Conspirata by Robert Harris

In Conspirata Robert Harris has again written a novel of classical Rome that is rich with characters, atmosphere, historical detail, and plot. The book focuses on Cicero’s attempts to preserve the authority of the Roman Senate, and the Republic, against Caesar’s dictatorial machinations that flexibly reached both certain patrician quarters and vast tracts of the disenfranchised (but traditionally protected) popular classes, or plebes.

The major figures here are Cicero, Pompey the Great, Crassus, Cicero’s secretary Tiro, his wife Terentia, Cataline (here called Catalina), and many others, including the amoral Clodius and his sister Clodia.

Cicero is an unlikely hero in many ways, astute and yet shaky politically, not a soldier in a martial culture, and given to anxiety and unattractive dealmaking. But this makes him all the more interesting. He detects Cataline’s plot to storm and dismantle Rome and thwarts it, but this goes too much to his head, so he isn’t quick or flexible enough to outwit the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and by the end of this book, he is heading into exile (though history tells us he came back, perhaps as influential as ever.)

The novel is fast-paced and well-informed without being too technical and overly detailed. Harris does an excellent job in fleshing out characters like Crassus, Cato (the very younger), Caesar, and a raft of miscreants and plotters.

My passage through translating Cicero’s great speeches from Latin into English fifty years ago did seem to me more vivid than what I encounter here, but I’m not sure there’s much a modern author can do about this. A single Ciceronian sentence can go on for ten or fifteen lines of text. That doesn’t make for good novelizing. But at the same time, Cicero would pack so much into his long sentences that finding an end to them brought a fantastic sense of relief and understanding. He possessed a rhetorical mind equal to any. Think of Churchill because Churchill thought of Cicero; think of many another great Western orator, because they, too, thought of Cicero.

One aspect of life in Cicero’s Rome that comes through Conspirata with disturbing clarity is how dangerous and fickle it was. Cicero defended governance by the upper class, not a popular stance today, but one can see how tense and ready to burst Rome was as its wealth and decadence grew. Pompey the Great brought fantastic riches to an empire that still thought of itself as a kind of city. Caesar capitalized on the instability this wealth engendered. Then he was killed. Finally, Augustus established order, but the beloved Roman Republic was dead.

One of Cicero’s greatest legacies was bringing Greek philosophy into the Latin language and amplifying Latin to accommodate it. He was, as Harris portrays him, a thoughtful man of public affairs. Today we can look around and find few public leaders with a broad intellectual horizon. Though he does not flaunt it, Obama has such an horizon. Churchill had it and so did Woodrow Wilson. Sometimes this is a weakness, perhaps more often than not, but it’s a fascinating characteristic and introduces a kind of melancholy into learned leadership. Such figures know the outer limits of what philosophers can dream, and they know the limits of what politicians can accomplish. All too often the ultimate agent of change is war, and no one who is widely read can be an enthusiast of violence rather than reason.

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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which are perhaps best read in the Modern Library translation by Gregory Hays, are a sequence of thoughts, or self-talk, Rome’s best known philosopher emperor did not mean as a book. The most extraordinary thing that can be said about them, and this should be said quickly, is that what Marcus Aurelius thought in his maturity (165-175 A.D.) prefigures some of the best thinking current today. His version of Stoicism in many ways is virtually identical to what goes by the name of cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, the Meditations are representative of the best of many traditions, East and West. Their core concern is right thinking, stripping away illusions and misconceptions, identifying reason with the wisdom of nature, and using the fact of constant flux, whereby life implies death and vice versa, as an antidote to anxiety and depression.
Because this is a short work, its repetitiveness is tolerable. But it evidently is repetitive because the emperor needed to jot these insights down over and over again to make them stick not only in his mind but in his life.
One of the shallowest formulas one has heard in recent decades goes something like, “Perception is everything.” I heard a lecture earlier this week to which I objected because part of its thesis was that Ronald Reagan was a “great” president because he “performed the presidency” brilliantly. This is the mental masturbation of the twentieth century’s marketing mentality and feeds right into the primacy of money, associating value with transient grandeur, showiness, and the divinity of things in general–the more you have, the more godly you are.
Perception is critical to Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, in an entirely different sense. For him the key is to perceive the truth of things, their littleness (his own included) in the scheme of eternity, and as a consequence to attain peace of mind, not be troubled by gossip, jealousy, the fact that ultimately Alexander the Great, Augustus, and everyone else will die and be transmuted by nature into something else.
Here we see the connection to cognitive behavioral therapy, which emphasizes using reason to dissect troubling distortions in one’s thinking, imagining one has failed, or is disliked, or always comes up short, or is bound to fall short when, in fact, each of these distortions can be shown to be unreasonable.
The existential element in Marcus Aurelius’s approach is clear and explicit: if you have in fact fallen short to this point, take a different path from here on; don’t permit yourself to dwell on the irrecoverable past since it can’t be changed; let it go; face the fact that everyone fails without generalizing that into total self-condemnation.
But at the same time, realize that your desires, your lusts, your anger, your obsessions will not alter the fact that your time as a human being is limited. So don’t get too down on yourself, but don’t get too full of yourself . . . again, even if you are an emperor.
There is no doubt that Marcus Aurelius remains one of the more unique ruler/leaders in history. I can’t think of a comparable political figure, so penetrating and severe with himself, so learned, and so articulate. The Meditations remind me in many ways of Tolstoy’s notebooks for eloquence, self-criticism, and erudition. The difference of course is that initially Tolstoy lived the life of a famous literary figure; then he became a religious leader. But Tolstoy never had to bear the responsibility of governance. He was more free to think as his spirit moved him. Marcus Aurelius had to steal moments from his public existence to anchor himself in these private reflections. That’s not easy for anyone to do. As Kissinger said once, you assume office and from that point forward you draw on what you learned beforehand; it isn’t possible to develop new insights and act at the same time. The profundity of the Meditations suggests that Marcus Aurelius was an exception to this rule, always striving for new formulations of eternal truths in order to perform his official functions justly and effectively.

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I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Robert Graves published his novel, I, Claudius, in 1934. Seventy years later it remains a distinctive book, rich with erudition about the Rome of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, and somewhat contrarian in that it “tells” more than it “shows.” Some critics and publishers consider this a no-no, but it works. Claudius, who succeeded Caligula, was an historian, and so his account of Rome at its peak and Rome at a nadir, is a history, not a drama.
And yet there is plenty of drama here, buttressed by Claudius’s sharp wit, knack for moving the tale along, and ability to make characters real. After you read it, you’ll feel you know Augustus for his cautious, equivocations, Livia, his wife, for her cunning and ruthlessness, Tiberius for his balky, perverse arrogance, and Caligula, possibly the best portrait in the gallery although it’s the shortest, for his vicious madness.
With rulers like these, all of them carelessly bloodthirsty and self-interested, it’s a wonder that Rome retains even today a certain luster. Its empire was extensive, to be sure, but the number of minor and unnamed figures thoughtlessly beheaded and tortured in I, Claudius might run into the thousands.
Claudius pauses at one point in the narrative to note that he is focusing on a small ruling class which isn’t representative of the millions who lived under Rome’s rule, but it was that capricious, violent ruling class that we think of, perversely, when we think of Augustus as the wisest of the Caesars and Livia, his consort, as the most able and insightful of the general nobility that, by marriage found its way into near divinity.
The reason Claudius can tell all these tales is twofold: First, Graves, his puppeteer, possessed exceptional knowledge of the ancient world. He knew Rome’s customs, its landscape, its families, and its wars in Germany, France, the Balkans, and North Africa. Second, Claudius the character in the novel is happy to cede the stage to relatives who are not cursed by lameness and stuttering from infancy on. This gives Claudius perspective, and when he surprisingly finds himself named emperor after Caligula is murdered, he has the trained eye of the library researcher to rely upon now that he possesses access to Rome’s most secret archives.
Rome’s decay actually began earlier than many might think. At one and the same time, Augustus was the steadiest of emperors and the beginning of the end. He wasn’t personally corrupted by power to the extent that Tiberius and Caligula were; it didn’t lodge itself in his sexual organs or take over his brain, but Livia did a lot of dirty work so that Augustus didn’t have to, and therein lies the problem: she was determined to see her son by a first marriage, Tiberius, succeed Augustus, and that was at best a mixed blessing. Tiberius himself knew it would be better for Rome to return to being a republic; he said as much; but he played along, ever more remote, ever more decadent.
In fact it was hundreds of years of institutional structure building that saw Rome through its imperial phase to the end. First and foremost, Rome had great military institutions. Second, it had mastered engineering and shipbuilding. Third, it had a corrupt but effective way of exacting taxes and grain from its imperial subordinates. Fourth, the Romans learned how to think and write from the Greeks, and this helped them develop a great literary tradition, including Virgil, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Livy and Tacitus. One might ask, “What’s so important about a literary tradition?” I suppose I would say that in the case of Rome it was essential to its sense of identity and it also was essential, from time to time, in generating self-criticism that was, to use a Latin-based word, salubrious.
Through Claudius, Graves gives us all this and relates how a fantastically complex society managed and abused itself. The shock to today’s reader is that the Romans can be seen as a template for terrorist organizations like ISIL. The challenge implicit in Graves’ novel is for us to recognize the dangers of responding to terror with terror and creating a governmental structure that rots from the top down out of fear that it will not be privy to every secret, every threat, every real or imagined assault on its secure grasp of power. The lands over which the West and ISIL, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others struggle are exactly the lands where Rome suffered some of its cruelest defeats and learned lessons in applying unbridled power that it would have been better off not learning.
But enough of the political comparisons. It’s a solid novel written with authority and wit. In a way it has to tell the tale it tells because the facts it presents are better than most fictions.

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Burr by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Burr is a first-rate account of one of the most controversial figures in American history. Burr was a Revolutionary War officer, a N.Y. state assemblyman and senator, and a vice president (under Thomas Jefferson). He famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel because Hamilton would not explain or apologize for a remark he made discrediting Burr’s honor. Later, he became entangled in a wild effort to somehow conquer Mexico, seizing it and other Spanish possessions (Texas, for instance), and ruling it, not necessarily annexing it to the U.S.
Aside from being a master novelist with a great sense of scene and pace, Vidal excelled in characterization. He wrote his various books about U.S. history with a purpose in mind. He wanted to present George Washington as a lucky dunderhead who never really won a battle but won the Revolutionary War and the presidency. He wanted to present Thomas Jefferson as a repellant, manipulative hypocrite. He wanted to offer up Alexander Hamilton as emblematic of a centralizing, almost monarchical view of the United States that found its finest expression in Abraham Lincoln’s refusal to allow the southern states to secede. By contrast, he presents Jefferson, accurately, as of the view that a state that joined the union could leave the union. Jefferson, the more democratically-oriented of the two, had little in common with Hamilton.
These are compelling portraits. They capture the contingencies of American history, the near-collapses, the manipulations, the limited rights of early Americans to vote. The problem I think Vidal had with how U.S. history developed was that the country became too powerful, too arrogant, too Washington-centric, and too imperialistic.
Burr is the most intriguing figure in the book named for him, although he challenges credulity in many respects. Time and again, he turns the other cheek, simply turns away, laughs off setbacks and chicanery, and generally is not disposed to take life too seriously, especially when he is broke and has to do almost anything to satisfy his creditors. This is appealing and vaguely comical even if the events in play were deadly serious. Again, I suppose one could say Vidal uses Burr to mock the U.S. and bring it down to size. There are no heroes here, Burr included, who do not have feet of clay.
William Styron once said that if you are going to write an historical novel, it may be best not to know too much history. In this case, I suspect Vidal knew plenty of U.S. history. His command of central relationships and events is firm. Burr may come across as a bit too whimsical, but he does not escape the mishaps of his biography.
The book is largely narrated by one Charles Schuyler, a law clerk under Burr who wants to become a journalist and is tempted to research Burr’s relationship with Martin Van Buren by higher-level journalists who want to stop Van Buren from reaching The White House. These editors suspect Van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son, and of course, any relationship to Burr would be poison for a presidential candidate. Schuyler has his own life, which comprises an interesting subplot, but he also displays the skill of enticing Burr to write many passages of memoir that are regularly inserted into the novel, carrying the action forward from Burr’s perspective and in his own words.
Burr frequently opines that the constitution won’t last. Others agree with him. He gives it fifty years or so, but ultimately secession movements in both New England and the south will tear it apart. Or it will be torn apart fighting over which of those two regions would gain control of the west. History proves this wrong, but again, Vidal enjoys toying with the counter-factual possibilities in a book written during the Vietnam War when America’s huge size, resources and power did it, and Vietnam, more harm than good.
The anti-hero Burr is a perfect focal point for revisionism. Was he wrong to kill Hamilton in a duel of honor? Did anything he attempted vis-a-vis Mexico justify being tried for treason against the United States? (He was acquitted, but the stain of the trial lingered.) Are we justified in thinking of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and other Founding Fathers as men of impeccable ethics, deep wisdom, great objectivity and so forth? Vidal reminds us, as a novelist can do so well, that these men were men, mortals, self-contradictory, magnificent in some ways, but in other ways not so splendid.
The novel’s ending, which is unexpected, crashes down fast but convincingly. It is something Vidal made up, pure fancy, but provocative. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say I liked it. From beginning to end, this is a novel preoccupied with the earthiness of history. Its research is done well; its perspectives may drive some readers crazy (politically, I mean); but its strength of narrative and characterization keep you turning the pages with interest.

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The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone

The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone represents one of the most extraordinary late career transitions I know of. For decades Stone was a tireless journalist,covering the major issues of his day. He wrote about Senator McCarthy, Vietnam, Nixon, everything, always from a rigorous but definitely liberal, or left, perspective with a strong emphasis on free speech and the public’s right and need to know if a democracy is to function.

At one point Stone launched I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he wrote by himself over an 18 year period. Dostoevsky did something similar, but only for a few years and from a right-wing, nationalist perspective. Entering old age, slowed by heart issues, Stone went into semi-retirement and returned to his college passion for philosophy. This led, ultimately, to a book set two thousand years ago focused on Socrates and buttressed by an extraordinary intellectual effort by Stone, who learned Greek well enough to read some of the greatest writers who have ever written.

This book is a strong reproach both for Socrates and the citizens of Athens who condemned him to death for not believing in the gods and corrupting the city’s youth. The reproach aimed at Socrates is that he refused to play politics or enter into the city’s great issues, siding too often with anti-democratic oligarchs. The reproach aimed at the citizens of Athens is that they convicted him for breaking a law that had never been written (Aristophanes had great fun mocking the gods) and denying him the right to say to the youth of the city whatever he wanted.

I studied Latin and Greek intensively long ago and can verify that Stone makes exceptional use of literary, historical and philosophical sources both from Greece and Rome. Somehow he converted himself into a PhD quality expert while passing through his seventies. To me there are multiple ironies in his approach. First, the case he makes against Socrates’ anti-democratic views is pretty light when divorced (which of course is impossible) from Plato’s presentation of him. Plato absolutely had no time for the rabble making civic decisions. Read his Republic or The Laws and you will run into an other-wordly tyranny, impossible to enact. Second, Stone takes the activist citizen’s approach that everyone should play a role in the life of a city or state, especially someone as gifted as Socrates. I would dispute that. It’s entirely acceptable and even necessary for certain individuals to stand outside the fray as best they can in order to think as purely as they can. Proof of this is Stone himself. This ferociously written book is based on research, logic, and persuasive inference. It is a masterpiece of spotting moments in Athenian history when there was a dog that didn’t bark. Who originally developed the kind of relentless pursuit of knowledge Stone exhibits? I can’t think of anyone more likely than Socrates. So perhaps Socrates sneered at his fellow citizens and perhaps he baited them into condemning him to death. How important is that when viewed against the backdrop of thousands of years of influence on human thought and inquiry?

Stone was a crusader. I would agree with most of his views as a critic of contemporary America, but I think he simply rules out the role someone like Socrates has to play if he is going to pioneer utterly new modes of thought.

At the end of the book, Stone brilliantly–just like Socrates–sketches out how Socrates could have persuaded the citizens of Athens to set him free. He is not unsympathetic toward Socrates, obviously, except on the cardinal points of insisting on speaking up, exercising one’s right to free speech, and conceding the wisdom of democracy.

Frankly, this is a hell of a book, a tour de force by an aging man searching for the truth two millennia and more ago. I just think it’s one-sided, despite the virtuoso advice Stone would have offered Socrates had he been fortunate enough to be his lawyer.

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The Lives of Rocks by Rick Bass

The Lives of Rocks, a collection of ten stories by Rick Bass, offers one truly exceptional story–the title story–and nine good to not-so-good tales. “The Lives of Rocks” focuses on Jyl, a woman living alone in the mountains and suffering through chemotherapy. Improbably, she begins to pass the time, when she has enough energy, by carving boats and attaching messages to them in little bottles. She then sets them afloat where, downstream, they are received and cherished by two children who come to see her and convey to her how much they have meant to them. In addition, they perform chores and provide company that sustains her as winter hits the mountains hard. The story ends hard, too, but I won’t spoil it.

Often Bass indulges in improbability without really accommodating it to his realistic style of writing. The first story, “Pagans,” suffers from this defect. Certain actions take place that just are believable but are not couched in a tone that invites the willing suspension of disbelief. The same problem shows up in a story called “Fiber,” which is more a rant than a story. Here the narrator tells of hoisting 400 pound logs on his shoulders. Nope, not happening.

I don’t know if the events in “Titan” are founded in fact, but here Bass so carefully presents a weather phenomenon that I was prepared to swallow the story whole.

“The Canoeists” gives Bass an opportunity to unfold his true command of the natural world with great lyrical effect. He can be a terrifically moving writer when he understates things, underplays them, and does not introduce “tall tale” elements that raise questions about his intentions.

One consistent strength of Bass’s writing is the clarity and force of his sentences. They are solid and read well aloud.

Politically or culturally, I’m not sure which, Bass is on the side of nature and the grand scheme of the cosmos. He’s on solid ground here because he knows the ground, the rivers, the skies, the coasts, and mountains, but one beautifully paced and written story, “Her First Elk,” concerns a young girl–the character he calls Jyl–shooting an elk and building a set of relationships upon this act that to me represents an unimaginative approach to the spiritual. Since Bass rants a bit in a few places in this collection, I will rant. I don’t see how sneaking up on beautiful animals and slaughtering them with high-powered rifles can lead to spiritual fulfillment and deep knowledge. To me that’s hogwash, infantile and cruel. It certainly undermines an otherwise subtly written story about a girl ultimately meeting two neighbors who become more important to her than the dead elk.

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The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

The Soul Thief, a novel by Charles Baxter, focuses initially on two guys and two girls living in Buffalo, New York. One of the girls is a lesbian cab driver. The other girl and the guys are students at a Buffalo university. Guy number one, Nathaniel, first falls for good-looking girl number one, Theresa, when they help each other find a party they’re going to. She’s a knock-out, flip, provocative, and Nathaniel thinks immediately he loves her. Waiting at the party is guy number two, Jerome, who has some mysterious appeal to everyone, including Theresa, and apparently has decided he’s going to haunt Nathaniel, assume his identity, work something out with Theresa, and generally make an eccentric asshole of himself in the service of art . . . or philosophy . . . or soul-work.

The setting is early 70s. I was in college then. The references are generally accurate, if overblown, as is the entire short novel. The idea is that the receding tide of the 60s still kept people turned-on, enlightened, and so forth. Well, sort of, yes, but not with the phony pomposity of this crew.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Nathaniel decides Theresa is just a physical wonder and drops her. Instead, he falls in love with Jamie, the lesbian cab driver, who tells him it’s not going to work but sleeps with him anyway.

All the while Jerome is in the background, engineering personal problems for Nathaniel, such as having his apartment burglarized and, ultimately, having Jamie mugged and raped.

The chattering and very normal style of the narration buckles under these events, as does Nathaniel. He has some kind of break-down and drifts off campus into a series of mindless jobs that ultimately lead to satisfaction with a wife and two kids–very bourgeois.

Nothing is very well-developed but fortunately the story moves quickly into a recap of Nathaniel’s recovery and, years later, an invitation from Jerome to visit him in L.A., where he hosts a radio program called American Evenings. Long story short: Jerome pursued Nathaniel because of a gay attraction. He also wrote a manuscript that detailed the ins and outs of what happened in Buffalo, pretending that Nathaniel was the narrator. Nathaniel hates this. What he loves, by now, is the endearments of his very average family life. He doesn’t care about Norman O. Brown or Nietzsche anymore. He just wants to climb out of Jerome’s sick narrative

What ultimately happened to Theresa and Jamie? In various ways, they don’t make it through the story. Jamie left Nathaniel a goodbye letter, but he chose not to open it. To me this is a bit of authorial negligence, if not cowardice. There are a number of Baxter’s literary jokes embedded in this text; maybe this is one of them. If so, it falls as flat as the others. We don’t need strange intrusions by Jane Austen’s fiction. Nor do we need Nathaniel’s sister, who has been mute for years, suddenly regaining her voice when she rushes to him after his breakdown. Really?

I think this is a kind of soft novel about people like you and me having more interesting and devious lives that we’ve actually lived. It’s verbally squishy and needed rethinking before publication. One man’s opinion. On to the next book.

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