Book Review

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

when did a white man last write a GREAT novel?

I’m a 30 year old man who has, since the age of 19, read around 100 books (sometimes more, sometimes less) every year. Being raised in a culturally naive environment, once I’d grown out of the mass market thrillers and children’s fiction that was all I’d ever encountered in my homelife, I bounced about, unled, in a literary wilderness. In my last couple of years at school I got stuck in a dramatic funk, reading and rereading Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard, Bertolt Brecht and other very obvious playwrights until I arrived at my mid-level undergraduate English course and had my eyes opened to… the canon.

And so, I read. So many writers who I had never heard of, who didn’t exist back in the places I grew up, were suddenly revealed to me. I’d never encountered or heard of Hemingway, of Woolf, of Joyce, of Fitzgerald, of Forster…

I didn’t know who Henry James or Herman Melville or Iris Murdoch or Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushie or Gabriel García Marquez was… I’d never seen a book by DH Lawrence in real life (though due to a brief Oliver Reed obsession I had seen Ken Russell’s 1969 film of Women In Love (obviously not at home)), let alone any by Ann Quin, Anne Carson, BS Johnson or any of the other writers that I actually like.

My entry to literature, proper literature, came late, and came canon-led.

I had to learn what to read decades later than I learned how to mechanically read. Though my parents and some teachers encouraged me “to read”, nobody encouraged me where or “what” to read. Nobody taught me the difference between good and bad prose until I took a children’s literature module in the second year of my BA and I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which I had loved through adolescence) and The Wind in the Willows the same week. It was this iconoclastic discovery of the limits of Rowling that made me open my eyes, and spurred on by the rather unexciting syllabuses of my mediocre university, I dived dived dived into the list of writers who the “world”, “society”, the “Establishment”, considered “good”. And, as we all know, that gives a real overemphasis to white men.

I read all the white men they told me to read, and the white women they told me to read too, and I carried on reading, realising with time that I preferred the works by the gay white men and the white women more than any of the straight white men who didn’t kill themselves.

Time continued to go on and I started reading more in translation, and more works by people of colour and more poetry and with that came the inevitable “break” with the popular mainstream… I got bored of mainstream fiction because the fiction everyone seemed to be reading never fucking said anything of any value, I thought. I think. I know. 

Basically, as we all know, the English language straight white male novel is done. When was the last time a truly great novel was written by a straight white man? Actually, that’s too generous, no truly great novel has been written by a gay white man for a fucking long time, either. Name one, from the last thirty years, that deserves to be read in another thirty? I can’t, though I can think of many books by white women and people of colour that absolutely should (though who knows if they will) survive the “test” of time.

I’m not saying that all books by white men in that period are shit and that all books by people who are not white men are perfect, but are the best works by Franzen, Foster Wallace, Easton Ellis, Safran Foer, Hollinghurst, Toibin, Knausgaard, Sdrigotti, whoever, really works that do anything as radical, as significant, as culturally important as Tender is the Night, as The Sun Also Rises, as Catch 22?

It could be argued, of course, that many of the more modern men write “better” than – particularly – Heller, but their particular brands of novel are much less different than his from what came before. Vonnegut, for example, was a mediocre prose stylist, but his books are read more than those by Foster Wallace (citation needed), and they should be. And not just because of DFW’s poor personal behaviour.

Right wing morons like to pretend that personal authorial morality is what the literati use to judge literature, but that’s obviously not true: the broad cultural identification of reading DFW with 20-something year old men who make poor life decisions predated the wide acknowledgement of his treatment of Mary Karr

There have been, I am certain, no great novels by a white man (or a financially privileged man of colour writing like a white man) in my lifetime, so when did we white men run out of ideas for novels? The 1970s? The 1960s? Certainly The End of the Affair, the best prose of the Beats, Under the Volcano seem to me to be justifiably important novels. When did we stop? Why did we stop? Or was it a slow decline? Was Raymond Carver the last great white male writer?

Anyway, I don’t have the answer. My hypothesis is just that everything to say about life as a rich heterosexual white man was said a hundred years ago, and then from the turn of the 20th century onwards the bulk of publishing embraced and over-saturated the world with works by rich white women, rich gay men, lower middle class white men, poor white men, alcoholic white men, suicidal white men and there just isn’t anything left to write. Ummm, but, yeah. Buy my books…

Anyway.

All of this is preamble to admitting that I read a canonical white boy novel I’d never encountered before this week, and if was fucking wonderful. It’s not true that white men never wrote great novels, basically. You just have to go a long way back…

I, Claudius is Robert Graves’ 1934 smash hit about Rome in the first century AD. And it’s fucking brilliant. It’s sad, it’s fucking hilarious, it’s a little racy, it’s a little combative and it’s structured with a real literary wisdom that ties up every loose end in a highly satisfying way. It’s an intelligent, human and mature novel. It is literary and entertaining, it is genre fiction but also art. It’s about politics and history and religion and family, but more than anything else it’s Sex, Scheming and Sadism. It’s fun but it’s well-made fun. It’s a great novel, deserving of its historical reputation and well worth your time in the modern world.

Anyway, I’m typing this on a Friday evening while in Niagara Falls, the Barry-Island-with-a-waterfall of Southern Ontario (see pic), so I’m going out. I may add to this before I post it. If I don’t – and if I do – I highly fucking recommend I, Claudius.


My 2014 documentary on Pompeii

On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:

Order Bad Boy Poet from the UK publisher here.

Order Bad Boy Poet with free Worldwide Shipping from The Book Depository here.

Order Bad Boy Poet from Amazon/Waterstones/Hive/Foyles etc if you’d prefer.


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