Monday, 27 October 2014

The Historical Novel and the Roman World: The Genius of John Williams

In two blog posts last year, I explored the Roman novels of Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar. There are now a great many authors writing novels set in Roman times, but the works of Graves and Yourcenar were pioneering in their time, and have probably been more influential than most. I would certainly acknowledge their influence on my own writing.

John Williams's Augustus has not had a comparable influence on subsequent writers, but many of us are now starting to wonder why. It did, indeed, enjoy a brief moment of recognition, sharing the American National Book Award for 1973 with John Barth's Chimera, but was then forgotten, along with Williams's other novels, Nothing but the Night, Butcher's Crossing and Stoner. It was the publication of Anna Gavalda's French translation of Stoner last year that sparked a renewed interest in Williams's work, The New Yorker describing it as "the greatest American novel you've never heard of."

It was, therefore, with a sense of anticipation that I picked up a copy of Williams's Augustus earlier in the summer, a book which nobody I knew seemed to have read (though many have done so now). In terms of quality, my judgement is that it is right up there with Graves and Yourcenar. Williams was, of course, writing after them, and was doubtless familiar with their work. He consciously adopted a different approach. Whilst I Claudius, Claudius the God, and Memoirs of Hadrian are narrated from a single first-person viewpoint, Williams's Augustus is an epistolary novel, with multiple viewpoints. The voice of Augustus himself becomes predominant only towards the end of the book, in a long letter written to a distant friend.

The Emperor Augustus, statue in the Vatican Museum. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

Many of the characters in Augustus will be familiar to modern readers, whether from primary texts, such as Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars, or from the novels of Robert Graves, Robert Harris or Colleen McCullogh. Julius Caesar is there, along with Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, Augustus's scheming wife, Livia, and wayward daughter, Julia. Some of these (Cicero being the prime example) are relatively easy to characterise, since they have left us so many documents in their own words. Others, especially the women, are much more difficult.

Graves's Livia, a villainess to rival Lady Macbeth, is a glorious literary creation, but I have never quite been able to believe in her historicity. Williams's Livia, on the other hand, rings true to me. She is emotionally manipulative, but no more so than certain people I have known in the real world: she doesn't need to be - she has the ear of the most powerful man on Earth, which the people I have known did not.

The Empress Livia Augusta, statue in The Louvre. Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

Julia is also handled sympathetically (her diaries, from her exile on the remote island of Pantaderia, form an important part of the book). She is intellectually sophisticated, but politically naïve, and, having been forced into a series of loveless marriages, she decides to chose her own path, she is drawn into intrigues that stretch much further than she can understand.

Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, as imagined by Pavel Svedomskiy (image is in the Public Domain).

Ultimately, the figure that is most difficult to grasp is that of Augustus himself. Has there ever been, in human history, an individual who has so transformed himself, and his public image: from brutal warlord to peaceable father of his nation, and ultimately a god?

The Ara Pacis, Augustus's Altar of Peace in Rome. Photo: Ben Demey (licensed under CCA).

Williams has here imagined that transformation, as seen by those closest to the man himself. The Augustus that emerges is a heroic figure, since he chooses the interests of Rome (and, by implication, civilisation) over his personal happiness, but the path he chooses comes at a heavy price, not all of which he can bear himself. His final thoughts, however, are optimistic:

"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."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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