Julius Caesar in fiction

February 21, 2012

Here is a sneak peek into three novels about Caesar’s last days.

1. The October Horse by Colleen McCullough

This is the last book in a series of six on the decline of Rome. Here’s what the reviewers had to say:

McCullough, whose research is exemplary, as always, tells the story with contemporary flair and persuasive psychological insights…  The familiar events from Shakespeare are tweaked so that the death of Caesar becomes even more tragic as the conspirators begin destroying all he had accomplished. They raid the treasury for themselves and fail to take care of the legions. But they soon must contend with the opposition of Caesar’s unlikely heir, 18-year-old Octavius. As ambitious as his uncle, he brilliantly outwits them all as the battles and bloodshed continue.  Kirkus Reviews, 19487428, Vol. 70, Issue 19. Via: Literary Reference Center.

Caesar is a bit too perfect in McCullough’s telling, and Antony too monstrous; the novel also suffers from a sameness of voice throughout. But the skillfulness of McCullough’s portrait of Octavian will make readers wish more novels were in the offing. Introduced as a guarded, talented youth, he is transformed by Caesar’s assassination into a merciless, retributive man-or perhaps he simply shows his true colors. The book ends in a dark blaze of vengeance with his pursuit and destruction of Caesar’s assassins. Jeff Zaleski, Editor, Publishers Weekly; 11/4/2002, Vol. 249 Issue 44, p62. Via: Literary Reference Center.

2. Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

The fourth book in the Emperor series about the intertwining lives of Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus.

This volume features some gripping moments but suffers from poorly defined motivation (e.g., Brutus appears petty) and strained dialog (e.g., “Did Caesar’s friends really call him ‘Julius’ when his first name was ‘Gaius’?”). Also, because it tries to say so much, it lacks the richness of Colleen McCullough’s novels on Caesar…  Still, Gods of War is an entertaining and fairly compelling historical novel, an impressive feat considering everyone already knows the ending. Conroy, Robert, Library Journal, 03630277, Vol. 131, Issue 4. Via: Literary Reference Center.

Brimming with military, political and romantic intrigue, this action-packed epic provides a breathtaking panorama of one of the most exciting episodes in the ancient world and breathes new life into a legendary historical figure. Margaret Flanagan, Booklist, 01/02/2006, Vol. 102 Issue 11, p4. Via: ANZ Reference Centre.

3. The Ides of March by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

…in Modena Publius Sextus, Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, learns of a plot to kill Caesar and sets out, pursued by enemies, to warn him. This plot element helps to provide some suspense to a story whose ending, after all, the reader knows in advance. Manfredi’s portrayal of Caesar as ill, victimized by seizures, and haunted by visions of the men he has killed over the years adds depth to the story. VERDICT Primarily concerned with the nature of political power, most effectively in its depiction of the aftermath of Caesar’s death.. Douglas Southard, Library Journal; 2/1/2010, Vol. 135 Issue 2, p58.

…simply retells a story familiar to anyone who’s read Shakespeare’s play. Given the universally known outcome, the insertion of a character, centurion Publius Sextius, who races to reach Rome in time to protect his friend, comes across as a misguided effort to create tension. The translation’s anachronistic-sounding colloquial speech (“What kills me is the waiting”) will jar on some ears, while the focus on action rather than character will disappoint others. Publishers Weekly, 00000019, 1/4/2010, Vol. 257, Issue 1. Via: Literary Reference Center.


The New Yorker Short Story Podcast

February 6, 2012

In this monthly podcast current writers for The New Yorker choose and read short stories published in earlier days. You can listen online or subscribe through iTunes. Two recent stories have elements suitable to consider for conflicting perspectives.

A Village After Dark by Canadian writer Kazuo Ishiguro is a strangely surreal story about a man who returns to the village of his younger years. Even knowing the place like the back of his hand he seems to keep getting lost and coming upon people who he used to know or who know him by reputation. We are never told what happened in the past but must put it together as best we can by inference from the conversations and recollections of the man. Who is friend and who is foe is never quite resolved. As well as listening to this story via the podcast, you can read the full text here. First published 2001.

Niccolo Tucci’s The Evolution of Knowledge is set a few years after the Second World War in a New York building inhabited by immigrants and refugees from Europe. A “friendly” series of conversations between neighbours about the noise that the children make, which disturbs the old man downstairs, escalates into a farce of some proportions and even to a discussion of fascism, a sore point for both families.

The full text of Tucci’s story is not available online but it appears in his collection The Rain Came Last & Other Stories.


Caesar and Cleopatra

February 6, 2012

Caesar and Cleopatra is a four act play written by George Bernard Shaw and first produced in 1906.

Caesar and Cleopatra opens as Caesar’s armies arrive in Egypt to conquer the ancient divided land for Rome. Caesar meets the young Cleopatra crouching at night between the paws of a sphinx, where—having been driven from Alexandria—she is hiding. He returns her to the palace, reveals his identity, and compels her to abandon her girlishness and accept her position as coruler of Egypt (with Ptolemy Dionysus, her brother). Caesar and Cleopatra was extraordinarily successful, largely because of Shaw’s talent for characterization.  – “Caesar and Cleopatra.” Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2012. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Shaw greatly admired Caesar as a leader and thought that Shakespeare had not presented him fittingly.

Three films have been made of Shaw’s play – 1945, 1976 and 2005. None are easy to track down in Australia, but here is a scene from Alec Guinness as Caesar in the 1976 version. It begins with Caesar alone in the desert, reflecting, and gives another perspective on his character.


The Tall Man

February 6, 2012

The Tall Man (2009) by Chloe Hooper is an award winning book of non-fiction which investigated the background to a tragic and explosive event which happened on Palm Island, Queensland in November 2004.

The Tall Man is the story of Palm Island, the tropical paradise where one morning Cameron Doomadgee swore at a policeman and forty minutes later lay dead in a watch-house cell.

It is the story of that policeman, the tall, enigmatic Christopher Hurley who chose to work in some of the toughest and wildest places in Australia, and of the struggle to bring him to trial.

Above all, it is a story in luminous detail of two worlds clashing – and a haunting moral puzzle that no reader will forget. (Penguin Books)

Last year a documentary was made based on the book, directed by Tony Kravitz and shown on SBS TV on 5th February 2012. Kravitz uses the techniques of the documentary to present this story. But two people are missing from the film. The victim and the police officer who was eventually charged with his manslaughter – the only police officer ever charged with the manslaughter of an Aboriginal person in Queensland.

Watch The Tall Man on SBS On Demand till 5th March.

The Tall Man: About the documentary.

Download the film study guide for The Tall Man from Metro Magazine.

Useful information for studying or teaching documentary – definitions, conventions and questions to ask.


The Social Network (2010)

November 15, 2011

Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.

From the book, Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich

 The Social Network is an adaptation of a book about the amazing story behind the rise and rise of Facebook. It is a story of friendship and rivalry, with a little conspiracy, bad behaviour, perhaps betrayal or just plain dirty tricks. You’ll find lots out there about this film including this review from Rex Baylon’s Film Expression which specifically addresses conflicting perspectives in the film. Some have been at pains to point out major factual errors in the film, useful mostly in clarifying that the film is a fictional account in the end; the book uses fiction techniques to illuminate the story after all. (Listen to an interview with Ben Mezrich on The Book Show.)

A recent article, “Friendship Pending”, Screen Education, No. 61, Autumn 2011, pp8-15, discusses, in particular, friendship and betrayal and the portrayal of women in the film. A few thought provoking questions are listed for class discussion at the end of the article and may be useful for developing your own perspective:

Do you think Zuckerberg is portrayed as a creative? Provide arguments for and against.

In what sense can Zuckerberg be considered to espouse a punk ethos in the film?

(Find Screen Education magazine in TKS library.)

The Official Site has many video clips, interviews and also Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay.



November 15, 2011

Rashomon is a short story by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). The film of the same name directed by Akira Kurosawa (1910-98) in 1950 takes the original story and blends it with another Akutagawa story, In A Grove. How does it work?

In a Grove, only 13 pages long, comprises seven statements concerning the murder of a samurai warrior and the disappearance of his wife. The first four are represented as witness “testimony” to an investigating police officer; the last three are “confessions”. Each of the principals offers a conflicting perspective … Rashomon itself is a bizarre tale set in an old gatehouse. A servant, waiting for the rain to stop, interrupts a corpse-robber preying on bodies dumped in the ruined building. Perspectives on a Japanese Classic by Andrew Pulver, The Guardian, 16th Oct 2004. 

Read the Guardian article to find out how the book and film compare.

From the library:

Rashomon (1950) AV RAS

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories F AKU

Adaptations: from short story to big screen 791.436 ADA


Black and White

May 26, 2010

Black and White

“It is as clear as black and white.”

“I used to see everything as black and white.”

“He won’t believe it until he sees it in black and white.”

“They are as different as black and white.”

It is simple, isn’t it? But Black and White is also the name of a picture book by David Macaulay which is described by the publisher (Houghton Mifflin) thus:

Four stories are told simultaneously, with each double-page spread divided into quadrants. The stories do not necessarily take place at the same moment in time, but are they really one story? You’ll have to read this award winner and find out.

You can take a peek right now via this Google Books preview:

Black and White by David Macaulay