The First Man in Rome | Critical Review by Gary Jennings

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man in Rome.
This section contains 544 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Idema

Critical Review by Gary Jennings

SOURCE: "Roman Scandals," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 13.

Below, Jennings offers an unfavorable review of The Grass Crown, finding fault with the novel's slow development and excessive incorporation of historical minutiae.

In The Grass Crown, Colleen McCullough continues the work she began with The First Man in Rome, a history of the Roman Republic and its surrounding world of the first century B.C. There is really no need for this volume's 74-page glossary and other endpaper flauntings of Serious Scholarship. The author, best known for The Thorn Birds, all too obviously did voluminous research, because every last fact and detail she unearthed seems to be included here, not a jot or title discarded as superfluous, irrelevant or reader-numbing. Observe:

"Drusus's house was right on the corner of the Germalus of the Palatine where the Clivus Victoriae turned at right angles to run along the length of the Forum Romanum, so it possessed a wonderful view; in earlier days the view had extended to the left into the Velabrum when the vacant space of the area Flacciana had existed next door, but now the huge porticus Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar had erected on it reared columns skyward, and blocked that old lookout."

If Ms. McCullough's attempts at evoking ancient Rome are only leaden, her evocation of ancient Romans is downright ludicrous. She makes them speak a yuppie jargon of "expertise" and "role-model" and "résumé" and "overreacting" and "off-putting." Also, never once do these ancient Romans not misuse the word "hopefully," a solecism very difficult to commit in Latin. Come to that, I should dearly love to hear the ostensible Latin for such lines as "Either you streamline your operation, Julia, or …"

I reckon this remorselessly detailed history is called a novel just because a good deal of the history gets put between quotation marks, purporting to be human conversation. As often as not, in these dialogues the characters regale one another with history they certainly ought already to know:

"'My dear little niece,' said Publius Rutilius Rufus…. 'Only consider…. Two hundred and forty-four years of the kings, then four hundred and eleven years of the Republic. Rome has been in existence now for six hundred and fifty-five years, growing ever mightier. But how many of the old families are still producing consuls, Aurelia? The Cornelii. The Servilii. The Valerii. The Postumii. The Claudii. The Aemilii. The Sulpicii."

There are a few action scenes in the book, notably some nice gory butcheries, but they are far between, separated by great swads of that dreadful dialogue-history and even drearier accounts of back-room political backbiting. To sum it up in blurbspeak, The Grass Crown is in the grand tradition of the Congressional Record, masses of gassy morass with a nugget of interest here and there. So I shall perform a public service. To save anyone's having to rummage for the Real Juicy Bits, here is a sample, the climax of the big sex scene:

"Fruit, sweet and sticky—thin bare twigs tangled amid a bluest sky—the jerky pain of hair caught too tight—a tiny bird with stilled wings glued to the tendrils of a webby cloud—a huge lump of packed-down exultation struggling to be born, then suddenly soaring free, free—oh, in such an ecstasy!"

Hopefully, off-putting.

(read more)

This section contains 544 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Idema