Despite his conscientious research into Imperial Rome and a profusion of authentic minor details, Pilpel (Churchill in...



Despite his conscientious research into Imperial Rome and a profusion of authentic minor details, Pilpel (Churchill in America; To the Honor of the Fleet) has set his solemn, occasionally smarmy novel in some permanent 1959-of-the-soul. Lucius, the plebian narrator, becomes friends with the young Marcus Aurelius, and eventually becomes a champion runner in the Greek games (the Olympics). The tale of his raffish boyhood comes to life convincingly. Unfortunately, however, the story of the young Lucius is interspersed with the journal of the old Lucius' self-analysis (one thinks of Roz Chast's cartoon ""Freud through the Ages""): the old man feels guilty for the death of his son; he is miserable because he adores his surviving daughter; he loathes his self-loathing. In short, old Lucius is a bore, and he interrupts the lively flow of the other story, which is focused on a love-triangle, or actually quadrangle. In his youth, Lucius loves patrician Annia, but class differences forbid their marriage. Marcus loves Lucius and also is determined to marry Annia (some Stoic!); he also loves Agricus, Lucius' best friend from the slums. Agricus loves Lucius, who dislikes and distrusts Agricus. The biography of Lucius sets up these conflicts, and the old man's journal reinterprets the same events, putting Lucius in the wrong, especially in his treatment of Agricus--although most readers will find young Agricus' behavior so sadistic that they will reject the old man's altered judgment. The raunchy sex scenes are right out of Peyton Place (they, and the rather labored self-analysis, account for the ""Fifties"" flavor). And the awkward narration often verges on the unintentionally comic (""I remained, moreover, both intrigued and repelled by his cruelty, which partook at times of pure malevolence, but often stemmed from simple callousness as well""). There is a surprise twist at the end, whereupon old Lucius cheers up a bit and stops maundering about his dreams. On balance, the old man--in his stammering efforts to escape the punishment of Marcus' successor Commodus--is only palely reminiscent of Graves' superbly rendered Claudius. And if the young Lucius' adventures have a slick vitality, the old Lucius turns them to murmurings in his beard.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 1985


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985