Allan Massie’s Caesar (1993), Reviewed by Sean Gabb

Caesar
Allan Massie
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993, 228 pp, £14.99
(ISBN 0 340 48789 5)

Note: This review was written in 1993 for an issue of Free Life. For some reason, I overlooked it when putitng that issue together and then forgot that I had ever written it. It is worth publishing now, bearing in mind my own efforts as an historical novelist. I wonder if I have not committed the same faults that I found all those years ago in Dr Massie?

 

Having read the reviews of his earlier Tiberius, I find this latest novel from Dr Massie a disappointment.  It cannot stand comparison with the great works of its genre.  No one who has read Mary Renault or Marguerite Yourcenar will think its writer more than competent.  Indeed, in his description of Caesar's last days, he falls below Rex Warner, and is outmatched for narrative by Alfred Duggan. 

The novel works better as a despairing account of the collapse of the Republic.  The protagonist is a conservative unlucky enough to live at a time when the only proper choice is between different kinds of radical change.  He recognises that the political institutions of an agrarian city state cannot become those of a vast and largely hellenistic empire.  At the same time, he will consider neither a withdrawal from empire, nor the divine right monarchy by which it can alone be held together.

Even here, though, Mr Massie falls into the middling rank.  He is excelled by Peter Green, who writing as Sulla shows exactly why the Republic broke down and why it could not be restored.  He is excelled by Robert Graves, who writing as Claudius shows the genius of an Augustan settlement that could in normal circumstances keep absolute power disguised and even restrained.

Turning to matters of detail, I generally dislike the language in which the novel is written.  It was a mistake to give Cicero so many broken fragments from Burke's Reflections.  Lightly done, this might have been a success:  done so heavily, it only annoys.  It was also, I think, a mistake to echo the Bible in several places, and to quote so freely from, among others, Tacitus, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and even Margaret Thatcher.

This last quote, however, suggests that I may be the mistaken one.  Perhaps Caesar is not intended to compete with The Persian Boy or Count Belisarius.  Perhaps it stands in an older tradition, of analysing the present by writing about the past.  Speaking to Cicero, the protagonist observes:

I have heard Caesar deny the very existence of society….  In his opinion, society is an invented concept which enables men to acquit themselves of full responsibility for their actions. (p.167)

There are other indications that the character of Caesar is drawn with Lady Thatcher in mind; and that Cicero is supposed to represent the Tory wets.  On this principle, the March conspirators are the grey and disaffected men of November 1990, and Octavian is John Major.  This last seems a strained comparison; and I see none of Douglas Hurd in Mark Antony, and dare not see anyone now living in Casca.  But, as a journalist writing for The Daily Telegraph, Mr Massie may have inside information on these points that I have not.

But, while the novel may be an extended simile, I hope it is not.  Persons aside, the two situations differ far more than they resemble each other; and the one throws no easy light on the other.  Our own Constitution is not so decayed yet as the Roman, and is not decaying for the same reasons.  Nothing so drastic as the Principate will be needed to save us, nor will anything so enlightened be allowed to save us.

According to a Times review of his Augustus quoted on the dust jacket, Mr "Massie is the best living Scottish novelist".  I have yet to read his other Roman novels.  But if Caesar is not greatly inferior to these, I will shudder for the good name of Scottish literature, or Times reviewing, or both.

Sean Gabb

© 1993 – 2015, seangabb.

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