The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 20 Jan 2008

Utterly Useless Book Reviews (#1 in a series?)
This month I'm reading Robert Graves' awesome novel King Jesus. Here's the utterly useless review I wanted to write: It does for the Bible what I, Claudius did for Suetonius. And yeah, if you've read I, Claudius and Suetonius, then that's all you need to know about King Jesus, and you'll rush out to read it. But how many of you have read I, Claudius and Suetonius? Hands? Anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Okay, here's the explanation. Robert Graves was a novelist and a poet. (He himself said he was a poet who wrote novels so that he could earn enough money to write poetry.) I, Claudius is his best-known work. It is a history of the Roman emperors from the end of the reign of Julius Caesar up to the coronation of Claudius, told from the point of view of Claudius, who, though most of the book, is viewed by most of the other characters as harmless and inept, perhaps mentally deficient, or perhaps merely a doofus. It is this inept doofosity that explains his survival and eventual ascension to the Imperial throne at a time when everyone else in line for it was being exiled, burnt, poisoned, or disemboweled. The book is still in print, and in the 1970s, the BBC turned it into an extremely successful TV miniseries starring Derek Jacobi (as Claudius, obviously) and a lot of other actors who subsequently became people you have heard of. (Patrick Stewart! With hair!)

Graves was a classical scholar, and based his novel on the historical accounts available, principally The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius. Suetonius wrote his history after all the people involved were dead, and his book reads like a collection of anecdotes placed in approximately chronological order. Suetonius seems to have dug up and recorded as fact every scurrilous rumor he could find. Some of the rumors are contradictory, and some merely implausible. When Graves turned The Twelve Caesars into I, Claudius, he resolved this mass of unprocessed material into a coherent product. The puzzling trivialities are explained. The contradictions are cleared up. Sometimes the scurrilous rumors are explained as scurrilous rumors; sometimes Claudius explains the grain of truth that lies at their center. Other times the true story, as related by Claudius, is even worse than the watered-down version that came to Suetonius's ears. Suetonius mentions that, as emperor, Claudius tried to introduce three new letters into the alphabet. Huh? In Graves' novel, this is foreshadowed early, and when it finally happens, it makes sense.

In King Jesus, then, Graves has done for the Bible what he did for Suetonius in I, Claudius. He takes a mass of material, much of it misreported, or partly-forgotten stories written down a generation later, and reconstructs a plausible history from which that mass of material could have developed. The miracles are explained, without requiring anything supernatural or magical, but, at the same time, without becoming any less miraculous.

There is a story that Borges tells about the miracles performed by the Buddha, who generally eschewed miracles as being too showy. But Borges tells the story that one day the Buddha had to cross a desert, and seven different gods each gave him a parasol to shade his head. The Buddha did not want to offend any of the gods, so he split himself into seven Buddhas, and each one crossed the desert using a different parasol. He performed a miracle of politeness.

(The trouble with Borges's stories is that you never know which ones he read in some obscure 17th-century book, and which ones he made up himself. I spent a whole year thinking how clever Borges had been to have invented the novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, with his alphabetical initials, and then one day I was in the bookstore and came upon the Adolfo Bioy Casares section. Oops.)

Anyway, Graves lets Jesus have the miracles, and they are indeed miraculous, but they are miracles of kindness and insight, not miracles of stage magic. When Graves explains the miracles, you say "oh, of course", without then saying "is that all?" I have not yet gotten to the part where Jesus silences the storm and walks on water, but I am looking forward to it. I did get to the loaves and fishes, and it was quite satisfactory. I am not going to spoil the surprise.

I recommend it. Check it out.

[ Addendum 20080201: James Russell has read both I, Claudius and Twelve Caesars. ]

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