The wide and much-deserved acclaim that finally showered down upon John Williams’s 1965 novel, Stoner, some forty years and more after its publication is surely one of the oddest episodes in publishing, all the more so given the book’s understated, melancholy dignity. I find it inexplicable and cheering, and it is most welcome, too, to see that Stoner‘s belated success has put the remaining two of Williams’s novels back in print. (He wrote one other, his first, but later disowned it.)
The three novels make up a highly variegated company. The first, Butcher’s Crossing (1960), tells the tale of a young Bostonian, his soul effervescent with Emersonian conceits, who arrives in a crude little frontier town in the 1870s. Filled with expectations of achieving harmony with nature and transcendental union with the Universal Being, he becomes, instead, party to the brutish, unreasoning slaughter of what may well be the last undespoiled buffalo herd in America. This was followed by Stoner itself, the tale of a midwestern farm boy who is infected with a love of literature and becomes a college professor. Unhappily married, balked in his career by petty collegial spite, and uncelebrated, he nonetheless maintains a stoic and independent soul. Neither of these descriptions does justice to the richness and intelligence of these novels; you will simply have to read them yourselves. And now here is Augustus (1972), which won the National Book Award in 1973 (splitting it with John Barth’s Chimera). The novel is based on the life of the man who is considered the first Roman emperor — and once best known to me and countless millions as that Caesar Augustus whose call for a census (“that all the world should be taxed”) led to the baby Jesus being born in a stable in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
The new edition of Augustus comes with a superb introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, who observes that Williams’s three, seemingly disparate novels have, in fact, a common theme: “the way in which whatever our characters may be, the lives we end up with are often unexpected products of the friction between us and the world itself.” If all of Williams’s novels are in some way about the mutation of individual identity as it engages with unfolding event, Williams manages to convey in Augustus how that was conceived by people whose views were shaped by Greek philosophy and Roman pragmatism. This is an understanding of life where the balance between individual will and action on one hand and “fortune,” or external exigency, on the other, is fundamental. And nowhere could this be more abundantly clear, deeply felt, and philosophically plumbed than in the life of one of the shapers of the Western world. Throughout this great novel, its chief characters constantly scrutinize the nature of destiny, Augustus’s and their own, including, most especially, that of his daughter Julia, whose story this is also.
Augustus proceeds by way of chiefly fictional letters, passages from journals, proceedings, reports, orders, and other oddments, with the weight of the narrative carried by key actors whose own fortunes are crucially bound up with Augustus’s. There are the memoirs of Augustus’s faithful friend, military commander, and eventual son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa; letters from Maecenas, political adept, wit, and patron of the arts; others from Augustus’s wife, Livia, and his sister, Octavia, and from Cicero, Mark Antony, and the Greek historian and philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus, the last named intent on capturing the essence of this new Roman order and its sensibility. Also, and most poignantly, there is Julia’s journal written from exile on the bleak little island of Pandateria, her only companion her shrewish mother. In it she relates her history and the unenviable fate of being a woman, denied the life of scholarship to which she was suited and forced into political marriages, the final and fatal one being to the sadistic Tiberius.
Each of the contributors has his or her own voice, and to those of us who know what lies ahead — which I dare say is anyone reading the book — there is something ghoulishly funny about certain of the entries. Here, for instance, is the republican Cicero writing, with characteristically overweening self-assurance, to Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, telling him that there is nothing to fear from the nineteen-year-old Octavius (the future Augustus), even though he has accepted his inheritance as adopted son of the murdered Caesar: “He is a boy, and a rather foolish boy at that; he has no idea of politics, nor is he likely to have. . . . We shall use the boy, and then we will cast him aside; and the tyrant’s line shall come to an end.” The next year sees Cicero’s severed head displayed on the Rostra in the Forum.
The novel ranges from 44 BC and the death of Julius Caesar to AD 14 and Augustus’s own death, with a coda from the emperor’s physician looking back from AD 55. Through its various voices and media it alights on the young Octavius’s boyhood and circle of friends, followed by the many stages of precarious endeavor: the forming of the Second Triumvirate, the civil war, the defeat of the immense pirate fleet of Sextus Pompeius, the treachery of Mark Antony in league with Cleopatra, the constant jockeying for power in Rome and its territories. The novel shows the machinations of Livia to ensure that her son, the monster Tiberius, will succeed Augustus and offers a window onto the desperate life of Julia — denied fulfillment in occupation and spouse and consigned to oblivion. Its conclusion is a meditation in the form of a letter to Nicolaus of Damascus by Augustus himself: on his life, what it was and wasn’t, what the world made him and his daughter, and the primacy throughout of Rome.
By means of this assembly of supposed documents, Williams evokes a feeling of newness in these ancient doings, and of uncertainty and flux. He also creates a sense of individual character, of Augustus, of Julia, of others, among them, almost terribly, Mark Antony, who, Maecenas reflects, is “wholly irrational and unpredictable — and yet who, out of animal energy and the accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power.” Williams shows, especially in Augustus and Julia, character ever changing in the face of capricious event and necessity, while at the same time honoring that tiny, hard core of individual permanence, the self that observes its own mutating nature with some sadness about lost potential and wonder at destiny’s improbable shape.
In an author’s note, Williams says that while he has borrowed from a few actual sources, most of the text is fictional and that “the truths in this work…are the truths of fiction rather than history.” These are the powerful truths found in conjuring up the temper of a distant reality, a sense of lived life that eludes written history.