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Monday, May 27, 2013


Opening Line: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of this series can be found here

It was love at first sight.

Sometimes, first sentences do not contain much of a clue.

Catch-22 is one of the most famous war novels of all time, a work of satire so precise and burning that its very title achieved the status of a cultural landmark, a phrase we didn't know we needed until we heard it. A 'catch-22' is often defined as a no-win situation, but it's more than that: a situation that rests on impenetrably circular logic, impervious madness. Who is and isn't 'crazy' is the opening theme of the book: this is a story of American war pilots being required to fly more and more missions, dying one by one, or, if they survive, returning to a world governed by petty military authority and expected, somehow, to see their situation as normal.

Yossarian, our hero, doesn't care about the rights and wrongs of the war: his character is a hymn to unashamed cowardice - or rather, to the basic animal desire to live that overwhelms all other principles when it's threatened this directly. It's easy to be brave with other people's lives, as Yossarian's commanders so fatally are, but when it looks like you might die tomorrow - and die painfully, fearfully, violently - other considerations start to look trivial. 'It was a vile and muddy war,' the narrative remarks early, 'and Yossarian could have lived without it - lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them ... History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.' Although that last sentence isn't strictly true: Yossarian isn't willing to be the victim of anything. It's just one among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of verbal twists, the arch shamelessness that becomes the only defence when the flat reality is that you are living under circumstances in which the most basic instinct of any living creature is forbidden, and indeed considered morally wrong: you are not allowed to protect your own life, and wanting to protect it is frowned upon. In Heller's dark vision, soldiers - Yossarian is technically a pilot, but Catch-22's satire isn't confined to the air force, so I'm using the word generically to mean 'members of the military' - are not allowed to think and feel like human beings.

A 'catch-22', then, is not just a paradoxical situation, but a state of complete insanity, or perhaps non-sanity: a state in which the most normal of all human impulses is cast as abnormal. As Anthony Burgess remarks in his introduction: 'The other day I was writing about the situation of nineteenth-century philologists. They could not teach their subject in universities without possessing a degree in it, but degrees in it would never exist until they taught the subject in universities. This, rightly I think, I designated a Catch-22 situation. But it is a genuinely deadly matter in its text of origin.' As the phrase has come loose from its book and is often - not illegitimately - used to describe the more ordinary frustrations of life, it's worth hearing the original definition to help us be clear exactly what kind of a book we're in before we look at the first sentence in depth. The quote will be long, because the complexities both of logic and tone can't really be covered in a few sentences - a point I'll return to when talking about the first sentence. Yossarian is talking to the military doctor, asking to be 'grounded' - that is, excused from flying any more missions:

'Can't you ground someone who's crazy?' 
'Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.' 
'Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.' 
'Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.' 
'Then ask any of the others. They'l tell you how crazy I am.' 
'They're crazy.' 
'Then why don't you ground them?' 
'Why don't they ask me to ground them?' 
'Because they're crazy, that's why.' 
'Of course they're crazy,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?' 
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. 'Is Orr crazy?' 
'He sure is,' Doc Daneeka replied. 
'Can you ground him?' 
'I sure can. But first he has to ask me. That's part of the rule.' 
'Then why doesn't he ask you to?' 
'Because he's crazy,' Doc Daneeka said. 'He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But he has to ask me to.' 
'That's all he has to do to be grounded?' 
'That's all. Let him ask me.' 
'And then you can ground him?' Yossarian asked. 
'No. Then I can't ground him.' 
'You mean there's a catch?' 
'Sure there's a catch,' Doc Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.' 
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. 
'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' he observed. 
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed. 
Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art...

And it goes on, Yossarian's narrative drifting straight into another conversation with another equally circular thinker, getting maddened by their lack of reason and then drifting straight on to yet another comrade, who he tries to confuse by telling him the same thing, passing on the abuse because if he can't be sane, neither can anyone else - or else, perhaps to test reality and see if any new witnesses can make sense of it. Reality is like a sore tooth in Catch-22, constantly poked at and explored and never yielding any relief.

As I said, it's a long extract to quote, but while 'Catch-22' itself is simple and precise, the tone of the book is not so straightforward. Savage, frustrated humour animates it throughout, but the savagery is expressed in dialogue: you need two players for it to work. Once the catch has been explained to Yossarian he can reflect on it privately, and there, Heller shows a lyrical hand, relaxing from endless contradictions into the eloquence of 'spinning reasonableness' and 'graceful and shocking'. But here's the thing: I could have just quoted the paragraph that explains 'Catch-22' without any dialogue: 'There was only one catch and that was Catch-22...' But if I'd done that on its own, it would have been a little hard to follow, wouldn't it? Packed tight on the page, expressed in logical detail, it becomes like a mathematical equation: Heller has to explain it three times to make it perfectly clear. Following the dialogue between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka, though, is altogether easier. It's not just that we learn from watching someone else be taught: it's that the nature of 'Catch-22' is that it's an answer - an answer to a specific question, and that answer is 'no'. Can a soldier protect himself? No. Under this circumstance? No. Under that circumstance? No. Under any circumstance? No. Put in that way, it's very simple: the logic may be twisted, but the situation it creates is always the same: you have to die. And that being the answer, dialogue is the cleanest way to present it, because it is, as well as an assault on logic, an assault on Yossarian's actual physical safety: what we see in the dialogue is a man repeatedly running into a wall, and it's only by watching him crash and crash that we can witness not only the craziness but the aggression of 'Catch-22', its heartlessness in the face of genuine human fear.

Which is why, when we turn to the first sentence, it seems uncharacteristic of the book. Catch-22 is a book of paradoxes, and a paradox needs two sides. You can write a single-sentence paradox if you choose, but Heller's style favours the call-and-response, the ask and the rebuff, and for that, you need more than one sentence. No single sentence - or at least, no sentence arresting enough to start a book - could contain it.

So, we have 'It was love at first sight.' Not romantic love; this is a heterosexual male world in which women are primarily prostitutes on the sidelines and falling in love with a woman is just one more minor variation on the craziness that afflicts every single character in the book. No, the second sentence informs us - already setting up the one-two-punch rhythm of Catch-22 - it's something else: 'The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.' This is an intellectual love, the same love that Yossarian feels at the contradictions and the opportunities for mayhem that provide the only kind of relief from the ever-present threat of death: the chaplain is a well-meaning innocent, utterly out of his depth in this terrible world, and Yossarian takes a great liking to him precisely because he's so easily confused and embarrassed. In a world where most military figures - or at least, those who don't actually have to go into combat themselves - feel no shame at telling a man he has no right to live, that is quite a find: the capacity to get embarrassed depends on feeling the humanity of other people, and the capacity to get confused depends on the belief that things ought to make sense. Empathy and logic are in desperately short supply, enough to make a man feel 'love' - comical love, to be sure, rhetorically exaggerated love, but a genuine positive emotion - at the very sight of a man who still possesses them.

There's something, too, in the immediacy of the sentence that fits with the texture of Catch-22: military logic runs round an unending track and you can't argue your way into or out of it. Reality, genuine truth, is perceived instinctually and by flashes: Yossarian ends the book with a sudden decision to desert based on a realisation about a friend having done the same, a realisation that actually, yes, escape is possible: 'Yossarian leaped out of bed with an incredulous yelp when he finally understood.' It's so instantaneous an understanding that he literally jumps to his feet. Orr, the apparent idiot, has slipped through the cracks and shown up safe in Sweden, and Yossarian realises with a thrill that his idiocy must have been a mask, a pretence to allay suspicion, under the protection of which he could run for his life. Very little makes sense in the world of Catch-22, and you can't understand it by thinking: the whole nature of 'Catch-22' is that it subverts thought. All you can see for sure, you see in 'first sight' revelations. The chaplain is a decent man. Don't argue; run. I don't want to die.

That, really, is why the first sentence isn't much of a clue to most of the book. It's a flash of insight, and we have to be familiar with the background mania before those flashes become illuminating. The chaplain is going to be a friend, an ally who supports Yossarian's right to run in the final chapter: he's too normal for this story. We don't really see all that much of him for most of the book. Why do we begin with him? Because he's one of the few people who can be contained in a simple, isolated, declarative sentence. Everybody else needs paradoxes to express them: the true rarity is a man you can just flat-out like.

At the same time, this first sentence phrase about him is a cliche, and cliches are important to Catch-22. As a culture, it's through cliche that we express conventional wisdom, societal norms. And what greater societal norm than this one: it's a good thing for a soldier to lay down his life for his country? The word 'subvert' is often over-used in literary discussions, but for Catch-22 that really is the appropriate term: cliches are part of its vocabulary precisely because it's only by subverting them that the narrative can rebel against the conventional wisdom, backed up by armed authority, that destroys the characters in the story. Casualties are victims of circumstance. What's good for business is good for the country. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. When there's a war behind them, these are conventions that kill. Catch-22 doesn't argue with them. It uses them, flips and spins them, recites them with manic enthusiasm until it drives everyone sane.

So with 'love at first sight': divorce the sentence from its context, and this could be the opening of a piece of terrible romantic hack-work. It's not the phrase itself, but how it's used, that actually matters, and to understand it - to find the clue it's hiding - we have to read further, go further in and further down.

The first sentence is ironic but direct and truer than it seems, and what it gives us is one of the rare moments of seeing clearly: love of life, love of decency, inexpressible in plain, sane speech. Because here's the other thing about Catch-22, the less famous but absolutely important thing: slipped between the looping layers of madness are moments of pure, graphic horror. 'Catch-22' is a thing of intellectual beauty, a kind of polished, heedless madness ... but then there's the death of Snowden. The narrative flicks back and back to it, mentioning the death as early as the fourth chapter and gradually unpeeling more and more from the memory, like a kind of ever-worsening flashback, until we finally see the scene: Snowden, wounded terribly in the leg; Yossarian relieved that it's no worse than a case of exposed muscles twitching like 'live hamburger meat', then seeing that Snowden is wounded in the stomach and watching him die as his shattered insides all slide out. The language is sickening: 'was that a tube of slimy bone he saw running deep inside the gory scarlet flowed behind the twitching, startling fibers of weird muscle?' Yossarian wonders wildly, only to see Snowden's body fall apart and conclude that, 'It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.'

This is not what we were prepared for by the barracks shenanigans and gallows humour of the opening chapters. Many people start Catch-22 and drift off early, in fact, because something happens to it around halfway through: having dropped us into a group of maddening people, wisecracking pilots all brandishing their craziness like a badge of belonging and terrible officers with parodic names like 'Lieutenant Scheisskopf' (that's 'Lieutenant Shithead', for those who don't speak German), we begin as the new kid on the base, rather dizzied with all these strange new people who seem so much more savvy than us. Incident follows incident out of chronological sequence with no clear storyline: everyone is going mad, missions have to be flown, more and more strange new faces pop up, each chapter title the name of a character until we start to wonder if we'll ever stop getting introduced to new people, new variants on the theme of craziness, or if this relentless jumping back and forth in time will ever start to make sense. But Catch-22 is cumulative. It drives us crazy ... until we start to get enough pieces to assemble into some kind of sanity, and about halfway through, we pass some kind of tipping point, and you freeze to the page. Incidents that get replayed and replayed start to become more real with each iteration: we start to see just how serious, under the joking, the situation really is. The silly number-juggling of capitalism that begins with an earnest mess officer becomes 'M & M Enterprises', the company that bombs its own side for profit and robs people until Yossarian has to care for the dying Snowden with no morphine because there's nothing in the case but a note reading 'What's good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country.' The missions rise and rise to the point where mention of them is less a laugh than a sob: after a particularly grisly and awful death scene, for example, one chapter ends with the deadpan statement, 'Colonel Cathcart was so upset by the deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt that he raised the missions to sixty-five.' People we've gotten to know and like, to enjoy as comic characters with their own quirky variants on the general policy of insanity, get killed, suddenly, brutally, vividly before our eyes. Yossarian may be burned out when we start the book, but we aren't. It just takes us a while to catch up to him.

So it is with the first sentence, 'It was love at first sight.' It's a joke, really, harmless-sounding, a little silly: a man sees a chaplain and finds him so sweetly raw that it's described as falling in love. It's a cliche, amusingly misapplied. It's nothing serious.

Then we see men torn apart and their blood sprays across the page, and we forget that we ever knew how to laugh.

We begin ignorant, and have to learn a new language, catch the rhythms of craziness; we have to learn who's who. But just when we're finding our feet, we are knocked off them again. We begin with the mental horror, and then, mercilessly, we are hurled up against the physical. Catch-22 is, fundamentally, not funny ... but it takes us a long time to learn that secret.

Monday, May 13, 2013


First sentences: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of this series can be found here

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as 'Claudius the Idiot', or 'That Claudius', or 'Claudius the Stammerer', or 'Clau-Clau-Claudius', or at best as 'Poor Uncle Claudius' [a marginal note here adds the date 'A.D. 41'], am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the 'golden predicament' from which I have never since become disentangled. 

The publication of I, Claudius in 1934 was a bright moment for educated readers. It was shamelessly scandalous yet historically erudite. It was full of sex, violence and that great third member of the pulp triumvirate, scheming, yet it was written by a poet - and a First World War poet at that, one of those blood-and-gas anointed individuals who assumed the power to speak for a nation: an almost Sybilline figure himself, taking on the spirit of another era. It was a book you could read and tell yourself you were getting an education about history - and you wouldn't be entirely wrong, for Graves stayed close to the primary sources as far as possible and only employed artistic license in the areas where no records could contradict him - yet it was, and I use the words advisedly, bloody good fun. Nor has history forgotten it: the 1998 '100 Best Novels List' by Modern Library features it in the impressively high Number 14 slot, for instance, just under George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four and above Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which is some pretty august company. And yes, that's the list where they also had a readers-choice list alongside a critics' one and the Ayn Rand fans and Scientologists evidently heard about it in advance, swamping the top slots with votes for the their beloved Rand and Hubbard in a move that makes the list seem far more like a PR coup than a broad vox populi, and the sci-fi fans were evidently active voters as well given the prominence of Tolkien and Heinlein ... and yet I, Claudius is there in the readers'-choice list as well, merely bumped down to Number 74 between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Call of the Wild. In 2005 Claudius popped up again in a hundred-best list for Time magazine, compiled by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo in what they called, half-humorously, a 'massive, anguished, exalted undertaking'. And that's just the book; a whole generation still remembers the Emmy-and-BAFTA-scooping TV series with enthusiasm, and that adaptation hasn't lost its influence even for younger viewers who haven't actually seen it. Without I, Claudius it's unlikely we would have had Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier plotting at each other in Spartacus (1960), and without Spartacus, there's a good chance we wouldn't have the Oscar-nominated Gladiator in 2000, for instance, never mind the BBC-HBO collaboration Rome from 2005 to 2007: the BBC and HBO working together on anything is enough to make a television lover sit up, and in terms of pitch, Rome is essentially I, Claudius in the pre-Augustan era, only with a bigger budget, crisper editing and the shagging happening on-screen rather than off. Take away Graves's book, and lovers of fictional antiquity would have to content themselves with the solemnities of Ben-HurI, Claudius is a cultural force to be reckoned with.

If I'm going to be honest and admit to a personal opinion, I'll have to begin by owning that I suspect its prominence all over the place is as much because it hits a sweet spot as for any more exalted reason: the highbrow can enjoy its grimy thrills without guilt because of the erudition, the lowbrow can enjoy its erudition without resentment because of its hearty dedication to sex, scheming and stabbing. It combines the popular tale of the underdog triumphant with the attractions of dirty work in high places, allowing us to enjoy the inside scoop on a privileged world while going, with its portrait of stammering, halting, patronised Claudius, straight to the heart of anyone who's ever felt uncomfortable in their skin, unappreciated by their family or smarter than the world is prepared to acknowledge - which covers, we should probably concede, just about everyone who ever picked up a book or switched on a television. The very act of reading so scholarly a book makes us, for the duration, Claudius figures ourselves, historians who are, like him, hiding from the monsters that stalk through his pages, him behind a mask of idiocy and us screened by the mask of time - though we also know that, like us, Claudius will live through these adventures, at least for a while, because the very first sentence makes it clear that he lived to tell the tale. At least for the duration of the book, we are hearing the direct voice of a man who has, like us, lived after the events he describes, and who is, like us, after the plain, unedifying truth.

For Claudius's voice speaks out from the first line, and it's a voice at once impressively authoritative and reassuringly cynical. What is more appealing than an aristocrat speaking to us with frankness? 'I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles', Claudius remarks, shrugging at the weighty pomp of his own name: this is a speaker with no side, we are told. We may be modern, members of a lesser era, and ordinary people rather than aristocrats besides, but Claudius has the positive consideration not to 'trouble' us with too much information at once. It's extremely flattering.

But at the same time, Claudius demonstrably does have something to put on side about: for anyone with even a small grasp of Roman history, his names are redolent with legend: Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, all fall with titanic force on the attention among the now-less-famous Drusus and Germanicus, and even then, Claudius carelessly informs us, there are other names he could still add if he chose. He may speak to us as to intellectual equals, but he also handles his grand name with the casual unconcern of one to the manner born, like a marquis putting up his feet on a Chippendale stool. The names are tossed out with little admiration for their lineage, even though the lineage is obviously there, for Claudius is in the unusual position of a man for whom family is history, both private and public, intimate and impersonal at the same time. In that light, it's an interesting foreshadowing that it's after 'Germanicus' that Claudius loses patience, for his relationship with his beloved older brother Germanicus is a central point to his character. Regarded as a deformed 'marmoset' by his aristocratic parents, it's primarily Germanicus's love that makes him care anything about his family at all. The historical Germanicus was a popular general in Roman times, though also a controversial one, who died relatively young and presumed murdered, and thought by some to be setting himself up as a rival to Tiberius after Augustus's death. Taking a dramatic line, Graves casts him as a relative innocent: a strong, talented boy, the perfect Roman son, but also a kindly and generous soul who protects and encourages his limping little brother: a person who somehow combines the qualities of being both admirable on Rome's ruthless terms and likeable on his own, and as such, in Claudius's view, is never going to survive this awful world. There's a rather wonderful touch early on, for instance, where an unexpected omen takes place as some eagles, fighting above the heads of the Claudian children, drop down feathers, spots of blood and a wolf cub on them, showing their various destinies. Claudius catches the wolf cub, auguring his future role as emperor, but being a child is less than interested in such matters and remarks that while the adults calculate the significance, 'dear Germanicus had found another tail-feather for me, sticking in a hawthorne bush, and I was putting it proudly in my hair,' a neat little example of I, Claudius's ability to combine the human and the historical in an engaging read. Claudius stops his name - or rather, his great list of family names, as none of his names are chosen for their individuality as 'Robert' or 'Kit' would be nowadays, but are rather a dynastic accumulation slapped onto the Roman aristocrat like a list of ingredients - because once he's passed his family link to Germanicus, he no longer feels any connection and ceases to care. A name that belonged to his beloved older brother has meaning to him; other names given to him because other relations had them before him are just pointless honorifics. Most of his family is a burden to him.

The list, then, is a character note, and already the beginnings of a complex character. Claudius may be impatient with his lineage, but at the same time it's an interesting little play on the novel's title: he does not actually introduce himself as 'I, Claudius', but as 'I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus....': there's the formidable 'Tiberius', a name that calls to mind both the infamous emperor and the mighty Roman River Tiber from which the name derives, before we ever get to 'Claudius'. He speaks to us directly, it would seem, but there's a bit of dynasty between us and the name that the book's title has primed us to expect. Rome's world is not ours, and after the approachable-seeming title, we get a swift introduction to its alien character: before we get to the brusque dismissal of his full name, we are slowed on the lengthy list that turns out to be so much more than we'd been expecting. It throws us off our guard a little, reminds us that we are culturally out of our depth and need the clever Claudius to keep us afloat. Claudius is writing the 'strange history of my life', and is addressing a generic and unknown future, an 'extremely remote posterity': his voice may seem direct to us, but at the same time it is, for all its frank tone, still a voice superior to us in both rank and knowledge - and knowledge of two kinds, of formal education (unless we're Classics professors, and even then, Claudius has presumably studied texts that are lost to the modern reader), and also knowledge of backstairs gossip, knowledge both high and low. The style throughout is pedantic as well as swift: 'starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change' extends no trust us having the good sense to realise that yes, a 'history of my life' probably does mean telling it in chronological order. It's also a scholarly way of writing, following the structure of a Classical annalistic history - Tacitus does the same, for example - which adds to the conceit: we're not supposed to be holding a novel in our hands, but a piece of serious history. Middle-aged Claudius is speaking with authority, and his dismissal of lengthy titles is not the friendly informality of an equal but the crusty impatience of a teacher. We are commanded to sit at our desks before we know where we are, and this makes it very hard not to accept I, Claudius as an authoritative text.

Is it? According to my friend Dr Liz Gloyn, who at the time of writing is teaching Classics at the University of Birmingham, it's a book that relies heavily on primary sources, particularly Tacitus and Suetonius, but that we should probably remember that 'primary' is a dubious description in the context. To begin with, both were writing a full generation after the events they describe: while the exact dates of their births aren't known, by the best estimates Tacitus was born two years after Claudius's death in 54 CE and Suetonius fifteen years after. More importantly, there's no such thing as an impartial historian and both were writing after the collapse of the Julian line: Tacitus had a dark view of the effect of power on virtue and Suetonius loved nothing more than a bit of juicy gossip. Graves's approach is to take the primary sources more or less on face value and extrapolate from there, rather than to challenge how reliable they are. It's an interesting device, and one that perhaps best suits his conceit of pretending that an actual emperor wrote this story: if Claudius basically agrees with Suetonius and Tacitus, then each of them lends the other verisimilitude, making history seem graspable rather than a confused welter of arguing voices. It may also be that he just enjoyed those writers - there's no reason why he wouldn't - and fancied writing a book in their vein. The historical Claudius did write history (he was very learned on the Etruscans, according to Liz), and while there are certainly interpretations that argue he wasn't anywhere near as nice as he seems in Graves, placing him in agreement with his near-contemporaries suits the tone of the novel, which maintains its Classical aspect throughout. This isn't revisionist history, but spiced-up traditional history, going straight for what looks like the most fun.

Note, for instance, the way that the very first paragraph includes one of the marginal dates, as if we were reading a real history. It's a form of notation not uncommon to works of scholarship, making it look all the more authentic, as if what we held in our hands was not a novel but a pleasing new translation of a real Classical text. It's the contrast with this scholarly set-up that makes Claudius's voice so arresting: he begins with the convocation of historical names and then breaks off all of a sudden into the colloquial 'This-that-and-the-other', as if a work of history suddenly winked at us. The format of dry scholarship combined with a speaker who shares our impatience for long recitations is hard to resist.

Yet Claudius is not entirely colloquial. He has the air of an educated Roman - a 'practised style', as he confidently asserts, defending against suppositions that the book was written for him - and one thing even a smattering of Latin will teach you (and a smattering is certainly all I have to my credit) is that Roman rhetoric tends to weigh heavy on the page. The ability to make grand and forceful speeches was an essential Roman attribute and they took public speaking nearly as seriously as military training, and more than that, Latin tends not to translate smoothly. English is a mostly analytic language, by which we mean that it tends to make grammar out of adding lots of little words to a sentence. If you want to change the grammatical context of the word 'table', for example, then you say that this is the leg of the table, or that I propped open the door with the table, or that I walked to the table. Latin, on the other hand, is a synthetic language, meaning that it tends to change the main words rather than moving prepositions around them: 'mensa' means 'table', but you would talk about the leg mensae, the genitive case, or propped the door mensa, the ablative, or I walked mensam, the accusative. To say it in English - here's the leg tablae, I propped the door with table, I walked tableam - is nonsensical, but you can see, too, how it's also a lot more concise. Especially when you consider further that personal pronouns, too, can often be left out in Latin: verbs have different suffixes depending on who's doing it, as in the common schoolroom example 'amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant', which English can only render as, 'I love, you love, he loves, we love, they love, he, she or it loves.' With such clear distinctions, Latin doesn't usually need to mention who's being spoken of at all and doesn't use articles like 'the', hence our examples could be even more cut down: here's leg tablae, proppedo door open table, walkedo tableam.

When you can be that efficient - when the cases are fixed so the words can come in any order without changing the meaning, and length is hardly an issue - you can afford to pack a lot more content into a sentence. What looks sleek in Latin translates wordily into English because we have to add so much to make the meaning clear, and Graves is well aware of this. This is a long opening line. Check out the way it finishes: '...the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the 'golden predicament' from which I have never since become disentangled.' There are small subclauses tucked in with tidy precision, as if written in a language that would never confuse its listeners as to which words linked to which others in a sentence. Too, note the grammatical drag of 'from which I have never since become': a mind familiar with Latin translations instinctively reads this as the thorny rendering of some simple Latin phrase (put 'become disentangled' in the first person and the appropriate tense and all you probably need is the word 'numquam', meaning never, to have the whole sense of it). Graves knows his Latin, both its rhetorical habits and its grammatical incompatibilities with English, and pulls off the unusual feat of writing a sentence that manages to be at once readable and comprehensible and yet still to feel like a translation from an alien tongue.

And yet, however foreign the language strikes on the ear, the tone is entirely modern. Robert Graves was a veteran, and war made him a cynic, remarking that it eventually 'seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.' To a man who fought in the trenches, noble sentiments about fine ancestry were not merely wrong-headed but murderously so, and what, for a man of his time and class, was more ancestral, more nobly sentimental, than reverence for the Roman Empire? Including, fatally, the Roman Empire's notions of patriotism and martial glory created in a time when warfare was a matter of swords, not machine guns and mustard gas? 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' - that is, it is sweet and dignified to die for one's fatherland -was a phrase hated by more than one war poet - hated enough that Wilfred Owen actually used it as the title of one of his most famous and brutal poems:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Britain modelled itself on the ancient world, based its education on it, aspired to it; the very fact that we refer to the Greek and Roman authors as 'the Classics' tells us where their culture stands in relation to our own. And once the British Empire sent its sons into the trenches, some of its sons started gunning for Rome. There is a real grievance here behind the pulpy fun and the academic play: Graves's noble Romans are a pack of scheming murderers and enthroned lunatics, and anyone who aspires to be like them is just plain ignorant, duped by the rhetoric and blind to the truth, and probably going to die a violent death.

I, Claudius is an infuriated book - but rather than Owen's beautifully-described injuries, his poetic screams of horror, Graves chooses in I, Claudius to satirise, because only in scepticism - in undignified, clear-eyed dishonour - lies any chance of survival. Claudius makes it through Caligula's mad reign not by noble resistance but by flattering obedience and determined clowning, showing himself too amusing to be worth killing and too silly to be worth the trouble. Dignity gets you killed: you live by understanding the ridiculous and accepting it. The story is, among other things, a prolonged mockery of Classical piety, and from the first sentence it drives through with a brisk bathos: Claudius the Emperor and Claudius the Idiot are the same man, and let's never forget it. The position of emperor is inherently idiotic, as far as Claudius is concerned - he's hauled aloft to kingship protesting 'Put me down! I don't want to be Emperor. I refuse to be Emperor. Long live the Republic!' and resigning himself with the thought, 'What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now.' It's a 'golden predicament', as we know right from the beginning, that delicate word 'predicament' sounding neither disastrous nor soluble but rather comically understated, as if Empire were a dog on your lap you feared to offend your hostess by dislodging. And if Empire is a silly little lapdog dandled by an irritable geek, what man of sense will die for it? Claudius is relentlessly donnish, an impatient bookworm of a man so small in relation to his historical position that reverence for history starts to seem ridiculous. Claudius himself finds it so, and is well aware that there's something ridiculous about him: in the shifting contradictions of his authority and fallibility, all that stays consistent is an angry sense of the absurd. There is passion for truth here, even as it embroiders and imagines history; Graves is the poet who wrote of the butterfly's 'honest idiocy of flight',  and it's a phrase that seems to sum up the mood of the novel. One must be honest that idiocy exists, one must be honest about one's own idiocy, and yet, scholarship and imagination pour themselves into a long, intense read. The truth, as Graves locates it, is in cynicism, for only in cynicism can we resist propaganda.

Early in the story, the young Claudius encounters famous Roman historians in the middle of a debate about whether it's right to make 'the people of Ancient Rome behave and talk as if they were alive now' when writing them up as history. Claudius finds himself siding more with Pollio, who is against this view, than Livy, who prefers 'finer, more poetical feelings' to influence the tale. Of course, this is sheer sleight of hand on Graves's part, as Graves's readable fictionalisation is far more Livy than Pollio: while phrases like 'this-that-and-the-other' and the careful parsings of grammar aren't exactly how people talk now, certainly the characters act like people act now, or if anything, they act worse. Yet there's a sense that the book is pushing its own vision of truth - 'though it may not be true in factual detail, yet it is true in spirit,' as Livy defends himself ... except it's not 'finer' truth: it's grimmer truth, nastier truth, less inspirational truth. 'There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth,' young Claudius speculates, and it's the latter that this - fictional, untrue, but by-gosh persuasive - Claudius proposes to do.

And even as he starts, he acknowledges, yet twists, the saving grace of such histories: the simple fact of different perspectives. Claudius has his fine family names; he has the insulting epithets of 'Idiot' and 'Stammerer'; he has the forgiving compromise of 'Poor Uncle': different people, in other words, see things differently, even down to their different views of the man telling the tale. We're tempted with the promise of an inside view into his 'strange history', but so personal is Claudius's tone, for all its formality and its 'translated' quality, that we feel we're not so much hearing a sole explanation as one part of an argument. Others have written on the subject, and like any academic, Claudius has raised his pen to fence with them: that's what academics do. He's a darn convincing academic, though: while those voices are acknowledged to have their own opinions, they are also, by the point of writing, disproven. Nobody is calling him 'Clau-Clau-Claudius' any more: those times are past and Claudius, by deploying his cleverness in his life as well as his writings, has outlasted them all. Claudius occupies, at least within the lines he draws in this sentence, the position that all academics most yearn to reach at the end of a debate: that of last man standing. Those people who interpreted him wrong didn't make it to the end of the debate - and in fact, they've mostly been killed.

That, ultimately, is the explanation for the mixture of scholarly pedantry and impatient shortcuts, bluntness and formality, personal and public, Livyan and Pollian that animates this long, crisp sentence. Graves had a point to make about nature and culture, and this is his hero, Claudius: intellectual observer of an era where cunning is the only law and forming an opinion is a blood sport. The Roman Empire is a terrifying place and a farcical one, and dulce et decorum citizens of it are killed very quickly. From behind the safety of these pages, we may laugh, we may thrill to the drama, we may doff our caps at the scholarship - but we feel no desire to die for the fatherland. For all its aristocratic backstairs gossip, I, Claudius is an anti-authoritarian work. We may study the Romans with interest, it implies, but only a fool would lay down his life to be like them.


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