prostitute), Pursewarden comes to learn that he was wrong about Nessim and the others – they really are smuggling weapons. He is so dumbstruck by this revelation, and his conflict between his official duties and his friendships, he kills himself.

The beautiful language of the previous novels is not in the forefront as it is in the other novels, but it would have been out of place in a political novel. The most striking scene here is the reunion between Mountolive and Leila, Nessim’s mother. When Mountolive was younger – I would estimate early 20s, he goes to live with the Hosnanis in Egypt to learn Arabic. There he begins a relationship with Nessim and Narouz’s mother. Mountolive eventually leaves Egypt, yet he and Leila continue a correspondence throughout the rest of their lives, always vaguely planning to reunite someday. Mountolive comes to Egypt as Ambassador, and he and plans are made and canceled at least once. Finally, due to Nessim’s involvement in arms dealing, Leila has to go to Kenya for a while, and she and Mountolive meet one last time. It is decidedly not the reunion that Mountolive had in mind. In his mind, things had largely remained the same – Leila was probably perpetually a good looking and intelligent 40 something. When he gets in the car with her, he doesn’t recognize her at all. There she is, an old Egyptian woman ravaged by smallpox, begging him to spare her son’s life. He never really thought about time passing. All of us, I’m sure, can understand this, and Durrell paints the scene of bitter disappointment with beautiful, evocative prose – as always. I lament with Mountolive the love of his youth, but at the same time, I fear becoming Leila.


The ending of Mountolive confused me. Not in that I didn’t understand what was going on, but I’m still not sure if there was a time shift or not. We have the terribly bitter and sad reunion between Mountolive and Leila, supposedly on the day before the Hosnani annual duck shoot at Mareotis. When we encounter Narouz at home in the next scene, I assume that it is the day of the duck shoot, where Capodistra will be murdered (or not?). But then Narouz is murdered (by order of Memlik Pasha, a very sinister character). What happened to the duck shoot? Perhaps this “next scene” did not occur the day after Mountolive meets with Leila?


When I come to the end of a novel, I like to do research on the internet – see what others are saying about it. When I google this novel, any novel in this series, “Alexandria Quartet,” etc., there is virtually nothing. I know that I had never heard of Durrell or any of his works until I became enmeshed in these lists, and it seems as if many other people haven’t heard of him either. I found, obviously, reviews on amazon, which vary widely: people either love them or they detest them; it’s all 5 stars or 1 star. The top review was titled: "If you like the DaVinci Code, this is NOT for you.,” I love that. Yes, parts of The Alexandria Quartet are over written. Durrell even admitted it. But it’s damn good overwriting. I have loved these three novels so much that I wish I had someone to recommend them to. But I don’t. Except you, perhaps. I will start Clea tonight. I can’t wait to read this conclusion – hopefully it will tie up some of these loose ends.

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 3

Guys - next time you need to get out of a sticky situation with a female, try this one on for size (long quote):

'You mean you don't love me?'

She suffered furiously, saying that.

'Yes, if you like to put it like that. Though perhaps that isn't true. I don't know. At any rate, I don't feel the emotion of love for you—no, and I don't want to. Because it gives out in the last issues.'

'Love gives out in the last issues?' she asked, feeling numb to the lips.

'Yes, it does. At the very last, one is alone, beyond the influence of love. There is a real impersonal me, that is beyond love, beyond any emotional relationship. So it is with you. But we want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn't. It is only the branches. The root is beyond love, a naked kind of isolation, an isolated me, that does NOT meet and mingle, and never can.'

...'And you mean you can't love?' she asked, in trepidation.

'Yes, if you like. I have loved. But there is a beyond, where there is not love.'

...'But how do you know—if you have never REALLY loved?' she asked.

'It is true, what I say; there is a beyond, in you, in me, which is further than love, beyond the scope, as stars are beyond the scope of vision, some of them.'

'Then there is no love,' cried Ursula.

'Ultimately, no, there is something else. But, ultimately, there IS no love.'

Ursula was given over to this statement for some moments. Then she half rose from her chair, saying, in a final, repellent voice:

'Then let me go home—what am I doing here?'

'There is the door,' he said. 'You are a free agent.'

...She hung motionless for some seconds, then she sat down again. 'If there is no love, what is there?' she cried, almost jeering.

'Something,' he said, looking at her, battling with his soul, with all his might.

'What?'

'There is,' he said, in a voice of pure abstraction; 'a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you—not in the emotional, loving plane—but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me. And there could be no obligation, because there is no standard for action there, because no understanding has been reaped from that plane. It is quite inhuman,—so there can be no calling to book, in any form whatsoever—because one is outside the pale of all that is accepted, and nothing known applies. One can only follow the impulse, taking that which lies in front, and responsible for nothing, asked for nothing, giving nothing, only each taking according to the primal desire.'

Ursula listened to this speech, her mind dumb and almost senseless, what he said was so unexpected and so untoward. 'It is just purely selfish,' she said.

'If it is pure, yes. But it isn't selfish at all. Because I don't KNOW what I want of you. I deliver MYSELF over to the unknown, in coming to you, I am without reserves or defences, stripped entirely, into the unknown. Only there needs the pledge between us, that we will both cast off everything, cast off ourselves even, and cease to be, so that that which is perfectly ourselves can take place in us.'

'But it is because you love me, that you want me?' she persisted.

'No it isn't. It is because I believe in you—if I DO believe in you.'

'Aren't you sure?' she laughed, suddenly hurt.

He was looking at her steadfastly, scarcely heeding what she said.

'Yes, I must believe in you, or else I shouldn't be here saying this,' he replied. 'But that is all the proof I have. I don't feel any very strong belief at this particular moment.'

She disliked him for this sudden relapse into weariness and faithlessness. 'But don't you think me good-looking?' she persisted, in a mocking voice.

He looked at her, to see if he felt that she was good-looking. 'I don't FEEL that you're good-looking,' he said.

'Not even attractive?' she mocked, bitingly.

He knitted his brows in sudden exasperation. 'Don't you see that it's not a question of visual appreciation in the least,' he cried. 'I don't WANT to see you. I've seen plenty of women, I'm sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don't see.'

'I'm sorry I can't oblige you by being invisible,' she laughed.

'Yes,' he said, 'you are invisible to me, if you don't force me to be visually aware of you. But I don't want to see you or hear you.'

'What did you ask me to tea for, then?' she mocked.

'I want to find you, where you don't know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don't want your good looks, and I don't want your womanly feelings, and I don't want your thoughts nor opinions nor your ideas—they are all bagatelles to me.'

'You are very conceited, Monsieur,' she mocked. 'How do you know what my womanly feelings are, or my thoughts or my ideas? You don't even know what I think of you now.'

'Nor do I care in the slightest.'

'I think you are very silly. I think you want to tell me you love me, and you go all this way round to do it.'

'All right,' he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. 'Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don't want any more of your meretricious persiflage.'

'Is it really persiflage?' she mocked, her face really relaxing into laughter. She interpreted it, that he had made a deep confession of love to her. But he was so absurd in his words, also.



And Ursula buys this horse pucky!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 2

Chapter 7 of Women in Love contains the following:

Hearing voices coming from the sitting-room, Halliday talking to Libidnikov, [Gerald] went to the door and glanced in. He had on a silk wrap of a beautiful bluish colour, with an amethyst hem.

To his surprise he saw the two young men by the fire, stark naked. Halliday looked up, rather pleased.

'Good-morning,' he said. 'Oh—did you want towels?' And stark naked he went out into the hall, striding a strange, white figure between the unliving furniture. He came back with the towels, and took his former position, crouching seated before the fire on the fender.

'Don't you love to feel the fire on your skin?' he said.

'It IS rather pleasant,' said Gerald.

'How perfectly splendid it must be to be in a climate where one could do without clothing altogether,' said Halliday....

And Gerald realised how Halliday's eyes were beautiful too, so blue and warm and confused, broken also in their expression. The fireglow fell on his heavy, rather bowed shoulders, he sat slackly crouched on the fender, his face was uplifted, weak, perhaps slightly disintegrate, and yet with a moving beauty of its own.

'Of course,' said Maxim, 'you've been in hot countries where the people go about naked.'

'Oh really!' exclaimed Halliday. 'Where?'

'South America—Amazon,' said Gerald.

'Oh but how perfectly splendid! It's one of the things I want most to do—to live from day to day without EVER putting on any sort of clothing whatever. If I could do that, I should feel I had lived.'

I feel like Cheever should come in here: "And now we come to the homosexual part." But no - these are straight men. This novel keeps getting better and better.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts

Women in Love so far:

A small action happens so that the characters can pontificate on bullshit. Example: Birkin and Hermione come into Ursula’s classroom and then they pontificate about education corrupting our animal natures and spontaneity, or some such bullshit. Rupert and Gerald get on a train and pontificate about religion, smashing life, living for something, love etc. Ursula and Gundrun go for a walk and pontificate about, well, I don't remember what about because it was that uninteresting. And that's just the first 50 pages.

Yeah, this is going to be a long one.

Friday, June 18, 2010

1001 Books - 2010 edition

It seems that the publishers of the 1,001 books series have an agenda: if they come out with a new edition every two years, some of us gullable OCD-bibliophiles will continue to shell out $25 (amazon.com price) to see what's new on the list.


I am going to save you a lot of trouble, and money. I have previously posted the 2006 edition list in its entirety, as well as the 2008 edition - what was added as well as what was removed from the '06 edition. Click on the book list label to find them. While I complained at length about what books were removed from the '06 edition to make way for much more obscure, international authors, the '08 edition did have an upside; namely, it opened up more doors to obscure international authors to people like me. The 2010 edition, however, really is a sham.

The only difference between the new edition and the '08 edition is 11 novels. That's right. 11.

Here's what was added:
  1. Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
  2. The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt
  3. Invisible - Paul Auster
  4. An American Rust - Philipp Meyer
  5. Cost - Roxana Robinson
  6. The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
  7. Home - Marilynne Robinson
  8. Kieron Smith, Boy - James Kelman
  9. The Gathering - Anne Enright
  10. The Blind Side of the Heart - Julia Franck
  11. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

Here's what they removed:

  1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid (#7 on '08 list)
  2. Animal's People - Indra Sinha (#3 on '08 list)
  3. The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell (#5 on '08 list)
  4. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka (#13 on '08 list)
  5. Small Island - Andrea Levy (#7 on '08 list)
  6. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth (#8 on '06 list; #18 on '08 list)
  7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon (#21 on '08 list)
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon (#19 on '06; #27 on '08)
  9. Islands - Dan Sleigh (#20 on '06; #31 on '08)
  10. The Heart of Redness - Zakes Mda (#55 on '06; #52 on '08)
  11. Small Remedies - Shashi Deshpande #65 on '06; #53 on '08)
So, here are my 11 thoughts on 2010 list.
  1. I'm glad they didn't remove any I already read
  2. I'm not surprised they didn't add any I've already read
  3. What's up with removing the ONLY Michael Chabon novel on these lists?
  4. Why have these editors either (a) not removed the books on these lists that are not - and have never been - available in English, despite the fact that they were published in their native language more than 20 years ago; or (b) sponsored a translation?
  5. I'm glad they added Oscar Wao to the list
  6. I'm glad they removed The Kindly Ones. I'm sure some day I will pick it up, but I'm not expecting to like it, or necessarily get through it all. I get frustrated with the idea that Nazis had to have these strange fetishes to give reason for how they able to do what they did. Then we can conceive of them as "other" and therefore give ourselves a free pass - "I'm not like these sick-os, so I could never do that stuff." No - you are like those sickos because they were just like you. Enough pontificating on a book I've never read.
  7. I wonder why they didn't add Out Stealing Horses, or The Road, or even The Kite Runner.
  8. Has anyone ever looked at the publishing company who puts out these 1,001 books and see if they have any financial stake in the publication of some of the books on the lists?
  9. Sorry to see Curious Incident go. It's been slowly moving to the top of my TBR pile.
  10. I spend most of my time with the '06 list. So I just noticed that there was an addition to the 2008 list called A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. I want to read that just for the title. Anyone read this?
  11. I kind of feel abused by these list makers. They give me a list in 2006 and say, Here are books you should read. Two years later they give me another list, and say, 282 of those books on the previous list aren't worth it anymore - so here are 282 novels to replace them. So I finally get used to the idea...I finally sort of make peace with the lists, commit to attempt to read 1283 over the next 45-50 years. And then, they come back and say - scratch that. Those 11 that we told you to read - six of which we removed Austen and Dickens and Faulkner to make room for - ignore those and read these 11 instead. Now the list is 1295 books long. Is this going to go on in perpetuity? Every two years, adding and removing? Seems to me like they editors are purposely trying to prevent anyone from actually reading all they recommend. Which is impossible anyway, unless you know Korean (see #4 above)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad and I have always had our ups and downs. Our relationship is not stable. Approaching him, I never know if I’m going to be blown away or left in the dust.

We started to get to know each other when I was 18 years old and I tried to read Heart of Darkness. I say tried because I didn’t understand a word that I read. I see now that I wasn’t ready, but I wanted to be cool and say I read the book that Apocalypse Now was based on. Because at that time, I thought being able to talk about Apocalypse Now was part of the definition of cool. Not so much anymore, though that has nothing to do with Conrad.

After that embarrassment, I didn’t pick up Conrad again for eight years; then in 2007 I read The Secret Agent. Damn that was a good book. If you want to read something by Conrad that isn’t so, well, Conrad-esque, read The Secret Agent. Now that book is cool. So cool, in fact, that Hitchcock made a film version of it. But if you are looking to watch it, don’t watch The Secret Agent, because that’s an entirely different movie. Confusing, I know.

Ok – I thought – Conrad, I’ve got you now! Well, not so much. Nostromo in 2008 was, well, I don’t know. I didn’t have any expectations. I knew that plot was dissimilar enough from The Secret Agent to not hope for a repeat of that novel. It turned out to be 2/3 boring, the rest decent. Not a book I intend to pick up again – or at least for a very long time.

So I came to Lord Jim with mixed feelings. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read since I was in high school, when my A.P. English teacher said she could never get through it. Reading a classic novel that even your teacher couldn’t finish? Very cool. Also, it’s about sailors and islands in the South Pacific. Double cool. But then I have this history with Conrad which made me suspect – maybe I was being set up here.

Well, I wasn’t set up. From the very beginning – from the very first paragraph, I settled into this novel like I haven’t settled into a book in a very long time – perhaps since I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a year ago. It felt like curling up in bed, with familiar sheets and blankets and soft, soft pillows - being surrounded by comfort. Why certain books make me feel that way I couldn’t say, but this was definitely one of them.

Jim was a first mate on a ship filled with Muslim pilgrims. One night on the journey, while all the passengers are asleep, the boat hits something and springs a leak. The crew are convinced that the ship will sink, and to wake the passengers would cause complete pandemonium and nobody would get off the ship alive. So, they abandon the ship and leave the passengers to drown. At the last minute, Jim, who has always dreamed of being the Big Hero who Saves the Day, abandons the ship with them. He is embarrassed and disgraced. The crew manages to get safely to shore and make up a story about the sinking. Turns out, though, that the ship didn’t sink. It was towed to land and everybody is safe. Big oops. There is an inquest, Jim is left to take the brunt of it all, and is stripped of his seaman’s papers. At the inquest, he meets a man, Marlow, who sees that Jim is “one of us” (a gentleman, not a regular seadog). Marlow goes about helping Jim find various jobs, all of which he leaves once talk of the Patua comes up. He is so thoroughly ruined in his own mind my his cowardice – he just cannot forgive himself for acting in a way that was completely contrary to who imagined himself to be. Marlow finally gets him a job as the manager of a trading post on the island Patusan, replacing the “slinking” manager, Cornelius. Jim arrives there, orchestrates and attack on a local tyrannical lord and is loved by the people of the island. He picks up with Cornelius’s step-daughter and is generally hated by the former manager. Marlow comes to visit and finds Jim about as happy and satisfied as he could possibly be, essentially able to restore his dignity far away from his past. Then, something bad happens – a group of thieves come to Patusan to find some food, and discover an island ripe of the taking. The natives launch an attack, and the thieves – lead by a man named Brown – is stuck in the river. Eventually, Jim and Brown talk, and he decides to let them go back down the river and leave. It was a trick, and on their way out they attack a group of natives further down the river, killing one of Jim’s close friends and the son of the local leader along with many others. This incident completely breaks down Jim’s world. He is no longer the infallible authority – he told the natives to let Brown & company go, and look what happened! Jim knows his time is up – another disgrace, another breaking of trust. His loyal servants and his girlfriend ask if he wants to fight, or to try to escape, but he is resigned to his own fate – tired of running away, but there is nothing to fight for – an honor he never had in the first place. He took full responsibility for everything that happened, went to the local leader’s camp and allowed his friend’s father to shoot him in retaliation for the death of his son. The end.

Conrad could tell this story chronologically, from beginning to end (as I have just done), and have a decent narrative. But he doesn’t do that. He tells the story through Marlow, who hears some of it through Jim, some through Brown, some through Stein, etc. It’s more complicated, and you get the story jumping around. That may annoy some readers, but I don’t mind. Conrad does it seamlessly here, as I don’t feel he did with Nostromo. One original reviewer complained that "[Conrad’s] story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences . . . like a river-mist." I can see this point, and definitely feel there was a haziness about Nostromo, (and The Heart of Darkness, though that might have been my own fog); I felt that Lord Jim was much more straight forward and easy to understand. Or maybe I’m just evolving. But compared to Henry James, Conrad is a sunny, cloudless day.

The blogger at mopie.com – a newly discovered site for book reviews wrote the following about Lord Jim: “All about how a whiny white man redeems himself by solving all the problems of the “natives” with his wise white wisdom, and sacrificing himself to them. So condescending. And the narrative is this one guy delivering a florid book-length monologue…and pondering the “nobility” problems of the main character. Oh no, a young imperialist failed to be noble when he was supposed to be noble! Thank god he could go tame the natives and reclaim his nobility! I hate Joseph Conrad…My notes in the margins read: ‘Oh quit whining, you giant effing baby’ and ‘Stupidly British imperialist honor nobility bullshit.’ Which makes no sense, but you get the point, I think?”

Ok – yes, Conrad’s writing is colored by the times, but he wasn't a British imperialist. His trip to the Congo (which inspired The Heart of Darkness) allowed him to see firsthand the treatment of “natives” by the imperialist/capitalists, and he recognized the inhumanity of it. The residents of Patusan didn’t follow Jim because he was white, but because he was successful and trustworthy. They did see him and the other whites as “others” and set apart, but I didn’t get the impression they saw them as better, or that Jim felt himself superior to them because he was white and they weren’t. There wasn’t any “taming” involved. Maybe I missed that and am completely interpreting it wrong, but I didn’t feel any of that. Of course in today’s post colonial world it seems racist, but looking at it from a turn-of-the-century perspective, it was much more progressive than other contemporary works. After all, what year did Birth of a Nation come out?

Yes, he was a little whiny about the whole thing. At times you did want to say, get on with this nobility and honor. But it was a big deal. People would have gotten that a hundred years ago in a different way than we get it. Maybe a gang member would understand it. That may be an interesting modern interpretation - what happens when a Blood acts cowardly and has to get away?

I think, too, that a lot of this is addressed by his confrontation with Brown. Jim questions Brown about why he came to their island and started causing trouble. Brown realizes – from his conversations with Cornelius (who snuck to Brown and tried to double cross Jim) – that Jim has something to hide. Why is this brilliant white kid of some class here on this outpost? And Brown ignores Jim’s question and knows how to get to him. He asks, “well why are you here?” Brown tells him he’s on the run too – that they aren’t any different. They’ve both lived their lives and done things that dog them. Brown is the other side of Jim – Jim thought that he had escaped his past, had been able to put it behind him and move on, starting over. But your past always follows you, if no where else but inside you. And Brown shows up, almost like Satan in the desert, to remind Jim. Is Jim any more honorable than Brown? Has he really redeemed himself in any way? Probably not really. In the eyes of other "gentleman," (Marlow) he clearly has somehow.

Conrad definitely isn’t for everyone. He can be boring, tedious, and foggy. But something about his writing continues to attract me back to him again and again. I couldn’t describe it, but its observations like, “the nights descended on her like a benediction” that I just eat up. The beauty of that phrase both crushes me and fills my heart with joy. It’s so beautiful. And Conrad’s language is riddled with that kind of stuff. So if you love just great writing in a style that really is no more, than maybe Conrad is for you. After Lord Jim, I am definitely excited to revisit Heart of Darkness in a year or two. I think that this time, I’ll understand it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I, Claudius

I’ve been reading I, Claudius since some unknown date in January or February. I know that I was reading it at the beginning of March when I saw Elaine Pagels give a talk on the Book of Revelations. She was showing photos of Roman statues in Aphrodisias, Turkey – including one of Claudius. My instantaneous reaction was, “I know him!”

And after that spontaneous outburst in my mind, I realized that “I know him” is an apt description of how I felt while reading I, Claudius. Robert Graves writes in a very conversational style – at times a little too conversational. Claudius begins telling us something, and then in the middle of the story will say, “I’ll come back to this, let me tell you about this other thing first.” I don’t know how much of Claudius’s writings exist today, and I wonder if Graves at all was attempting to imitate the Emperor’s actual style. At times this casualness was annoying, but overall it lent itself to the feeling that it really was a conversation. I felt like Claudius’s pal, his ally (of which he didn’t have many). It was a personal book - Claudius is put down by everybody except a few who figure out he really did know what was up. And they all die. Who can’t feel for a guy like that?

The main problem with IC is keeping track of all of the relationships. There is so much intermarriage and adoption and people with the same name that I don’t imagine there is anyone who could possibly keep track. I wonder how the Romans themselves kept track of it themselves. I created this chart which was very helpful, but should give you a clear idea of how complicated it was.
There were moments in IC when I was genuinely freaked out, almost afraid to turn out my book light. The downfall of Germanicus, for example – the dead babies under the floor and the mysterious message on the wall. But generally, a feeling of fear pervades the entire novel - for Claudius, members of the imperial family, and the masses. Claudius had a physical ailment of some sort, and was often regarded as an idiot. He is wisely advised early on to keep up the ruse…Graves portrays him as a deeply intelligent man, but must play dumb in order to avoid being murdered. Everyone has to watch out…you could have no friends or confidants, as informers were paid well to make up stories and turn people in to the Emperor, who – whether Tiberius or Caligula – rather enjoyed killing his subjects. This was all complicated by the fact that they all seemed mentally ill to some degree or another, and no one was ever sure what was expected of them. I cannot even imagine living in that environment. Well, to some degree I can, but that’s another story entirely.

I have always loved history – I used to watch the History Channel all the time back when they actually showed real, critical historical programming, not the shit that feeds into the Dan Brown fanatics need for conspiracy. And I really have no interest in Ice Road Truckers. But my knowledge about Ancient Rome (and Greece, and really a lot of the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance) is severely lacking. I recognize this, and have most of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization waiting for the day when I finally get around to cracking them open. I could have probably named a few Roman Emperors, given you some plots from Shakespeare’s (and Hollywood’s) interpretations and told you that “Bread and Circuses” was what lead to Rome’s downfall, but that’s about it. So much of the information in IC was new. I knew Imperial Rome was messed up, but I didn’t know it was that messed up. Graves really wet my appetite to learn more about Rome, so perhaps Caesar and Christ will get opened sooner than I anticipated. (But definitely after I finish this damn Modern Library list!)
I wouldn’t call I, Claudius suspenseful, because it doesn’t take long to figure out what is going to happen to everybody, but it was enthralling. I am looking forward to reading the second part of this “autobiography,” Claudius the God. I don’t see how it made it to #14 on the list, as there are novels far better than this farther down on the list. But there it is. Overall, though, it’s a good book.