Monday, November 06, 2006

Robert Harris: Imperium

Let us begin with the author.

Robert Harris made his name initially as a political journalist for the UK broadsheets (i.e. the more respectable newspapers). In the 1980s he wrote a number of non-fiction books on political subjects. He had long nursed, however, ambitions to be a novelist, and in 1992 he wrote Fatherland.

This was a piece of alternative history. It took place in a parallel universe in which Germany won the second world war. Given Harris's extensive contacts in the media -- television as well as the press -- it is not surprising that Fatherland was something of a hit; and this was not entirely undeserved, because it was a pretty capable thriller.

Next came Enigma, another thriller, this time about the WWII code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. Readable, but no great shakes in my opinion. And finally in the thriller series, Archangel, a book about a long-forgotten son of Stalin's, and a novel which in my opinion was less than convincing.

In other words, what we have here so far is an odd sort of fictional career, in that the books -- to this reader at least -- tended to disimprove as they appeared. With most writers it's the other way round.

For his fourth book, Harris turned to the lays, so to speak, of ancient Rome. He wrote a book called Pompeii, which I'm afraid, given his track record, I didn't bother to read. And now we have Imperium, which is a novel about the life of Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC), said to be the greatest orator of all time.

I have been reading a copy of the American edition of Imperium, the cover of which seems to me to be thoroughly uninspired. The UK one is no better, though less cluttered. The US cover has a picture of a golden wreath of laurels, of the kind which some Roman emperors wore on formal occasions, and were pictured as wearing on coins. And absolutely no one, I would say, is going to see this cover in a bookshop and go, Ooh, wow, that looks really interesting.

In the first place, what does imperium mean? It means precious little to me, and yet I was once taught Latin and some ancient history. What does it mean to some product of your local comprehensive? Bugger all, I suggest. (To save you reaching for the dictionary, Oxford says that imperium means absolute power, and is a seventeenth-century term.)

And what of the general design of Imperium? That's not very enticing either. The pages are long, and Mr Harris is not keen on paragraphs, so the appearance of the text is solid and uninviting. Page 72, for example, contains no paragraph breaks at all, and is just an unbroken slab of prose.

However, we soldier on, if without much enthusiasm so far.

The novel turns out to be a biographical account of Cicero's early public life, as related (in the first person) by his domestic slave and secretary, Tiro. Said Tiro was, it seems, the inventor of shorthand, and was thus able to write down Cicero's speeches as they were made, and was also able to take verbatim notes of discussions -- a talent which, as the book explains, sometimes alarmed those with whom Cicero spoke.

Cicero, it turns out, was both a lawyer and a politician, ambitious, able, and hard-working. A decent man, on the side of the oppressed. So far so good.

The first part of the novel describes how Cicero acts on behalf of those who have been robbed and worse by the governor of Sicily, one Gaius Verres. And it's an interesting enough story as far as it goes. The politics of ancient Rome were, however, fiendishly complicated, and this requires Tiro to spend much time and space explaining things to us; this does not help the story along.

By about page 50, I was making a note that this is a very masculine book. It's a book all about men. Women very seldom get a look in. And that's all very well, and no doubt true to its period, but is it going to help the author to find readers? I rather doubt it.

One of the few female characters who does appear is Terentia, Cicero's wife, who on page 122 gives her husband some good advice: 'Make your speech shorter!' This is a maxim which Tiro/Harris might have taken to heart.

Halfway thorough the book, at page 150, Cicero achieves his first major triumph. And at that point, I'm afraid, I stopped reading. The rest of the book, from a quick look, seems to be more of the same. And overall the book is reportedly the first of a trilogy.

There is no doubt whatever that Robert Harris has an intellect of the first order. He has a most astute eye for politicians, whether in ancient Rome or our own times, and he has evidently done an enormous amount of research. And Cicero was undeniably a fascinating man. But did I want to go on reading, after part one? Sadly, no.

And what of sales? Making full use of his old contacts at the Times and the Sunday Times no doubt enabled Harris to achieve the big extracts and interviews which were featured in those newspapers at the time of publication (4 September in the UK). But as of 4 November the book does not appear on the Times list of the 50 bestsellers. Neither, so far as I can see, is it featuring high on any of the various US lists. It's just not that kind of book.

22 comments:

Andrew O'Hara said...

While I'm a great fan of Wikipedia, one of its greatest failings is how it allows the living to blatantly promote themselves. The link you give (at the top) is a classic example. Not only is it amateurish ("of humble origins"), the last two paragraphs--apparently intended to give some kind of humorous insight on Harris--are utterly witless.

Carla said...

May I recommend the Guardian's satirical Digested Read column, whose take on Imperium can be found here?

JodyTresidder said...

Couldn't agree more with the dismaying desiccation of each new Harris novel - a pity because he seems a decent, very bright sort.

One hack turned fiction writer, though, who has cheered me up enormously after the miserable work produced recently by Jonathan Freedland and now Eve Pollard is, surprisingly, Henry Porter.

Surprisingly because Porter is rather obviously dishy, I think. (Which might tempt one not to take him too seriously).

His "Brandenburg Gate" is a top notch political thriller.

Just the sort of intelligent, lively read you'd hope a very decent feature journalist would pull off.

(I don't know Porter at all. But I've been strangely fond of him ever since he was elaborately hoaxed - years ago - into writing and publishing a long newspaper interview with a fake Meryl Streep. He rode out the subsequent humiliation with great style!)

Carla said...

I haven't observed a progressive decline, though I haven't read the full set. I liked Harris's thriller Pompeii and have said so elsewhere, in part because I liked the idea of an engineer as a the hero of a thriller rather than a soldier or a spy. On the strength of that I read Enigma, which I found much less compelling, and haven't gone back for more.

JonathanM said...

Michael, Robert Harris is himself a product of a local comprehensive. I know because I used to sit next to him.

fitzroy cyclonic said...

I read Archangel; some sorta thriller, which is well written will do me, I thought. Only, there is something curiously undernourished about it. It feels rather like Harris is at the end of the novel with a bit of string, speedily hauling his main character through it.

Nothing very substantial to add to that really. My eyes didn't shut when I read it, which is some sort of praise, but I came out the other end feeling short changed. Had to go and read an Eric Ambler. The Dark Frontier.

Imagination, that's what Archangel lacked. A megrim idea stretched out on the rack of a thriller genre. A stringy bean of a book.

Lenten fare. Has not encouraged me to go back to him despite the frequently wildly enthusiastic reviews.

Fitzroy Cyclonic

Kate Allan said...

Robert Harris is one of the few authors whose entire backlist I've read. And I've enjoyed all of them, including Archangel, which despite its less-than-convincing-plot, had an excellent soviet-bloc feel to it.

I've not yet read Imperium but I wonder if the problem is partly in the title - is it simply too latinate? And partly in the plot - politics is simply not as exciting as a big volcano disaster. Unless he's given it Edwina Currie treatment?

tess gerritsen said...

IMPERIUM hit #7 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list in its debut week in October, and I believe it stayed on the list for at least two weeks. So it didn't do too badly here. It didn't seem to get much media push, but Mr. Harris did get some splendid attention with a fascinating editorial he wrote in the NY Times about the parallels between the Roman empire and the current political climate in the US.

I, for one, very much enjoy his books.

Susan Hill said...

Robert is a totally ace bloke. And his book was number one on amazon for weeks. All his books have been. They sell in shedloads, both in hardback and in paperback and go on doing so. He is one of the best selling authors around. I don`t go for the togas, though someone in my house rated POMPEII very highly, but I think his other thrillers highly enjoyable.
To say that you don`t care for his work is one thing but to assume that RH does not sell a lorra lorra books is quite another. He does.

ZombieKiller said...

I just finished Imperium today and can't wait for the next one. I really enjoyed the ins and outs of ancient Roman politics and the parallels to our own system (I read the book last week specifically because of the impending elections). That being said, it's not a book I can recommend to any of my friends because they'll view it as some sort of history text.

Historical fiction can't appeal to everyone.

Paul Levinson said...

I haven't read Imperium yet, but intend to. I thought Fatherland was excellent, and in an indirect way, inspired my own The Plot to Save Socrates

SF said...

I can't help with disagree with your review of this marvellous book. It was an insightful and well written book and I have been a fan of Mr Harris since reading Archangel. Whilst I didn't quite like Enigma and Pompeii, Fatherland, Archangel and this book provide insights into very interesting eras, scenarios and what ifs situations. I must agree that some part of Imperium was too long and tedious to read, some names not very familiar although they appeared earlier, some terms I can't quite understand (how I wish Mr Harris has printed a few pages explaining some of the terms to those unfamiliar to the Roman politics) and the ending was abrupt, I was however fascinated by the description of Cicero who was a good man but also an ambitious one who made mistakes and achieved glory in his illustrous but tragic life (read his end in bios I found in the Internet). I just wished Mr Harris ended the story with Cicero's death but the entire point about the book is as the title suggests so I can't argue with that. I do wonder how much is accurate.

I must say one thing though; as I was reading this book and I was also watching HBO's Rome, I must say I was amazed at the actor who played Cicero. I felt like as I was reading the book, it could have been that actor as Cicero, every mannerism, every reluctance, every panic as he was sandwiched between ambitious corrupt men and his own ambition and conscience.

Marvelous book and I can't wait for his next book.

Anonymous said...

maybe its because i study latin and cicero in school, but i didn't find imperium hard to read at all. harris' simple language and style made the book easy to read and he brilliantly showed the intricacies and complications of Roman, and indeed all politics.

one of the best books i've ever read

Michael said...

It is sad that people actually come away from Imperium imagining to have got an insight into the Roman political system, when pretty much the first sentence Harris writes on the Roman political process is invented. One should be charitable and acribe the errors to poetic license rather than simply poor research. Imperium is far from the worst historical fiction out there, but giving insights into the Roman world - not...

CP said...

Is your concern that the book is not attractive to the masses because its title does not roll of the tongue and its cover is not sufficiently pretty? If so, may I suggest the Mills & Boon section of your local bookship. If the subject matter is not to your taste then fine - I will readily admit to not having read any of his other books because they do not appeal to me. However, if your criticism is that the author is insufficiently populist in his choice of subject matter, perhaps you would prefer that all authors wrote about witches and wizards. As for his prose, if you find a page of unbroken text intimidating, I cannot but help but feel that you may have stopped reading many of the better books published in the English language. However, that of course is a matter for you.

JasperBoy said...

Grumpy Old Bookman all right. I thought this book was a wonderful read which masterfully merged historical fact with fiction, giving you a believable incite into daily life in Roman politics. I couldn't put it down and I think Harris should be commended for it. I look forward to any trilogy.

Javier said...

I've read "Imperium" in its spanish translation. First I must add to Grumpy Old Bookman's comentaries about the covers in USA and Great Britain that the cover of the spanish version is horrible too (see here: http://www.culturaclasica.com/?q=node/1691 .
For the novel itself I have enjoyed it in the whole. It has reminded me a lot of the Colleen McCoullogh saga. Indeed all the legal procediments have sounded familiar to me. Anyway the writing is fluid and Tiro inspire all my sympathies. Not so much Cicero himself because of his ambition. One quote I have liked very much (and I am translating the translation, ask your pardon... ):
"Power consists usually in choosing between two or more options, all of them equally disgusting"

Anonymous said...

Grumpy Old Bookman- Why the diatribe on the book's cover, did you ever hear the phrase,'You can't judge a book by its cover'.

I always find it interesting the way 'critics' try to gain ground by eviserating a novel, a work with length and depth they couldn't hope to write if their life depended on it!

Quintus

home for sale costa rica said...

hi people
wow i didn't notice it...

i think this spot is so interesting!

niz said...

Hello .. firstly I would like to send greetings to all readers. After this, I recognize the content so interesting about this article. For me personally I liked all the information. I would like to know of cases like this more often. In my personal experience I might mention a book called Generic Viagra in this book that I mentioned have very interesting topics, and also you have much to do with the main theme of this article.

David said...

Bought a copy in Poundland today.

Rowena Hailey said...

I'd recommend this novel highly both to those interested in this period of history as well as to those interested in a great story.

Rowena
Great data for Ipe Decking for sale