Saturday, November 19, 2011

Augustus by John Williams

There are so many wonderful things to say about John Williams’ Augustus and the few online reviews I’ve skimmed do a good job of going into detail about many of its strengths. In this post I want to highlight a few aspects of the book I found enjoyable.

The novel is full of tensions and tradeoffs, such as public versus private obligations, mind versus body, city versus country, choice versus foreordained, permanency versus temporary, cost versus benefit. The last point is stressed often and summarized very nicely by Nicolaus of Damascus (page numbers refer to the Vintage International paperback edition—see this post for an index):
Octavius Caesar has brought peace to this land; not since Actium has Roman raised sword against Roman. He has brought prosperity to the city and the countryside; not even the poorest of the people wants for food in the city, and those in the provinces prosper from the beneficences of Rome and Octavius Caesar. Octavius Caesar has brought liberty to the people; no longer need the slave live in fear of the arbitrary cruelty of his master, nor the poor man fear the venality of the rich, nor the responsible speaker fear the consequences of his words.

And yet there is an ugliness in the air which, I fear, bodes ill for the future of the city, the Empire, and the reign of Octavius Caesar himself. Faction is ranged against faction; rumors abound; and no one seems content to live in the comfort and dignity which their Emperor has made possible. These are extraordinary people…. It is as if they cannot endure safety and peace and comfort. (246-7)

The genesis of the book, relayed by John McGahern in the introduction, comes from the conflict between public requirements and private yearnings. The cost in resolving these conflicts proves to be high:

While they were talking casually about the book, [Morton] Hunt told him [Williams] about the story of Augustus, who had a daughter, Julia, whom he loved, but he exiled and imprisoned her in order to save the State because she had broken the laws on adultery that he had enacted. This fascinated Williams and he started to read about it. Discovering that Julia had been effectively written out of the histories, the more he read the more he was engaged by what he describes as ‘the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need’ which is at the novel’s core. (Introduction, x).

While I can’t argue that the “public necessity and the private want or need” lies at the novel’s core, there is another tension I found equally compelling, and possibly more central to the novel—the tension between reality and ideals.

What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world. (62-3)
Augustus grasped the discrepancy between ideals and reality quickly, learning to master his emotions in order to achieve his ultimate goals. As his closest friends learned, that might mean protecting enemies in order to first consolidate power. He lived long enough to doubt that the compromises he made, personal and political, were the right choices.
”Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”

My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe that it has,” he said. “We both must believe that it has.” (237)

The first two books of the novel draw an outline of Augustus through letters, journals, and other documents but we don’t see into his thoughts until the final book. Williams’ portrait of the aged leader is one of a beneficent, enlightened despot, looking back on his achievements and their cost while also looking into Rome’s future after he is gone. It’s a beautiful section, full of guarded optimism tempered by practical insights. He consoles himself on things he has missed out on or only experienced briefly, such as friendship and love, by noting their fleeting limits. Occasionally he turns his attention to more permanent things, such as literature or the idea of Rome:

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. (310)

Highly recommended.

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