‘An interesting and intelligent novel’ – Augustus by John Williams

Augustus by John Williams

So we all know the John Williams story by now (or at least the posthumous re-release story): third novel, Stoner, reissued, to become a word of mouth bestseller across Europe; second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, reissued; and now, fourth novel, Augustus reissued (it will be interesting to see if Williams’ fictional debut, Nothing but the Night, or his unfinished fifth, The Sleep of Reason, emerge, a Pale King, in the coming months). The first thing you have to be struck by on picking up Augustus is what critic Morris Dickstein noted, that each of Williams’ books are ‘strikingly different in subject’. They do all share a similar narrative arc, though, Dickstein continued:

‘a young man’s initiation, vicious male rivalries, subtler tensions between men and women, fathers and daughters, and finally a bleak sense of disappointment, even futility.’

If you arrive at Augustus having read Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, with a faint tracing of the Dickstein quote in your mind, you’ll read and think: check, check, check, check and check – even whilst, just to labour the point, noting the differences Williams can conjure, book to book.

Augustus, in case you need a reminder, was the founder of the Roman empire and its first emperor, ruling from 27 BC to his death in 14 AD. Williams tells his tale in three parts – as a fledgling upstart, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, looking to make his way, a way made more difficult in the wake of the assassination of Julius; as the leader of Rome when Rome was the greatest city in the world; and, finally, as a man at the end of his life, coming to terms with his successes and, increasingly, his failures. More unexpected, perhaps, is the way in which Williams chooses to construct his Augustus, via the views of a great many others, spied in the interstices of correspondence and memoir, friend and enemy alike. So we hear from his contemporaries, Marcus Agrippa, who goes on to lead many of Augustus’ campaigns, Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, who looks after Rome when Augustus is often away, fighting in wars himself, and Quintus Salvidienus Rufus, who quickly falls on his sword but who Augustus goes on to believe is too much like him for comfort. We hear from Cicero and Brutus and Lepidemus and Mark Anthony, all of whom, at one poinr or another, view Augustus as an enemy. And, in time, we hear from wives, daughters, lovers, and old servants, all of whom have a view upon the fragmented picture we come to develop of Augustus.

Along the way, the novel resonates, as I’m sure Williams intended back in 1973 when the book was first published, with the world in which we find ourselves (and how depressing it is, in a way, that the resonances of 1973 – the echoes of ancient Rome, some two thousand years ago – remain the resonances of 2014, at least as far as power and the wielding thereof is concerned):

“What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.”

Not that Augustus is primarily a device for Williams to discuss power and the wielding thereof; Augustus is much more interested in humanising historical figures from centuries previous, and Williams narrative engine allows him to be extremely playful when it comes to the construction of eyeholes. At the beginning of Book 2, for example, we hear from Hirtia, who played alongside Augustus when the two were small children, Hirtia’s mother a kind of peasant nanny for the boy. They meet, once again, many years later, both old, and Augustus takes time for reminiscences:

“I am content to go when the gods call me,” [Hirtia] said.

He nodded and a sombreness came upon his face. He said with a bitterness I could not understand. “Then you are more fortunate than I, my sister.”

“But you -” I said, “- you are not like other men. In the countryside your image protects the hearth. And at the crossroads, and in the temples. Are you not happy in the honor of the world?”

He looked at me for a moment, and did not answer.”

We also hear extensively from Augustus’ daughter Julia, banished to Pandateria, writing from AD 4, of her various marriages, brokered by her father in aid of one allegiance or another (and there are portions of the novel that reveal bizarre marital movements, happily married characters asked to divorce to fulfil sometimes inscrutable Augustan itches in need of scratching) – and the eventual tragedy that leads to her own downfall (a downfall that contributes, in large part, to Augustus’ own feelings of disappointment at the end of his life – the end of his life being the first and only time we actually hear from the man himself).

Broadly speaking, Augustus (or Octavius Caesar, as he is also known) seems to have been judged by history to have been a good leader:

“Octavius Caesar has brought peace to this land; not since Actium has Roman raised sword against Roman. He has brought prosperity to the city and the countryside; not even the poorest of the people wants for food in the city, and those in the provinces prosper from the beneficences of Rome and Octavius Caesar. Octavius Caesar has brought liberty to the people; no longer need the slave live in fear of the arbitrary cruelty of his master, nor the poor man fear the venality of the rich, nor the responsible speaker fear the consequences of his words.”

In his own view, however, he remains a man whose failures ring more loudly than his triumphs – and yet even in this, the weighing of success and failure, he has equanimity:

“Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome and it will not wholly die; the barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood. And in time that is ceaseless as this salt sea upon which I am so frailly suspended, the cost is nothing, is less than nothing.”

If asked to weigh its place alongside Williams’ other books, I’d say it’s probably the one I enjoyed the least but that is more to do with the subject matter than it is the book itself (I find ancient Rome curiously uninviting) – and that, given Augustus was the book that did the best in his lifetime, is probably the kind of contrariness that suits Williams’ posthumous career.

Any Cop?:  If you’re gearing up to a read of Adrian Goldsworthy’s recent biography, you could do worse than start here. If you consider yourself a fan of Williams, again, there is much here that you’ll find yourself deriving pleasure from. It’s certainly an interesting and intelligent novel.

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