Sunday 23 October 2011

Augustus: Depth of Field

Having read and raved about John Williams's Stoner and Butcher's Crossing - the latter of which has haunted me and grown in my imagination ever since I finished it - I couldn't resist the opportunity to read the third of his acknowledged novels (a fourth he more or less disowned), Augustus. This is a 'historical novel' in much the same way that Stoner is a 'campus novel' and Butcher's Crossing a 'western' - i.e. it is something greater, stranger and vastly more accomplished than the run of its genre. And it is, of course, quite unlike Stoner or Butcher's Crossing - to the point where you'd hardly know it was by the same author (an author one of whose gifts is to remain resolutely absent from his works).
Augustus tells the story of the life and reign of Octavius, the unpromising youth who became Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. A rich, complex picture of Octavius and his world is built up, mosaic-style, by Williams's deft use of (fictional) letters, memoranda, personal writings and official communications. Some of these - and this is the key to the depth of field that gives Augustus its special quality - are contemporaneous, while others look back over years, decades even. The writers range from unfamiliar (and invented) figures all the way to the great names of Augustan Rome, including Virgil, Ovid and Horace. Williams's gift for clear-eyed characterisation, for imaginatively entering into his creations, keeps a wide range of characters and their often conflicted motives fully alive and individuated across the stretch of a sweeping historical narrative. This is a tremendous achievement - I can't recall another historical novel with so many voices issuing from so many convincingly realised characters, great and small.
Octavius himself, by contrast, comes to life largely in the accounts of others - he is the observed of all observers. We share the initial bewilderment of those around him as they are forced to acknowledge an extraordinary, almost superhuman force of character in the withdrawn, apparently negligible youth who initially crosses their path. Eventually he is the hub around which the world revolves, a brilliantly intelligent manipulator, an expert thwarter of conspiracies, a man capable of the utmost ruthlessness if it is called for. The exalted position of Emperor and the power and responsibility that go with it seem to hollow him out as a man, and we learn more of him from his actions than from his own testimony - until, in one sustained and moving final passage that (all but) closes the book, the dying Augustus speaks at length in his own voice, looking back over his life and all it has demanded of him, and finding at last a kind of rest.
If the book has a flaw, it is (I think) that we get rather too much of Julia's account of her life - Julia, Augustus's beloved daughter whom he banished into exile for reasons of state. Her voice I found the least compelling and the least convincing in the book - as if Williams hadn't quite managed to inhabit her, to feel what it was like to be Julia. Maybe that's just a personal reaction on my part... Anyway it does little or nothing to detract from Augustus's stature as a historical novel of quite extraordinary skill, depth and imaginative power.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the notes on this book. I just picked up a copy and hope to get started on it this weekend.

    "Finding at last a kind of rest"--I'll have to keep that in mind when revisiting the first two works.