In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on John le Carré's and Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare's pretenders.

Our lead reviewer John Gray opens our Spring Books special this week. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

“Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.”

Elsewhere in Books Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth. “[T]he plot proves to be as underdeveloped as the characters, the conspiracy so gestural, that it is hard to remember that the author is the man who gave us the intricate, internecine plots of Smiley’s world.” Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. “These days I can rarely be bothered to attend cricket matches but can happily spend hours browsing Wisden scorecards, re-creating matches I have never seen in my mind’s eye.”

Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name. “This book helpfully pulls together irrefutable evidence . . . that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.” Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston. “Blake undermined much of what Britain was trying to do in the field of anti-Soviet espionage in the late 1950s.”

Claire Lowdon reviews Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, Clever Girl. “Muriel Spark without the spark: what Hadley lacks is stage presence.” Andrew Adonis reads Michael Waterhouse’s biography of Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary at the outbreak of the First World War. “[I]t was a month of political and diplomatic levity by Grey and Asquith that . . . led to the war and Britain’s fateful participation.”

Plus, in the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. “[My grandchildren] don’t know very much about Chile,” Allende says. “They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it . . . I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.”

Elsewhere in the Critics our film critic Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan; Rachel Cooke watches BBC2’s The Politician’s Husband; Antonia Quirke listens to The Food Programme on Radio 4 and its take on truckers; Alexandra Coghlan on an operatic collaboration between the novelist David Mitchell and the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa; an American tour diary from the singer-songwriter Barb Jungr; and “Fires”, a poem by John Greening.

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds columns this is on - because someone should really mention it - ceremonial funerals.

A still from Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous". Image: Columbia Pictures.
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror