BOOK REVIEW / Beware the Ides of March: Caesar - Allan Massie: Hodder & Stoughton pounds 14.99

Click to follow
FOR MOST of us Julius Caesar lives, as a schoolroom memory of Shakespeare, in the moment of his dying as he slumps in slow motion beneath the daggers of his assassins. Allan Massie's achievement in Caesar (as in Augustus, in particular, and in Tiberius), is to infuse the mythical emperor with blood, to press succulent marrow into the hollow of his bones.

'Caesar has no real sense of the past, no sympathy with the way others may think, no sensitivity to immemorial affections,' Cicero notes, in a flurry of bombast to Decimus Brutus, the novel's narrator. Massie in every respect is the opposite of this Caesar. His Ancient Rome is so replete it makes you suspicious of insider dealing, while he invigorates his characters - history's men - with voices that seem to echo the present, not the past, and which are utterly convincing.

Massie authenticates his tale by drawing together those famous familiars - Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, his triumph over Pompey, Cleopatra smuggled to Caesar in a carpet, the Ides of March - through the thought-scape and memory of Caesar's confidante and adviser, a wordsmith worthy of Massie's mission to reveal and entertain.

These, Brutus states, are his memoirs, not an apology, (though he is captive, awaiting judgement on his role as foremost betrayer of Caesar's trust). The novel conveys with remarkable clarity the double focus of Decimus's tale, the rationale of a conspiracy, combined with its author's urge to play the honourable man. Massie discloses through the tone of the narration, Decimus Brutus's striving for poise, his grasp of the polity and complexity of his times, his stealth, his manipulative power, his aspiration to seeming neutrality: 'I suppose historians will call (it) the conspiracy. I would reject that term: it has criminal connotations . . . we were executioners of just necessity.'

Expediency may thrill; yet it also chills. There are haunting contemporary parallels and echoes: 'I heard Caesar deny the very existence of society,' Decimus mutters. There are references to Caesar's megalomania, to his unwillingness to listen or concede to common counsel; out of the mouths of the principal actors emerges the portrait of a charismatic despot.

Yet out of their mouths they also paint their private lives, their peccadilloes: Mark Antony's love affair with booze; Cleopatra's - CarryOn-Cleo - promiscuity; queens and luvvies the likes of Casca and Maecenas; and the substantial, affecting portrait of Decimus Brutus's burgeoning passion for his wife, which provides the novel's pathetic counterpoint to its melodramatic climax.

It makes for a rounded, lucid, amusing, intriguing account. Massie's authority of tone and control of the elements and nuances of the novel are not in doubt. It is a piece of bravura invention, in scholarly guise, which perhaps only Anthony Burgess, of present living writers of historical novels, might have bettered.