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January 30, 2007

The Making of Neil Kinnock in toga and sandals: Imperium: A Novel - Robert Harris

Posted by David Womersley

Imperium: A Novel
by Robert Harris
Pp. 404. London: Hutchinson, 2006
Hardback, £17.99

David Womersley, Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford, reviews Robert Harris's Imperium - and finds striking similarities with the novelist's earlier The Making of Neil Kinnock.

Robert Harris's career reveals a writer who has repeatedly mingled fact and fiction. Passing off fictions as facts was explicitly the subject of perhaps his most imaginative work, Selling Hitler - the story of the fabrication and marketing of the fake Hitler diaries. The accomplished Fatherland was an essay in "virtual history", in which the "what if?" explored was the possibility of a Nazi victory in 1945 and the dreadful world that eventuality would have ushered into existence, against the backdrop of which he constructed a well-managed thriller. Enigma, Pompeii and Archangel all rely on a heavy dose of fact. Would it be unkind to say that The Making of Neil Kinnock was the record of an attempt to pass off a palpable fiction as a fact?

In the light of this, it is noteworthy that Imperium should claim unambiguously to be "A Novel". It relates the story of Cicero's rise to the consulship via his successful prosecution of the corrupt and violent governor of Sicily, Verres.

The narrative is recounted by Tiro, Cicero's slave and secretary, and the most that can be said for it is that it is serviceable. The prose is workmanlike, and lacking in any particular imaginative vivacity.

The highpoint is definitely Harris's account of the actual trial of Verres, where one does feel that a significant turning point in Roman history is being well dramatised. Otherwise, one is reading a light rifacimento of a number of easily-obtainable works of ancient literature - there is a pleasing candour in Harris's acknowledgement that his "principal debt" is to the Loeb Classical Library.

However, this tepid evaluation is not a view of the book's merits which was much reflected in the public prints. Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times enthused about its bravura fictional flair and marvelled at its

pulse-rate-speeding masterpieces of suffocating suspense and searing action
while Simon Sebag Montefiore, writing in the Daily Telegraph, found Imperium
as explosive as Etna, as addictive as a thriller, as satisfying as great history.
Harris's career included spells as a columnist on the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. Still, praise undeserved is satire in disguise.

Cicero was the greatest Roman orator, and one of the literary parlour-games of later antiquity was to balance the respective claims of Cicero and Demosthenes as the greatest orator of the ancient world. This is an inconvenient fact for someone who wishes to write a fictional account of Cicero and his career, because it challenges the writer to make that achievement manifest in English. This I feel Harris fails to do. His English versions of Cicero's oratory give us little sense of the audacity of Cicero's way with words or the wildness of his hyperboles - anyone searching for insights on this score would do better to read the brief, but exceptionally acute, comments on Cicero in David Hume's essay "Of Eloquence".

Given that Harris shows little appreciation of Cicero's literary artistry, one is driven to wondering what the point of Imperium is? Clearly it benefits from the recent revival of interest in ancient history (a revival to which Harris himself gave momentum with Pompeii). Was Harris trying to evoke a whole civilisation in its difference from ours? Again, it is hard to believe it. The Roman décor is (once again) serviceable, but I found in the book little sensitivity to the strangeness of Roman public life, which showed itself nowhere so intensely as in its religion. A reader seeking imaginative entry into this aspect of ancient Rome would do better to pick up Pater's Marius the Epicurean.

A further aspect of the narrative which weakens the sense of historical retrieval are those intermittent moments when a character seems to have in mind the discontents of early twenty-first century Britain rather than first century B.C. Rome, as when Cicero tells Tiro that the turbulence of the Roman plebs was a warning of (pp. 289-90):

what happens to any state which has a permanent staff of officials. They begin as our servants and end up imagining themselves our masters!
Still more puzzling, perhaps, is that Harris has such a restricted sense of why Cicero is a fascinating figure. In Imperium Cicero's interest is confined to the fact that he is a novus homo, a man born outside the traditional Roman ruling caste who was obliged to make his own way without - indeed, in many respects against 0 the customary resources needed to undergird a Roman political career. This leaves out of the account all Cicero's intellectual interests and accomplishments, save his political ambition. One closes the book with a nagging feeling that one has read this before - perhaps as The Making of Neil Kinnock, but this time in toga and sandals.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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