Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

The senate was not the arena for brute force. The weapons here were words, and no one ever knew how to deploy words as well as Cicero. (p.184)

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose and by language I shall survive.’ (p.402)

This is the middle novel in the Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Cicero is an excellent historical figure to dramatise for at least two reasons.

1. We know more about Cicero than any other figure from the ancient world. a) He wrote a prodigious amount, not only his speeches as an advocate but books about oratory, philosophy, politics and morality, most of which have survived. when he writes about Cicero, Harris has an unprecedented amount of primary source material to refer to. b) The extraordinary survival of some 1,000 letters from and to him, many from the leading figures of the day such as Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and others. Harris says as much in his Author’s Note, where he says he’s used, where possible, Cicero’s own words from letters or speeches (for example Cicero’s lament at feeling lonely after his brother and best friend both leave Rome, page 344, which is, I think, a direct quote from one of Cicero’s letters).

2. The second reason is that Cicero was right at the heart of the web of allegiances and alliances which made up the toxic politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was consul at the time of the Cataline conspiracy, he was important enough to be invited to join the first triumvirate in 60; when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, Cicero was one of the half dozen figures in Rome whose opinion he really valued. In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination Cicero advised the killers and, after they were defeated, he became a sort of mentor to Caesar’s heir, young Octavian and a bitter opponent of Mark Antony.

No other figure was as central to the high politics of the age or left such an extensive documentary record.

Tiro the narrator

As I thoroughly explained in my review of the first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, the novels are narrated by Cicero’s slave and private secretary Tiro, a real-life figure who Cicero devoted several letters to praising and thanking and who we know was responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters after his death.

I had been his secretary for sixteen years by this time and there was no aspect of his life, public or private, with which I was not familiar. (p.13)

In other words, Tiro is the perfect person for a narrator, the amanuensis and secretary to Cicero, observer and analyst of his behaviour as Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

The premise of all three books is that Tiro is writing his memoirs long, long after the events he recounts, just a few years before the start of the Christian era and Tiro is a very old man of nearly 100. The three novels are represented as the memories of this old man, looking back at particularly high points in the life of his lord and master, as he himself witnessed and recorded them at the time.

Two parts

The first novel was in two parts. Part one, ‘Senator (79 to 70 BC)’, led up to Cicero’s career-making prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres. Part two, ‘Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)’ covered his campaign to be elected consul, which becomes entangled with a major plot by Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to stitch up control of the Roman state. Taken together it covers 15 years.

This book covers the next five years in Cicero’s life and career (which explains the title, the Latin word lustrum referring, among other things, to the religious sacrifice offered every five years by the state officials known as ‘censors’ and so, by extension, to a period of five years. This is clearly explained in  an epigraph to the book and is referenced in the text on page 392). Once again the novel is divided into two parts:

Part one – Consul

This covers the dramatic and fateful year of 63 BC and gives a compelling and thrilling description of the slow escalation of the crisis which developed into Lucius Sergius Catalina’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state. I’ve described the events in my review of Sallust’s Cataline War, but Harris brings it astonishingly, vividly, harrowingly to life, unforgettably conveying the astonishing, unbearable pressure Cicero came under, as the lead consul in Rome, of proving the existence of the conspiracy and then punishing the conspirators.

The climax of the Cataline conspiracy is the agonised decision to execute the five patrician senators who were foolish enough to be Cataline’s accomplices in the city and allow themselves to be caught (Cataline himself was hundreds of miles away, safely protected by the army raised by his colleague Manlius). It was an agonising decision because the executions were carried out without a formal trial, solely on the basis of a vote in the Senate, and this rash act would come back to haunt Cicero.

Part two – Pater Patriae

This covers the next four years, 62 to 58 BC, describing a number of key events which followed in the aftermath of the conspiracy. Beneath a blizzard of more overt incidents and challenges, the two underlying themes are the unstoppable rise of Caesar and his creation of the First Triumvirate (in 60 BC), and the concomitant rise of the slippery young demagogue Publius Claudius Pulcher, aided by his clever sexy sister, Clodia.

No words can convey the vividness with which Harris describes both the key players in late re[publican power politics, but also the gripping shifts in the endless political powerplay which Cicero finds himself trying to ride and survive.

The book contains many thrilling, nerve-biting scenes, but maybe the most shocking or heart-stopping is the moment when Caesar, doubly powerful in his roles of pontifex maximus and consul, forces the senator Lucius Lucullus to apologise for opposing him in the senate on his knees, commanding he do so like an outraged monarch, and the old general, realising he has no choice and creakily sinking to his knees to beg forgiveness of the dark-eyed force of nature which is Caesar, and the entire senate looking on in silent impotence (p.408).

The book rises to a climax as Clodius triumphs, being first adopted by a plebeian family, then winning the tribuneship, proposing a range of populist measures (a free grain dole for every family) before moving in on his old enemy, Cicero, by proposing a bill accusing him of murder in having the Cataline conspirators executed without a trial and enacting that:

It shall be a capital offence to offer fire and water to any person who has put Roman citizens to death without a trial. (p.417)

This innocent-sounding measure spells death for all around Cicero, his wife, his household and all his friends. The only way not to imperil all of them is to flee the city as quickly as possible and so that is how the second novel ends,

Power

Above all these books are about power, political and personal and Harris brilliantly and thrillingly conveys the world of the Rome’s senior aristocracy where every meeting, every dinner, every conversation is dominated by politics, not just chat about the powerful but every meeting between the social elite was politics: the jungle of social rivalry never stops and never ends.

‘From now on everything is to be written down.’
‘Yes, Senator.’
‘We’re heading into dangerous waters, Tiro. Every reef and current must be charted.’ (p.28)

Because every single reef and current conceals threat, power plays, the strategies and power plays of immensely rich and powerful people like Caesar (with his ‘divine recklessness), Crassus and Pompey, the populares or populists, on one side, and the leaders of the optimates or aristocratic party such as Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Quintus Hortensius (Cicero’s rival to the title best lawyer in Rome) and father of the senate, Vatia Isauricus.

In this way he cut through the posturing and sentiment to the nub of the issue which was, as it always is, power. (p.49)

Ancient and modern

One of the features of the first book was the way the narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s freed slave and secretary, not only loyally described all the events, meetings, conversations and so on which he witnessed, but also drops in comments and reflections – on people, places and situations. Above all Harris has him drop generalisations about the nature of power, especially political power, which are carefully phrased so that they can be applied to contemporary British politics as much as to ancient Roman politics. The result is a pleasant psychological shimmer, where the reader registers the comment’s appropriateness to the plot but also realises it can be applied to much more recent events.

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

Like the descriptions mentioned below, these sententiae are superficially intelligent, insightful and compelling but many, on a moment’s reflection, melt like a snowball in sunshine. They are very like the truisms and bromides (‘a trite statement that is intended to soothe or placate’) which pad out opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, which you nod agreement to then can’t remember half an hour later. For example, saying it is in the nature of politics to deal with one thing another another, is not very different from how you have to cope with one thing after another in your work, in being a parent, or life in general.  It is in the nature of the thriller, as a genre, to present a heightened simulacrum of reality which grips and thrills your imagination at the time of reading, but which you can barely remember a few days later.

A checklist of references

Having read my Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as modern historians who reference other ancient sources, I’m familiar with attributes and anecdotes about many of the key players, not only Cicero, but Caesar, Crassus, Pompey and so on. It is entertaining to watch Harris slip them into his narrative at appropriate moments, like hearing a composer slip snippets of popular songs into a symphony. Thus:

A variation on the much-repeated story that Caesar burst into tears because by the age when Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world, Caesar had achieved nothing (referenced on p.25, and then reprised but this time with Cicero being the one mournfully wishing he’d matched Alexander on p.145) (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar chapter 11, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar chapter 7.)

Caesar telling his mother he will return pontifex maximus or not at all (p.85) (Plutarch’s Caesar, chapter 7, Suetonius’s Caesar, chapter 13).

The most famous courtesan in Rome (Flora) saying she never left Pompey’s house without bite marks on her neck (p.336) (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 2).

Actually there aren’t as many of these as there are in the first novel (or I missed some). Rather more obvious is Harris quoting directly from set piece speeches which were recorded and have survived from antiquity, namely Cicero’s ferocious attack on Catiline in the senate, and the debate about whether to execute the conspirators featuring diametrically opposed speeches from Caesar (advocating clemency and life imprisonment) and Cato (immediate death penalty) which, I think, are sourced from Sallust’s account.

When Caesar as consul drives his fellow consul to retreat to his house but continues to pass laws, Cicero is said to have quipped that the laws were being passed by the joint consulship of Julius and Caesar (p.369) (Suetonius’s Life of Cesar, chapter 20).

Realistic in two ways

The novel is vividly imagined and hugely pleasurable to read in at least three ways:

1. Sensual

The smell, the feel, the noise, the sight of Rome, its streets and people, the crowd cheering a procession, the packed and dusty Field of Mars on election day, the crowd of the white toga-wearing elite waiting outside the Senate house, the queue of clients outside every senator’s door, Cicero’s breath visible on a cold December morning, the chirping of cicadas on a hot Italian evening – the novel presents a steady stream of vividly imagined scenes which bring ancient Rome vibrantly alive (as they say).

The vivid Caesar’s pokey house in a rundown neighbourhood, or Cicero and Tiro’s visit to Lucullus’s stupendous luxury villa overlooking the Bay of Naples (p.107).

2. Socio-political

But more important is the detailed descriptions Harris gives of Roman processes and rituals, religious, social and political.

Now that Cicero is consul there are more scenes set specifically in the Senate and Harris makes this feel eerily like the House of Commons with a great central aisle separating two sets of stepped benches occupied by the opposing parties, the patricians and the populists.

  • the strange and spooky taking of the augury on the morning Cicero assumes his post as consul
  • the inauguration of the two new consults accompanied by prayers, the slaughter of a sacred bull, flags and trumpets (p.45)
  • the weird details of the Latin Festival held on the Alban Mount (p.57)
  • the dignified funeral procession for the old pontifex maximus, Metellus Pius (p.81)
  • the triumph of Lucullus (p.127)
  • the hot dusty crowd packing the Field of Mars to elect next year’s consuls and praetors (p.142)
  • the preparations for the Feast of the Great Goddess (p.211)

This vivid imagining of set pieces of the Roman constitution and procedures exceeds anything I’ve read in any other book. Harris really explains what went on at the ceremonies, how they looked and felt and smelled.

It is fascinating to read his account of the chief augur taking the auguries on the eve of his consulship and then the importance of auguries preceding all other state events, such as sessions of the Senate or elections on the Field of Mars.

It is fascinating to follow the precise sequence of rituals, prayers, the order of procession and so on involved in a classical Roman triumph up to and including the ritual strangling of the foreign kings and captives by the carnifex or public executioner (p.128).

It is illuminating to read the description of a Roman wedding, the wedding of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia, aged just 14, to Gaius Frugi of the Piso clan (p.146).

The ceremony of adoption, even it is the travesty conducted under coercion of Clodius being adopted as a plebeian so he could stand as a tribune (pages 386 to 387).

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

The dramatic ambush of the conspirators on the Mulvian Bridge (pages 203 to 207).

The description of the trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher for blasphemy at which he scandalously bribes the jurors to acquit him despite his obvious guilt (pages 304 to 320).

The dramatic trial in which Cicero’s once-time pupil Marcus Caelius Rufus confidently crushes Cicero’s defence of his corrupt partner as consul, Caius Antonius Hybrida (pages 369 to 384).

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

So far I haven’t conveyed how immensely enjoyable this book is. It is well written, packed with interesting facts about ancient Rome, steeped with insight and intelligence into the workings of power and influence.

Harris makes it live through a hundred vividly imagined details – his description of Caesar’s ancient, venerable but shabby house in the now rundown neighbourhood of the Subura; Caesar’s distinctively dry rasping voice (p.29); Cicero and Tiro’s atmospheric visit to the augurs who take them up onto the roof of their building to observe the prevailing winds and the flight of birds.

The narrative starts at the end of December, just as Cicero is about to commence his year as consul and Rome is experiencing unusual snowfall, so the whole city is white with snowdrifts, vividly described.

A feature of thrillers is the action is all in the events and their threatening, thrilling implications, rarely in the prose style. The prose generally has to be as plain and transparent as possible in order to clearly and quickly explain the facts and let the reader thrill to their accumulating threat and implications.

Therefore thrillers are not afraid of clichés. It’s like a painter painting pictures long after the era of painting has died, because there continues to be a market for painting long after all possible avenues and permutations of painting have been exhausted.

In the same way, despite a hundred years or more of experimentation designed to expand, subvert or blow up the novel as a literary form, the thriller genre continues to thrive, generating endless new novels telling similar stories and using time-honoured techniques and phraseology. Just because there is no longer a literary avant garde doesn’t mean books don’t continue to sell. In fact more novels are sold every year than ever before in human history, just as there are more TV shows and more movies than ever before. More of everything.

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the river Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet. (opening sentence)

An evil antagonist:

‘Damn Caesar!’ said Cicero suddenly. ‘There’s nothing dishonourable about ambition. I’m ambitious myself. But his lust for power is not of this world. You look into those eyes of his, and it’s like staring into some dark sea at the height of a storm.’
(Lustrum, page 34)

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

Catalina’s eyes glittered and his large hands contracted into fists. ‘My first ancestor was Sergestus, companion of Aeneas, the founder of our city – and you dare to tell me to leave?’ (p.169)

And the phenomenally charged confrontation right at the end between a miserable, defeated Cicero being hounded out of his beloved Rome and Julius Caesar, brisk in his shining armour, mustering his legions to set off for his command in Gaul. When Caesar offers Cicero the legateship with him which would ensure his safety from prosecution, Cicero realises he must turn it down:

‘Thank you for your consideration,’ replied Cicero, ‘but it would never work.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because…what is wicked about you Caesar – worse than Pompey, worse than Clodius, worse even than Catalina – is that you won’t rest until we are all obliged to go down on our knees to you.’ (p.439)

Sudden alarms:

I was woken by fists pounding on the front door. I sat up with a start. I could only have been asleep for a few moments. The distant hammering came again, followed by ferocious barking, shouts and running feet. (p.148)

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

Cicero grabbed my arm. ‘So the actual crime will be to help keep me alive? They won’t even give me a trial.’ (p.418)

All very, very well done and yet, somehow, utterly predictable. The cosy familiarity of thriller tropes extends down to the level of individual sentences and metaphors. These are good in their way, but utterly familiar and slip down like an iced drink by the swimming pool at a Mediterranean resort. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome in the depths of winter:

The smoke from the altar fires was curling above the temples. I could smell the saffron burning, and hear the lowing of the bulls awaiting sacrifice. As we neared the Arch of Scipio I looked back, and there was Rome – her hills and valleys, towers and temples, porticoes and houses all veiled white and sparkling with snow, like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom. (p.44)

‘Like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom’ – a metaphor which has been around as long as fiction, for centuries, predigested and processed by the reader with barely a flicker of recognition.

Portraits of Rome

Speaking of Rome, I slowly realised that Harris describes Rome so regularly, in different seasons and moods, that it is obviously part of a concerted strategy to make ‘Rome herself’ a character in the novel. This wasn’t so apparent in Imperium (or I just missed it) but seems to me a deliberate tactic in this novel. At the same time I think these descriptions demonstrate the reliance of this kind of thriller on cliché and stereotype. There are never any surprises; things always exactly fit the mood and needs of the narrative.

The strategy is apparent from the start, when Harris paints an opening picture of Rome as the capital of a great Mediterranean empire but nonetheless stricken with social and economic turmoil, resulting in a decadent febrile atmosphere – which, of course, suits the writer of a tense thriller down to the ground.

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p.8)

Then, here is Tiro’s description of Rome in midsummer:

It was one of those endless hot summer days when the sun seems reluctant to sink, and I remember how still it was, the motes of dust motionless in the shafts of fading light. On such evenings, when the only sounds even in the city are the drone of insects and the soft trilling of the birds, Rome seems older than anywhere in the world; as old as the earth itself; entirely beyond time. (p.130)

‘One of those endless hot summer days’ – see what I mean be generic description: this sentence could come from any one of hundreds of thousands of popular novels. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome at the height of the Cataline panic:

By the time Cicero set off for the temple, tightly protected by lictors and bodyguards, an atmosphere of real dread hung over the city, as tangible as the grey November mist rising from the Tiber. The streets were deathly quiet. Nobody applauded or jeered; they simply hid indoors. In the shadows of their windows the citizenry gathered, white-faced and silent, to watch the consul pass. (p.182)

Here is Tiro’s description of Rome on the night Cicero finally confirms the Catiline conspiracy to the senate:

We stepped out from the library onto the narrow terrace. Down in the valley, the effect of the curfew was to make Rome seem as dark and fathomless as a lake. Only the Temple of Luna, lit up by torches on the slope of the Palatine, was distinctly visible. It seemed to hover, suspended in the night, like some white-hulled vessel descended from the stars to inspect us. (p.226)

Good, isn’t it? Efficient, effective and highly atmospheric but, for me, ultimately, soulless. Harris’s prose tastes of chrome. It feels a beautifully designed, expensive sports car, recently washed and gleaming in the sun. Perfect of its kind.

Terentia

We get to know all the characters well, from the public figures such as Caesar, Crassus, Hortensius, Catalina, Clodius, Cato, Lucullus, Metellus, through to members of Cicero’s household, his brother Quintus and above all his fearsome wife Terentia. Harris steadily builds up a portrait of Terentia as not conventionally attractive but radiating personality and determination and fierce in argument.

It was around this time that Terentia began to play an important role in Cicero’s consulship. People often wondered why Cicero was still married to her after fifteen years, for she was excessively pious and had little beauty and even less charm. But she had something rarer. She had character. She commanded respect, and increasingly as the years went on he sought her advice. She had no interest in philosophy or literature, no knowledge of history; not much learning of any sort, in fact.  However, unburdened by education or natural delicacy, she did possess a rare gift for seeing straight through to the heart of a thing, be it a problem or a person, and saying exactly what she thought. (p.98)

Cicero had married Terentia for her money and it was her money which funded his successful campaigns to  gain magistracies and so enter the senate. Harris rarely mentions her without adding to the impression of fearsome redoubtability:

  • Was Caesar hinting by this remark that he wanted to seduce Terentia? I doubt it. The most hostile tribe of Gaul would have been a less gruelling conquest. (p.24)
  • I must not forget Terentia, who carried a heavy iron candle-holder at all times, and who would probably have been more effective than any of us. (p.177)
  • Terentia had the coolest head present. (p.421)

This gives the impression of painting a character, the kind of thing which people like in their fictions – except that it is all very familiar, the politician’s wife as fearsome termagent, the protagonist’s wife the only person he’s truly afraid of. It feels like another fictional cliché. One of the descriptions of Terentia raising merry hell in Cicero’s household for some reason triggered a memory of Les Dawson dressed as a northern housewife, wearing a hairnet over her curlers and brandishing a rolling pin ready to pick a fight with her henpecked husband.

Tricks of oratory

Harris has Tiro from time to time share with us Cicero’s tips for delivering an effective speech. Presumably these are taken from Cicero’s writings about oratory.

  1. Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, a speech must always contain a surprise. (p.52)
  2. The bigger a crowd is, the more stupid it is.
  3. When addressing an immense multitude it is always good to invoke the supernatural and call on the gods. (p.73)

Finally

All the texts we have from republican Rome were written by the elite. Not aristocrats, necessarily, but nonetheless from the wealthy, slave-owning upper classes. (As a side issue it’s notable that two of the most memorable writers from the period did not belong to this class, but were men on the make, Cicero and Caesar, whose writings were motivated, in part, by the need to prove themselves and improve themselves and lift themselves up into the ruling class. The writings of both men are heavy with self-promotion. LinkedIn literature.)

In all these thousands of pages we never hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people, meaning farm workers, labourers, shopkeepers, businessmen, merchants, tax collectors and the millions of ordinary people who populated the Roman Empire.

Which makes it all the more striking that the narrator of all three of these Cicero novels is a slave. Well educated, highly literate, shrewd and tactful, Tiro is an idealised narrator and it is only occasionally that he reminds us that he is not free. He is utterly reliant on his master for food, lodging and protection and must obey his orders at all times.

Tiro’s character is ‘dramatised’ a bit more in this novel than the previous one because Harris gives him a love interest, namely a slave girl in the household of the super-rich retired general, Lucullus. She is called Agathe and is assigned to Tiro to give him a bath and massage after his long journey to Lucullus’s palace to deliver a message (not in his own right, only because he is Cicero’s secretary) and proceeds, easily and casually, to have sex with him, as nubile young women often do in thrillers written by men, from James Bond downwards.

Tiro glimpses Agathe on a couple of other occasions (pages 307) and on the final occasion is saddened to see she is so worn out with slave life that all her softness and beauty has gone. She doesn’t even recognise him (p.424). But it’s not a major plot strand, in fact it’s very minor, but her presence serves to bring out what may be obvious but I’ll say anyway: the entire Cicero trilogy, consisting of over 1,200 pages, is a slave’s eye view of republican Rome.

I don’t want to belabour the point but it is a mark of the thriller’s lack of depth or seriousness, its determination to remain no more than an intelligent poolside read, that Tiro’s condition as a slave and dependent is from time to time mentioned but the state of slavehood, the central fact of the narrator’s life, is nowhere really explored.

Two or three times Tiro mentions he’d like to gain his freedom and set up on a nice little farm. Three quarters of the way through the book, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about to set off for a governorship in Macedonia, promises Tiro his freedom when he returns (p.324).

And right at the very end, as Cicero is being forced into exile, he magnanimously gives Tiro his freedom and tells him to leave him, as being in his presence jeopardises his life. But Tiro promptly rejects the offer of freedom and pledges to remain Cicero’s slave, secretary and confidante, as the pair, along with a couple of other (unnamed) slaves, scuttle through the midnight streets to elude Clodius’s henchmen, bribe their way out of one of the city’s gates, and set off into exile.

This is a very moving scene to end the long narrative on and yet…To me what was striking was that… these are novels written by a slave in which the condition of slavery is never really broached or investigated or dramatised or experienced.

Tiro mentions that he’s a slave, as you might mention needing to buy a new car or get your roof fixed. It is referred to half a dozen times as a fact. But the condition of slavehood is never really adequately dramatised or investigated, the psychology of slavery not at all. Tiro remains to the end a timid version of the sensible, intelligent but perpetually impressed Dr Watson-style sidekick, in awe of his large-than-life master, observant, obedient and respectful.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, on multiple levels. But the absence of meditation on this subject is a reminder of the limited ambitions and rewards of the thriller as a genre.

Catullus

The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was, during the period covered by the novel, madly in love with Clodia, sister of the disreputable Publius Clodius Pulcher who is a central figure in part two, and wife of Metellus Celer. Harris makes a sly reference to Catullus without mentioning him by name, designed to please the cognoscenti, having Celer tell Cicero, who’s come round on a social call, after Clodia is quite rude to him before walking off:

‘Well, there it is. I wish she talked to you as much as she does this damned poet who’s always trailing round after her…’ (p.340)

A reference to Catullus, for anyone who’s read a bit around the subject. Probably the book contains more sly amused references like that, not all of which I got.


Credit

Lustrum by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2009. All references are to the 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

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