Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
I am afraid of ancient history and I haven’t read many of the “real” classics, except for a smattering of Aristophanes and Euripides and snippets from Plato and Socrates. I don’t think I’ve even read all the way through The Odyssey, which I say with great shame, since I studied literature in college. I’ve tried to get through it so many times. I just pretend like I’ve read it now and pretend like it changed my life and the way I view Narrative Form.
All that to say: I was hesitant about reading I, Claudius, Robert Graves’s “autobiography” of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius. It’s about the Romans! It’s about history! It’s a super-thick historical fiction novel! I am more or less afraid of all of those things. I have been afraid of revisiting these territories, even though this book was warmly recommended to me from various sources (including the town crier/city troublemaker, RBS, who ranks Graves as one of the Greatest Writers Who Ever Lived).
I dragged my feet to this novel, but there it is: This book was genuinely delightful. I would recommend it to you. Even–or, perhaps, especially–if you aren’t much interested in ancient history. The novel is such a pleasant medium through which to learn things you should have learned in school.
Claudius is the unlikeliest emperor. He is born with a debilitating stutter; he is not the strapping warrior that his brothers and other male relatives turn out to be. Instead, Claudius is shy and bookish and falls to the background behind the lurid and bloody drama of his scheming and mostly evil family. While his ruling relatives plot and rage and kill each other, Claudius takes to the library. He becomes a historian and meticulously studies the machinations and advancements of Rome.
All of this learning comes to serve him well, for, through a series of unlikely (and true) events, Claudius becomes the emperor of Rome. By the time this happens, you as the reader feel relieved and proud–and slightly amazed that this meek but noble-minded man has survived his self-destructive family and risen above them all to rule Rome in the height of its greatness.
In the hands of Graves, an English poet and novelist, Claudius is a briskly funny but objective storyteller, as all good historians ought to be. In the delightful “meta” turn of this book, Graves himself turns out to be a meticulous historian writing of the meticulous historian. After I finished this book, I was compelled to go find out if all of these stories were true. I spent the better part of an hour discovering that I, Claudius could indeed be a believable “autobiography” of this unusual emperor. The novel is long, but it is not tedious. The Roman royal family has enough drama to make The Sopranos look like childish amateurs. I learned a lot about this period of history that I previously feared and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process. I recommend Claudius without reservation.
Honorable Mentions for Best Fiction I Read in 2011
I read a lot of books this year, and it was extra-difficult to winnow them down to just the 10 best. Here are a few that almost made it into the top 10.
11. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
12. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
13. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
14. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
15. Sleepwalker in a Fog, Tatyana Tolstaya
16. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
17. Diary of a Mad Old Man, Junichiro Tanizaki