Friday, April 7, 2017

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George (2017)

The first book Margaret George wrote was The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (1986).  I probably first read this book in the early 1990s.  The last time I read it was in 2004; my Goodreads review (which was added later than that) reads:   "The ultimate story of a middle aged man's midlife crisis." I only include that because it's true, and it's funny in a pithy way.  I do not know if I read Alison Weir's Tudor histories (real stuff) or Margaret George's fictional account first.  I know that I wrote a (dumb) short story about Anne Boleyn's last night in prison before her beheading in my college creative writing class that is completely derivative.  So by fall of 1992, I was already a fan of the Tudors. That's in large part due to Margaret George.  I really enjoyed that first novel of hers, and I've read it multiple times.

I've never liked another Margaret George book since.

It's not the subject matter either.  My Tudorphilia isn't at the expense of all other genres and historical characters.  Margaret George has written now about two Roman figures - Cleopatra and now Nero.  Both of which I disliked.    I don't remember liking the book about Mary, Queen of Scots (although that's what, 25 years ago?).  I think what made Henry VIII so damn good was the narrative voice she created for him - so rich, and real, and always so selfish and unreliable, and the remarkable character of Will Somers, to pull the bloated balloon of pride and self absorption that was Henry VIII back to the earth, if only for us, the reader.  I'm not sure if it was great literature - I'm certainly not a good judge of that - but it made for great reading.  The very best kind of historical fiction.

The Confessions of Young Nero was a watered down version of what Margaret George created over 30 years ago.  It's almost like a template:  the inner monologue and first person of some historical character of importance, in this case Nero; and the casual asides or real truths of someone close that historical person; in this case a poisoner named Locasta, and Nero's girlfriend? mistress?  love interest? Acte.  The "might have beens" here, particularly those of Locasta, are astounding to think about.  Telling Nero's story through the eyes of his chief poisoner would have been a far, far more fascinating story than the confused and milquetoasty novel that George ultimately writes.  Not even the whole novel either; she has a part II coming (we didn't even get to the fire, or the castrated slave boy who becomes Nero's wife).  I understand what George is trying to do here, because she did it so very well with Henry VIII:  fictional rehabilitation.  And her afterword proved to me that if any historical character is due a rehabilitation, it's Nero, misunderstood for 2,000 years. It's just not this one.  Bad guy Nero is a lot more interesting than misunderstood angsty hot topic Nero, and that's Margaret George's fault.

The Confessions of Young Nero (Nero #1)The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Margaret George sets out to polish the 2,000 year old tarnished image of Emperor Nero, misunderstood for two millennia. But the Nero of fiddling fame ends up being far more interesting than the angsty hot topic emo Nero that lopes through these pages. That's not the fault of the erstwhile emperor; George never quite succeeds at bringing Nero and First Century A.D. Rome to life. She does try one literary trick I found clever - narrating some of Nero's life through the eyes of a female poisoner named Locasta; but this was never fully flushed out in a way that even made literary sense. According to his tutor and advisor (and murder victim) Seneca, Nero said "Vellem nescire literas" - which can be translated as "I wish I were illiterate." I wouldn't quite go that far, but I will say I wondered occasionally why I was trying to finish this book.

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