Seldom do I have books physically thrust at me, as recommendations to be read. “You need to read this.” (Paraphrased; Mark is much more eloquent than this small statement suggests.)
Now, Mark has a much more intricate palate when it comes to fiction than I do, but he’s a great friend and his love of literature was enough to encourage me to give it a go. I still did look a little askance at Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, even though the times of the Roman Empire are of exceptional interest to me.
At first, the dry tone of our narrator, the intricacy of the families and the royal lineage that the author was trying to reconcile for the reader was a bit much. But slowly, he grows on you, this detached and outcast chronicler, until you enjoy his voice and dry observation. And as the narrative progresses, the level of detail and the backstory of the family becomes necessary for understanding the bigger picture.
Claudius hovers at the edge of the action, out of the firing line, documenting from the safety of the sidelines. It’s ringside seats for political intrigue from megalomaniacs devolving into psychotic episodes, rigorously documented by intrepid historian. It’s dynasties and betrayal and death–all of the best parts of a historical novel combined. The intricate knowledge of the family tree and relationships, as well as languages and the settings and outcomes of Roman campaigns, is also suggestive of extensive research on the subject.
Robert Graves has a superb command of voice, creating this unique character, who we understand little to begin, and who with every passing chapter becomes more real and dearer to the reader. It’s a great example of what a writer who allows his character to have a voice and to tell the story in their own way.
I, Claudius is an excellent example of literary fiction done in the correct way–unique voice, distanced from today’s speech, and well-researched. Highly recommended for people who enjoy historic fact with their fiction, and a generally excellent read.