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Matthew Kneale: Books that changed my life


18th Aug 2021 Meet the Author

Matthew Kneale: Books that changed my life

The award winning history author chats about the books that defined him

Matthew Kneale is the award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction including A History of Rome in Seven Sacking and English Passengers which won the Whitbread Book Award in 2000.  He has lived in Rome for the past 18 years with his family. His most recent book is The Rome Plague Diaries published by Atlantic Books.

As a child I loved the Tintin books - for their adventures, their characters and their stylish illustrations. Though Hergé visited almost none of the faraway places he drew, he captured them perfectly. His images, whether of Peru, Arabia, India or China, stayed with me and later, when I became a keen traveller, Tintin's destinations were the places that I most wanted to reach. I never saw them all, needless to say, but I got to quite a few.

This was another book I loved as a child – the story of a boy, who is bored staying with his grandparents, when he runs into Stig, an amiable stone age man. When my father read it to my sister and me, I was already fascinated by history and I loved the way the book captured the mystery of our distant, unrecorded past. Its aura stayed with me and much later I spent many a weekend driving around Britain, getting lost on small country roads, looking for prehistoric tombs and stone circles. There's something breathtaking about these places, which are often in extraordinary locations. 

When I first saw Rome, aged eight, I was amazed by the city's layers of history and this same magic led me to come and live here, twenty years ago. I first read 'I Claudius,' as a teenager and was captivated by the story of amiable, stammering, ridiculed Claudius, who grows up in the vipers' nest of Rome's imperial family and who, against all the odds, as his relatives destroy one another, survives and rises. Graves, a fine scholar, has a talent for making the past spring to life, in all its nastiness and wonder. In my own writing, fiction and non-fiction, I've tried to follow his example – to make history astound, as it should do.

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