Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Number 14 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century is I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, published in 1934. This novel purports to be the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, a member of the Roman ruling family in the time of Julius Caesar. From this basis, Graves gives us a historical novel with the intimacy of a first-person eye-witness account.
Why is I, Claudius a great novel? Let’s start with the character Claudius. In contrast with his family, friends, and rivals, he is a poor physical specimen: he stutters and he is half-crippled. This means he is considered weak and stupid, dismissible at best, abusable. But as we come to find out, Claudius is far from stupid and far from weak. He uses these perceptions as a cloak to hide his actions and manipulations, and he becomes a great man in the context of his time.
More than this, Claudius is a great literary character. His personality is so fully formed by this author, Graves, that he is as if real—living, breathing, thinking, feeling. He is clever and funny, likeable, sympathetic, and, finally, shockingly ruthless. Of course, he was real; his life is a historical fact, after all. It took place approximately 2060 years ago, and in a language long dead, but in Graves’s hands, Claudius and his contemporaries could be our contemporaries. He lives on the page and he continues to live after the back cover of the book is reluctantly closed. (In fact, Graves went on to write a sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina.)
First-person narration tends to do this: to create an indelible character whose story has immediacy and intimacy. It conveys a different style of truth than another attitudinal approach would. Certainly, it provides a more visceral experience, a kind of juiciness, than a historical recitation does.
Next what makes the novel great is the material Graves has to work with. Countless literary works have been harvested from Roman history, rich as it is in drama. The intricacies of relationships, the political and social rules dictating behaviors and fomenting rebellions right down to the very personal; murder, mating, elevation and debasement, loyalty, remorse, betrayal, grief; all of the most intense emotion-rousing, reaction-inciting aspects of humanity bubble in the stew of this history. And we devour and nourish ourselves from that stew to this day.
And finally there is the artistry. The Romans left behind a remarkable body of literature and primary-source history themselves. But what imagination it takes to construct fiction out of this ancient heritage! Other authors have done it before and since, but of the 20th century novelists, Graves’s work merits its place among the best of fiction. Read I, Claudius and see if you don’t yearn to know more about this man and the men and women around him. (If you do, go to Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way, and then see if you can resist her previous work, The Greek Way. These are not fiction; they are very strictly nonfiction, history-teaching, scholarly works but imbued with the novelist’s spirit.) And consider that this novel was written and published during a revolutionary time in the history of the English-language novel, when the contemporary, the ordinary were the topics of choice.
Could Claudius stand tall beside John Dowell (The Good Soldier), Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises), Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)? He could. Could he stand alone? He does.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.