Features & profiles


Fiction reviews

Health, psychology & science stories


Investigative stories

Non-fiction reviews



PR, copy, corporate

Prime Minister interviews

Southeast Asia


( 354 visitor comments )


Fiction reviews


Colleen McCullough - The First Man in Rome

13 November 1990

The First Man in Rome
Colleen McCullough

Published in The Australian

Every artform has debasers, whose task it is to transform a creative medium into a marketing one. Ken Done in painting, Molly Meldrum in music, et al, ad nauseam. For a literary nominee, I'd have suggested Robert Ludlum or Jeffrey Archer - whose squalid nadirs I have plumbed more than once. Or Colleen McCullough, purely on the strength of her reputation.

Now that I've read her, however, a comparison with Ludlum or Archer seems unfair: McCullough may scrape the bottom of the barrel occasionally by dint of her flawed instincts, but she doesn't make a beeline for it on principle. True, her prose is as flat as the Nullabor. (Perhaps the marketing men could make something of that: "Colleen McCullough: Flat as the Nullabor!") However she seems aware of this limitation, and rigorously directs the reader's attention to the story - the bone-structure of which, in this case, is reasonably sound. And it is no exaggeration to say that The First Man in Rome is researched as exhaustively as any novel of the last decade.

McCullough's story - set in the second century BC - is about the rises of two men, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, toward the post of First Man in Rome. The post has not been filled for over a century - no-one having been up to scratch. The low-born Marius has partially overome his origins by making a fortune through military conquest. But he knows he will go no further without an injection of dignitas: class, honour, worth.

An Australian millionaire in a similar dilemma will purchase Old Masters, an English mansion and/or a graceful young wife. In the short-term Marius settles for the wife. She is Julia, daughter of the famous family of Julius Caesar. A generation or two down the line the Julius Caesars will produce the greatest Roman of all - but for the moment the family is close to penury.

So the marriage between Marius and Julia is timely for all; and particularly as Marius has a destiny - reiterated, throughout the story, by every crazed crone and pet shop galah in Rome - to one day fill the post of First Man.

At first Sulla seems virtually to be Marius' Shadow figure. He observes Marius' rise with great interest. He murders the three people he lives with (two of them his lovers) to get his hands on their money. Financially established, he marries the other daughter of the Julius Caesars, and uses the family link to become Marius' protege. So begin the ascents of two very ambitious men: ascents which are mainly taken up with military campaigns, and a dedication to political deviousness which would put the ALP electoral machine in the shade.

The story, therefore, is interesting enough. Regrettably, however, McCullough's writing has an eye-glazing deadness about it. There is no descriptiveness of any power, no wit; no shifts in mood, and no risks. Her timing is dreadful: dramatic denouements are dropped in your lap without warning, or tossed in like afterthoughts. All this is compounded by the worst editing job of any book I have reviewed.

The typos and spelling mistakes number in hundreds. There are some very laboured similes. ("He must tread as surely and delicately as a cat on a windowsill strewn with broken shards a full twelve floors above the pavement."). There are many inappropriate adverbs ("he was the father of twelve children, but they were universally a sickly brood"), wrong metaphors ("He walked in the same kind of weather the previous day had endured"), wrong conjunctions ("different than" gets a hiding), syntactical errors ("If I don't think I'd get a good return from you, Lucius Cornelius, you wouldn't be sitting here now.") and passages of borderline nonsense: "What you felt was so amorphous it kept squeezing itself into something different yet equally unidentifiable" - to say nothing of "no latent discord rumbled an undertone".

McCullough has favourite words she uses rather too often - my least favourite was "spasmed". (One can cover a lot of ground with spasmed, in a book about ancient Rome - sex, death and chundering for a start - but there must be alternatives.) And there are aesthetic eyesores: for instance a character planning a soiree is described as being "party to a party".

A good editor would have picked up all of this. That this is not the case is - considering the book is being marketed as an international publishing event - lamentable. The author - who, if she didn't read the proofs, should have - also merits criticism. (So, for that matter, do obsequious Melbourne radio interviewers during McCullough's recent visit: a doctor or builder who had botched things so fundamentally would have been crucified by the media.)

The strength of The First Man in Rome is its research - even "scholarship" is not too strong a word. The detail is superb. McCullough's characterisation is passable too - but (strangely enough) only where men are concerned. Her women are never more than ornamental. To say that this reflects the period is no excuse: even ornamental women have feelings and thoughts under the gilt; and there are always reasons for their status which bear examination.

Colleen McCullough is paid millions of dollars not to pursue research - at which she excels - but to write novels, a task for which she has little aptitude. This may or may not say something about declining literacy. It certainly tells us something about the power of marketing.

Visitor's : Add Comment