There is a particular pleasure for Robert Harris, the author of bestselling novels such as Fatherland, Pompeii and Munich, in hanging out with actors, and floating around backstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In his teenage years, he longed to become a playwright and was an avid writer of pieces for his friends. That dream faded away; as a young man, he worked for BBC current affairs programmes, before becoming political editor of the Observer and then a columnist for the Sunday Times. But now, to his delight, he is getting to watch his novels about the Roman politician Cicero adapted into a pair of stage dramas by Mike Poulton. The productions, directed by Gregory Doran, have already had a successful run in Stratford-upon-Avon, and now are opening at the Gielgud theatre in London.
Like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels previously adapted by Poulton, Harris’s books are a clever choice for the RSC. Shakespeare, like every grammar school boy of his time, was brought up on Cicero, Ovid and Seneca. The new plays offer a fascinating companion piece to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and indeed their settings and characters overlap. But Harris, in shaping his stories through the self-made lawyer, politician and philosopher, offers a very different perspective on the events of the 40s BC than Shakespeare.
“Most people side with Julius Caesar on the Ides of March — he was attacked by people he’d promoted and thought were friends,” Harris explains. “But he was a tyrant. Caesar doesn’t seem to me to be that different not just from Napoleon but Hitler, too. You can’t imagine Cicero, if a garrison had surrendered to him, chopping everyone’s hands off and sending them back as a warning.” Harris’s Cicero is no saint: he is venal, vain and verbally cruel. But he also has a winning, obstinate courage, and a touching belief in the Roman political system. “Cicero rose by the power of his oratory and without aristocratic family connections, and he was an attractive figure to me for that reason,” Harris says. “He was also the quintessential politician, the sort of politician I’ve always had a lot of time for - the keep-the-show-on-the-road type.”
Reading the books when they came out, in that long-lost age before the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, it seemed clear to me what these works were about. They were The West Wing for ancient Rome, full of fine-grained detail about the political process; they were exciting political thrillers that spoke to the modern age, cleverly couched in the context of the violent fall of the Roman republic. They were about New Labour, but with private armies, togas and torture. This all seemed wonderfully obvious not least since the second of the three books, Lustrum (the first is Imperium and the third Dictator) is dedicated to “Peter” — Lord Mandelson. And there are clear echoes of Tony Blair in Cicero himself: “The way he’d limber up like a boxer before a speech and afterwards turn like a sunflower to bask in the applause,” as Harris says.
In 2018, on the other hand, the stories read quite differently. They were, it turns out, breathtakingly prescient. They are no less about what it means to achieve power and then watch it ebb away. But what radiates so much more strongly now is what actually happens in the novels: Populism roars on to the political scene, unscrupulous men hack away at a constitution that can no longer contain the forces writhing away within it, a democracy is destroyed. In the RSC’s stage version the contemporary resonances are made palpable: the military commander Pompey, who was in antiquity famous for his quiff-like hairdo, gets a full Trumpian wig.
Harris is as surprised and intrigued as anybody by this fresh relevance. Imperium (right) was published in 2006. He had just finished Pompeii, which had taken shape as an idea when he realised the American novel he was working on “about a superpower under threat” could more productively be set in ancient Rome. The first thing he did was drive to Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford from his house in Berkshire (which he shares with his writer wife, Gill Hornby). It was a good day for the store’s classics department, normally rather a quiet spot: he left with a boot full of all 29 volumes of Cicero published by the Loeb Classical Library, ranging from his forensic and political speeches to works of philosophy and volumes of letters. Harris spent two years reading all of it, plus everything else he could lay his hands on: the great works of Roman history by Ronald Syme, Theodor Mommsen and others. (It shows: His command of the historical material is impressive.)
“At times I did wonder what on earth I was doing,” he says now. “It wasn’t until the events of the last couple of years that I realised that I had picked up on something in the air.”
It is sometimes observed by writers that scenarios they have merely imagined later actually take place — as if part of the imaginative process is to sense tiny vibrations in the world, too faint to be apprehended by the conscious mind. Or, as he puts it, “as if the imagination provides a ladder to the future”.
Looking back, he thinks, he did feel a sense of unease in the late 1990s. “Everyone was saying western values would triumph. I just knew that wasn’t right, and that what felt like a settled era was actually anything but. That sense of a low-level hum found an outlet in the Roman books.”
But he certainly didn’t anticipate how on-target the books now feel, as a story “of the population turning on the elite, egged on by unscrupulous billionaires; of a constitution that just buckles and breaks”, as he describes it. In particular, he points to the damage done in late-republican Rome by what amounted to referendums, resulting in “enormous concentrations of power in individual hands, which the whole system had been designed to prevent”.
Harris has an almost Ciceronian admiration for that system: “It was a better democracy than ours, in many ways. There were annual elections, election of judges, a vibrant political culture. Of course, slaves couldn’t vote, women couldn’t vote and the whole thing was weighted in the interests of the wealthy. But nevertheless it was an amazing achievement, in terms of checks and balances and power being controlled and carefully disseminated.”
The republic failed, he believes, because it was essentially designed for a city state, not for a rapidly expanding empire with vast influxes of wealth. “It is the question posed for modern America — can you become the world’s superpower and remain a functioning democracy? I’m not sure you can actually. In fact, I think we may look back on our democracies as a pleasant 150-year interlude.”
Harris, a dapperly besuited man in his early 60s, is still enough of a political columnist to enjoy a good chewing-over of the current state of things. Theresa May “is a particular puzzle”, he thinks. “She seems to detest everything that goes with the job she holds. Why put yourself through it? What I can’t understand is someone who shrinks from human contact, who is unable to do a general election campaign because she doesn’t like meeting people, yet wants to be prime minister. You couldn’t put this in fiction. If you put May in your novel people would say, ‘This is utterly ridiculous.’” He finds her actions over Brexit particularly bewildering. The only thing he can think of to explain it — and even this he finds unlikely — is that she is like Tolstoy’s general Kutuzov in War and Peace, whose strategy is to keep retreating so that the French are obliged to go deeper and deeper into Russia until he reaches Moscow, where “they wait for everyone to surrender, but nobody comes, and there’s nothing for it but to go home again. Sometimes I think that’s the strategy she has adopted — taking it so far, avoiding confrontation, avoiding a vote, that it eventually has nowhere to go except to turn around and die of its own internal contradictions”.
Nevertheless, he is delighted not to be writing a weekly newspaper column any longer: “I find journalism a strain, even now.” He made the transition to fiction after the birth of his first child; Hornby had stopped working and they needed a second income to supplement what he was earning at the Sunday Times. He had the idea for Fatherland — a novel set in an alternative world in which Germany had won the second world war — and struggled with it, eventually putting it away for a year. “And then I took it out of the drawer and plotted it through to the end, which was the key thing, absolutely crucial if you are doing a thriller or a detective story. There’s this terrible cliche about ‘the characters taking over’ novels. Well, you are in terrible trouble if your swarming characters take over your story. They need to know their place. Such a lot of bullshit is talked about writing novels. Another one is, ‘Oh I’ve got to go to my remote Tuscan farmhouse to write.’ You really need domestic routine and life going on around you, I think.”
There was an auction for the rights to Fatherland in New York, it was published to acclaim in 1992, and since then Harris has written a cavalcade of bestselling books, including Enigma, about the world war two codebreakers, and Conclave, about the election of a new pope.
Notwithstanding the fact that his next book will be set in the distant future, Harris clearly derives a particular pleasure from imagining the past. It is, he says, “almost like being a medium: there is a kind of electric charge and you feel, ‘Oh, it must have been like this’”.
Researching Enigma, he visited some of the then very elderly codebreakers. “They’d say, ‘Oh well, it was very important in the battle for north Africa,’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t tell me that! Tell me, where did you hang your hat? When did you take meal breaks? Did you arrive by bus? What was it like on the night shift?’” His novels have this way about them of seeming to hover in two time frames simultaneously — that of their meticulously researched setting, and that of the present in which they are read. “The truth is that my books are both extremely accurate and completely fantastical at the same time. I did a book about the Dreyfus affair that was as close to documentary fiction as you can get, but I put it in the voice of a man who never wrote a memoir. It both happened and it didn’t happen remotely like that. That’s the pleasure of it.”
Harris seems as content a man as you can imagine. Writing books is, for him, like inhabiting the imagination of his boyhood, when he loved to escape into the wonderful realms created by storytellers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and HG Wells. (Of the latter, he says, “I realise more and more what an influence he was, with his leaping off into the unknown, and yet grounded in reality.”)
He has been reading the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay’s collected letters, and quotes her sage advice on structure: “Oh darling, it’s just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.” Ramsay’s view, he tells me, is that for writers hard work is more important than talent, “and this is profoundly true. But to be quite honest with you I really enjoy writing, and any day that I don’t do it I miss it, miss the whole refuge of another world. If you have a secret world you can go into, and if you can somehow make the secret world and the real world meet, and make some money out of it, I simply cannot think of any better way of living.”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd