When I was asked to be the guest editor of an issue of Ploughshares, my first thought was John Williams. I knew that he had a new novel in progress, and I hoped to be able to publish a portion of it and do some kind of interview that would bring his work to the attention of other appreciative readers. The abiding frustration of the "cult" of dedicated Williams fans is that his books are not nearly as well known as they deserve to be. That is a common complaint among writers, but John's case seems perversely unique.Suffice it to say that his death ten years ago hasn't brought John Williams any posthumous recognition either. In fact, when I first looked for this National Book Award winner it was out of print, though a nice new edition seems to have come out since. At any rate, this is a terrific mostly epistolary account of the rise to power and reign of Augustus, with letters to, by, and about him mixed in with fragments of memoirs and histories. This narrative structure may be a bit off-putting at first--I'm not personally a big fan of epistolary novels--but you quickly get the hang of it and it affords a range of perspectives on the great man that has a powerful cumulative effect.
Though the life of Augustus is largely a tale of triumph, the story told here is more like a tragedy. Young Octavius and his friends are motivated by a dream of the greatness of the lost Roman Republic, but, as Gaius Cilnius Maecenas writes to Titus Livius (Livy):
What you seem so unwilling to accept, 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.The bulk of the book consists of Octavius become Augustus learning this lesson. He is able to restore order--after the chaos that followed Julius Caesar's assassination--but must make so many personal and political compromises and so hurt those he loves that there is little joy in all he achieves. In one exchange with his daughter, Julia, we get what is almost a plea, rather than an affirmation:
"Father," I asked, "has it all been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?This gives the book a somber, elegiac tone, though it's an immensely enjoyable read nonetheless.
See also:Historical Fiction
-John Edward Williams Papers (University of Arkansas)
-John Williams (NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY: John Williams: Plain Writer (Dan Wakefield, Fall/Winter 1981, Ploughshares)
Book-related and General Links:
-Caesar Augustus: An Annotated Guide to Online Resources (Virgil.org)
-History & Literature of the Roman Revolution
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd