09 September 2012

Augustus (John Williams)

Augustus (1972) by John Williams, introduction by John McGahern (Vintage International, 2004)

John Williams (1922-1994) wrote a supreme novel in Augustus, his fourth and last. It's a historical drama set in the ancient republic of Rome and revolves around the eponymous emperor. The style is epistolary, with letters, memoirs, and memoranda exchanging hands among a fairly large dramatis personae deserving of an ensemble acting award, or rather distinct voices award, for moving along the strands of plot toward a visionary conclusion. Williams's cohesive vision of power and consequential human destiny is in many senses Shakespearian. He has consolidated exacting language, strong characters, flashes of awesome feelings, and moments of simplicity and grace. I was actually quoting these qualities.

Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.

Augustus shared with Williams's early novel Stoner not only the well-chiseled and polished prose of a modern classicist but a rather ruthless understanding of characters, their deep contradictions and inconsistencies, and their heroic and base natures.

"How contrary an animal is man ... !" exclaimed Augustus at one point. The book is a theater of human contrariness and inconsistency. Its cinematic scenes have the heft of an epic. Wonderful to see the action develop from the volley of hand delivered letters. I suppose the snappy emails of today have nothing on the deliberate transcription of experiences written by hand on a blank page. The novel's sequencing of letters alone is informed by the craft of a builder of suspense. The privileged peeks at human quirks and spontaneous madness are worth the price of reading. Without the televisual prompts, the novel enacts an intelligent game of thrones.

The quote above is from a letter of Octavius Caesar (Augustus) to Nicolaus of Damascus, dated A.D. 14. Here's another clip, from an earlier letter by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) to Sextus Propertius, 10 B.C.:

I shall not subject you, my dear Sextus, to one of my disquisitions; but it seems to me more nearly true, as the years pass, that those old "virtues," of which the Roman professes himself to be so proud, and upon which, he insists, the greatness of the Empire is founded—it seems to me more and more that those "virtues" of rank, prestige, honor, duty, and piety have simply denuded man of his humanity.

How Ovid was able to come up with a bleak assessment of civilization lies at the core of this historical novel. It is a brilliant aphoristic text, especially the essential Book III, and I am here resisting the urge to ransack the many scintillating passages I've noted on my copy.

Powerful and literary figures of the day populate the book. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Ovid, Livy, Brutus, and Horace. Their relations play out in a stunning display of hunger for power and immortality.

In Stoner the novelist classified the rubric of love under its different objects, as love of literature, love of a woman, love of an offspring, love of work, love of life. In Augustus the same loves are explored but has expanded to include other forms: the love of country, love of family, and love of power. The love of literature is particularly traced to the love of philosophy, scholarship, and poetry. But above all to poetry. Hence, the poets in this novel have a role that transcends versification. Theirs is a function related to the maintenance of power in the empire.

Through the character of the charismatic emperor, Williams comes close to establishing a hierarchy of these loves. At a very high price, Augustus comes close to recognizing "the highest form of love ... for an object that approaches the absolute." He also comes close to identifying the essential attribute of a true leader, the key to fulfilling a destiny.

The character of Augustus is a direct ancestor of Stoner. Only, Augustus comes face to face with the violent, world-changing upheavals that Stoner plays in his mind. The emperor, like the professor, is given to self-reflection. What he always finds in himself is not a wholesome person. What he finds in others is not enlightened citizens. What is said of him by Mark Antony, his perennial rival to power, is accurate: "I know that he does nothing from passion or whim. He is such a cold-blooded fish that I must almost admire him". From one Machiavellian leader to another, that is as good as an acknowledgement of the complex well-rounded character of the emperor, his cunning and intelligence. Of what the human race has achieved in his time, Augustus is not optimistic.

We tell ourselves that we have become a civilized race, and with a pious horror we speak of those times when a god of the crops demanded the body of a human being for his obscure function. But is not the god that so many Romans have served, in our memory and even in our time, as dark and fearsome as that ancient one? Even if to destroy him, I have been his priest; and even if to weaken his power, I have done his bidding. Yet I have not destroyed him, or weakened his power. He sleeps restlessly in the hearts of men, waiting to rouse himself or to be aroused. Between the brutality that would sacrifice a single innocent life to a fear without a name, and the enlightenment that would sacrifice thousands of lives to a few that we have named, I have found little to choose.

This is a very wise novel if only because it underlines life's crucial paradoxes and the compromises, traditions, and belief systems we can never escape from. If Augustus has no faith in a Roman god or an ancient god, then in humanity at least his trust is not completely revoked. He himself, as shaper of destinies, is part of this remaking.

It was more nearly an instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one's destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself. If he is to obey his destiny, he must find or invent within himself some hard and secret part that is indifferent to himself, to others, and even to the world that he is destined to remake, not to his own desire, but to a nature that he will discover in the process of remaking.

In this novel of power, the novelist has hardly changed the world. Yet in registering the changes in his characters as they take over the world, he has remade it.


  1. Ever since Robert Graves' 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the god' the lives of the Roman emperors have attracted the attention of several gifted novelists, Williams is one such novelist. Another novel of great psychological depth in portraying the life of a Roman emperor is Marguerite Yourcenar's 'Memoirs of Hadrian (1951).

  2. A reading list! It would be great to read and compare them.