October 16, 2009


Robert Harris Interview: Robert Harris tells Tom Holland why he finds the world of ancient Rome, and the great orator Cicero, so thrilling in his new novel Lustrum (Tom Holland, 16 Oct 2009, Daily Telegraph)

In the course of writing Lustrum he read The Siege of Krishnapur, JG Farrell’s Booker Prize-winning novel set during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and came across a sentence that now serves as his own book’s epigraph: “We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us… but what if we’re only an afterglow of them?” It is a well-chosen question: for Lustrum is indeed powerfully informed by a sense of just how primal the collapse of the Roman republic was.

Harris has gone to great pains to research the ways in which the challenges faced by Cicero were specific to his age; but he also seems to believe, in the way that political observers did in the Renaissance, that the great figures of the Roman republic can hold up a mirror to the power-play of any age. Disraeli can be found in Cicero; Hitler in Julius Caesar. The destruction of Rome’s centuries-old constitution can serve warning to even the smuggest parliamentary democracy that nothing should ever be taken for granted. The Classical ideal of active citizenship, which helped to foster the political culture of the West but is now about as fashionable as cold showers, might still serve both as reproach and inspiration to a modern electorate.

But if Harris really thinks all this, I wonder, why has he not followed the lead of his friend, Peter Mandelson, and thrown himself into “the game”? He answers – and it is hard to tell just how firmly his tongue is in his cheek – that he lacks the aptitude. He does not like giving orders; he lacks the capacity for drudgery; he prefers to play the part of an outsider looking in. This, he suggests, means that the character closest to him in Lustrum may well be its narrator, Tiro. But Harris has too much the look of a Roman senator ever to be mistaken for a slave. Here is a man with the profile and bearing of someone who would actually look good in a toga. He may not have aspired, in the manner of Cicero, to establish himself as a statesman; but in other ways, he leads a life closer to the Roman ideal than that of any other writer on the literary scene. “Otium cum dignitate” was the phrase that Cicero used to describe it – which might be translated as “the leisure to devote oneself to literary projects while enjoying the respect of one’s political peers”. Lustrum is a novel that could only have been written by someone with an intimate knowledge of politics; but with that knowledge, perhaps, has come the wry acknowledgement that writing novels might actually be more fun.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 16, 2009 8:00 PM
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