Saturday, October 13, 2012

Restrained and indirect | John Williams' Augustus

John Williams is one of those authors I would not have been introduced to if not for book blogging. How could I fail to notice the universal acclaim Stoner received? How could that small tidbit just pass me over? It couldn't. At the end of the day, though, it's not Stoner that I read, but Williams' National Book Award winner Augustus, a relatively concise and restrained work of historical fiction that tells the story of Caesar Octavius through public notices, various "official reports" and the letters and journals of his friends and enemies. The result is an indirect view of an undeniably important figure in world history, and one that mostly kept me riveted.

From the very first page - from the Author's Note, essentially, which emphasizes the fact that Augustus is "a work of the imagination" and that almost all of "the documents which constitute this novel are of my own invention" - Williams sets a tone. It's a somewhat lofty tone, to be perfectly frank, placing the already secondhand story another step away from the reader. But it mostly works. Williams does an excellent job of changing the style a little for each narration, giving certain letters a little more bite than others, giving some journals scattered thoughts that are believable given the circumstances, giving certain characters more airs, while others remain firmly grounded. It creates a wholly believable environment very quickly, and rather effectively.

Augustus is the best kind of historical fiction: even if you aren't too familiar with the history of the times, you'll be able to enjoy it. And then, at the end, you'll immediately want to know what was accurate, what was glossed over, what's disputed... and so this 300-paged long book eventually leads to more studying and research than previously expected. I must respect any book that does that.

Augustus' strength lies, though, in its characters. This is the nature of historical fiction - the story remains generally the same across all books. The difficulty is in creating breathing, believable characters for readers to become acquainted with. Williams does this nicely. It is easy to understand Livia's motivations. It is easy to understand Julia's frustrations. It is easy to see Maecenas' high-minded poetical view of the world. These characters, as well as the others, make Augustus a novel worth reading.

And then, of course, there's Octavius himself. Augustus himself. Viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of others, Octavius is a contradictory character, constantly changing and oddly inconsistent. He remains thoughtful and intelligent throughout his life, but nothing else remains constant: he is both quiet and forceful. He is both proactive and hesitant. He is a human character, if a distant one for most of the book. This changes at the end of the book, when the excellent descriptions of Octavius' old age warmly capture the struggles and sorrows of outliving everyone you ever knew and loved.

Having heaped all this praise on the book, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn't not actually love Augustus. There was something missing. The restrained quality of the storytelling made it a little distant at times. The clean, smooth writing lacked a certain type of passion. Something mysterious about Augustus left me a little cold, preventing me from giving this one a full-throated, "best thing ever" recommendation, but I can certainly recommend it warmly. Augustus is intelligent, finely written historical fiction. And it's convinced me that John Williams is indeed the writer everyone has always said he is. Time to read Stoner.


  1. I had a similarly admiring but restrained response to AUGUSTUS, which I read years ago as part of a history course on the Romans (or was it my course on Cleopatra with the same professor: I can't remember). At any rate, at that point we had spent so much time "with" these figures (and I had already spent a substantial amount of time with them fictionally with the film and prose versions of I, CLAUDIUS) that everything seemed a bit prosaic (and not at all revelatory) in the Williams novel. I wonder if I should return to it now, without the history quite so fresh in my mind.

  2. I'm going to have to track this down for my husband, a serious admirer of Augustus Caesar. Thanks!


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