Thursday, April 3, 2014

C is for Claudius and for Chuck

One of my favorite kind of blog hop questions is when the writer is asked what (fill in the blank items) would you take to a desert island/trip to the moon.  I especially have fun with lists of books for such adventures. Generally one is limited to 5 books, but I allow myself to fudge a bit and bring omnibus volumes.

One of the books that would definitely go to such a desert island would be an all in one edition of I,Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves.  Many critics and readers consider them to be two of the best historical novels ever written.

The first book tells the story of young Claudius, a step grandson of the Emperor Augustus. Because he stammers and has other health issues he is mostly ignored, which has its benefits as no one takes him seriously enough to have him eliminated, and he survives the reigns of Augustus, Tuberous, and Caligula to become Emperor himself at the end of the first volume, largely because he is the only adult male member of the royal family left. The second volume tells the story of Claudius' reign.

Robert Graves was a fascinating person, a WWI veteran, who succeeded as a poet, a memoirist,  a translator of Latin and Greek, a mythologist, and a novelist. His translations of the Greek Myths, of Suetonius' 12 Caesars and other works are noted for their readability. His poetry, especially his love poetry is often built around Celtic or Greek mythic images, as is his book The White Goddess, while Goodbye to all That is one of the great war memoirs.

So what makes I Claudius and its sequel so great?  One is the way its written, in a lively confidential style.  Graves conceit is that he has recovered a memoir of Claudius that he himself is translating from the original Greek. Another detail that sets the book apart is that it is very much of its time, and avoids unconscious comparisons to the future. (If you read Victorian era novels like Last Days of Pompeii or Ben-Hur you know what I mean. You always feel the author standing over your should shaking his head at the heathen ancients)  Graves doesn't do this.  Plus there is a huge cast of fascinating characters, the Imperial Caesars being a little like the Borgias or the Tudors. (And speaking of both those families, I should mention that the two novels made into an 11hour miniseries starring Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, and Sian Phillips, among many others, that is considered to be one of the best TV programs ever.)  It accomplishes what I think is one of the chief tasks of the historical novelist, to give a different perspective on a less well known person or time period, thus causing us to view it in a different light.

He also makes history fun.  The highest compliment I can pay to these books is that I am always sorry when I get to the end, and want to just start it all over again.

The luck of the alphabet has the letter C landing on my husband Chuck's birthday, so I couldn't it go by without saying how important he is to me. First of all, just putting up with me for 25plus years should qualify him for a medal.  Since I am a non driver, he gets all the work of running the boy back and forth to college, and the girl to her extra curricular.  The daily grind of 911 would be far worse, without the wonderful dinners he cooks almost every night, with the extras to take to work next day.  (Nothing having some wonderful food to heat up for lunch to make me feel loved, especially when everyone else is ordering pizza or hitting the vending machine.) He encourages all my creative endeavors including this blog, while tolerating the book collection that frequently threatens to engulf the house.   Moreover if I ever have to go to the desert island he he has to go with me, not just because I love him or because he's such a great cook, but because he's wonderful people who knows how to do all kinds of lost skills.  When the world crash finally comes (see tomorrow's review of Dies the Fire) people like him will be so necessary, for he knows how to tan leather, comb and spin wool, make soap from scratch, can foods, make jerky, mead and vinegar, and all sorts of other useful skills.

So happy birthday dear, I couldn't do it without you.

This post is part of the A-Z challenge. For the month of April I am blogging a book a day, with occasional comments on other matters relating to the relevant letter of the alphabet.  To see the amazing work of other bloggers, click on the link below.


  1. I enjoy reading your reviews of the books. The best part when you say you are always sorry to get to the end. That is so true of many good books. The first book I would bring on a deserted Island would be a how to survive on a deserted island book. Happy Birthday to your husband.

  2. Thank you Pam. If I take my husband along I won't need the desert island survival book, and that frees up room for another book. He's kind of the like the Professor on Gilliagan's island--the only one with a remote chance of surviving.

  3. I want to want to read history say this one is fun, so perhaps I will try it!

    1. The book is written with the conceit that due to a prophecy, Claudius is going to bury the book and not have if found for many hundreds of years. So the writer explains all the more obscure people and events, to help keep anything straight. The conversational style is very easy to read.