by John Williams
NYRB Books, 305 pages
reviewed by Ana Schwartz
Those who studied Latin in high school or college might recognize the feeling with which Georg Lukacs introduces his Theory of the Novel. Although the book was published a century ago, it still holds valuable insight into the pleasures of reading. In the introductory sentences he describes those happy ages when the world and self were each visible with sharp distinction. Discrete they were, but also intimately familiar to each other. Lukacs’ framework is present in the first lists of Latin vocabulary; these collections of words alert contemporary readers to a world in which a word meant itself and at the same time more than itself. For example, ferro—iron—could denote the reliable metal; it could metonymically represent a sword made out of iron; and it could metaphorically represent any object of potentially harmful strength. These vocabulary lists imply a world in which such figures were useful, a world in which they could and would be deployed with practiced subtlety, perhaps in response to iron-willed violence.
Augustus is the recently reissued fourth novel by John Williams, whose earlier novels, Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner, have been very well received by 21st century critics. His story begins with a letter from Julius Caesar, father of the protagonist, to Atia, Augustus’ maternal guardian. In it, he encourages her to send the boy from Rome to Apollonia (a city in what’s now Sicily) for a change of scenery and for a better education. After listing these reasons, he rephrases his instruction as a command, and points out the rhetorical strategies of his own prose. The self-reflexivity of that early moment persists through many of the novel’s epistolary chapters. Together, these crisscrossing letters narrate the rise and reign of Caesar Augustus, known by his intimates as Octavius. The letters show the figurative delicacy of their shared world: every action and gesture oozes significance. On this basis alone, the novel is deeply gratifying to anyone who’s spent time imagining what it would have been like to live and act in such a literary community.
Augustus pieces together the life of one of classical Rome’s great Caesars. When he first appears he is a young man, and not much of one. In their memoirs and letters, his friends from youth describe him as slight and sickly. He has an ineffable intensity in his eyes. After his father is murdered, he strategizes his way into popular favor and wins the allegiance of the Roman forces and rules Rome alongside Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus. Eventually, he takes his revenge on Marcus Antonius for the murder. The second half of the book narrates the intrigues of the next decades. Most of these stories revolve around Octavius’ daughter, Julia, his only child, and her relationships with the men who would plot to overthrow the emperor, though unsuccessfully. The letters can be difficult to follow because there are so many names and connections to keep straight. Yet the confusion gives a strong sense of family culture in ancient Rome. This is a world where a man can be criticized who “bears no name, and what virtues he may possess are merely his own.” Many of the letters exchanged in these pages connect family members, and the content of these letters usually drives the plot. But it’s the letters between poets and historians—the letters between friends and colleagues—that sustain the emotionally magnetic pull of this novel.
Even in clannish Ancient Rome, the erudite Augustus keeps a close circle of intellectuals—historians and poets. When they reflect on their city, their observations and comparisons with other cultures highlight Rome’s unique qualities. Athenodorus, a Greek philosopher, observes that to the citizens of Rome, men like him elicit a sort of puzzlement (at best) for their dedication to a life of abstraction. This isn’t exactly rudeness or coarseness on the part of the Romans so much as a greater interest in minutiae of everyday life. Nicolaus of Damascus, in a late letter to his philosopher friend Strabo of Amasia, describes an abandoned book project, “Conversations with Notable Romans.” It wouldn’t work, he explains, because Roman society depends so much on subtleties of the unsaid. “I almost believe,” Niclaus laments, “that the form has not been devised that will let me say what I need to say.”
Williams, late professor of English at the University of Denver, is winking here, maybe less-than-subtly, at the medium in the reader’s hands. He might be thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin, an early twentieth-century contemporary of Georg Lukacs, and a formalist literary historian, who famously pointed out the genre’s polyglossia, its unique capacity to include several perspectives or voices in one text. Likewise, novels can absorb and integrate diversity of literary forms. In these letters, Williams includes theatrical dialogue, excerpts from official decrees and poems; at one point, the performance of a poem becomes a crucial element in the plot, preventing a character from leaving a party to attend an urgent political affair. Through the novel, Williams nrrates what Nicolaus tries to explain: the subtleties of communication among these important historical figures. The book easily might be subtitled “Letters of Notable Romans,” if not exactly “conversations”: Horace, Vergil, Ovid, Julius Caesar, even Cleopatra appear as writers in these pages. Through letters, the novel represents the subtleties of communication from the viewpoint of many people actively invested in close interpretation. To the description of one man’s life, each letter adds not only descriptive subtlety, but also, through their personal relationship to him, these letters help place the reader more immediately into the world of those Latin vocabulary lists; and even if these letter-writers don’t all love Augustus, they love Rome, the way a scholar loves his books or a poet
But after at least three centuries of developments in the novel form, the epistolary novel has become maybe too familiar. Think of Pamela, Dracula, or Franny and Zooey. More recently, think Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Williams’ short sections and chapters consolidate, almost too seamlessly, into a recognizable genre. It’s easy to forget that the characters themselves would not have recognized it as such, and, likewise, easy to forget that no one has any comprehensive understanding of Octavius Augustus, not even Octavius Augustus. In the penultimate letter of the novel, Augustus writes that his life is occluded in mystery, even to himself. How strange it is to depend on the histories and the poems for insight into one’s own life!
Admitting the limits of independent self-understanding might be the most honest confession of the letters. By contrast, the character who relentlessly reveals the most comprehensive self-awareness is Julia, his daughter. Throughout her writings, she sustains a tension between performance and sincerity that is extremely compelling. But from the start it generates a skepticism that never really fades. Her tone is consistently decorous and stylish, but she insists in the first letter that she is writing for no one. It is a habit, she explains. She then narrates the childhood education that cultivated such a habit; the story she tells is, on its own persuasive, but who would she be trying to persuade?
In this, she appears as a foil to Octavius, his inverse. As the occasion for all these memorials narratives, he is always present as a public figure. But his inner life is only once represented, and then, with serious uncertainty. When he admits the limits of memory, he makes himself more sympathetic, and rhetorically more likely to be trusted. On the other hand, Julia writes her diary entries from exile, mostly forgotten. From that distance, she demonstrates a keen understanding of Roman intrigue; she seems incapable of not performing, but her persuasive and elevated style, generates a persistent sense of skepticism and doubt. One is continually reading for a subtle second meaning in her diary entries. This is precisely the practice of reading that the letters have cultivated in the reader.
Together, Octavius and Julia are necessary to understand the world of Ancient Rome. As family, they represent the powerful engine of Roman society, and neither of them alone can narratively explain its culture. He wields power quietly and her letters illustrate how that power works. They do so not only in their content, but also in their discursive style. This is nowhere more vivid than in one of the final twists in the plot: Did Julia know about, perhaps even participate in the plot to overthrow Augustus that was organized by several of her former lovers? She certainly admits the motive. In one entry, she writes frankly about her resentment following his decision to marry her off to Tiberius Claudius Nero, an unlikeable fellow who, in the end, claims power after Augustus’ death. When Octavius informs Julia of his plans, she asks him whether all of his personal sacrifices for Roman cohesion have been worthwhile. “I must believe that it has,” he responds, “We both must believe that it has.” His unspoken and personal disbelief is both affirmed and obscured by the imperative to believe. The very same syntax reappears near the end of the book, in Julia’s last entry. In her last conversation with her father he asks her whether she was plotting against him, and she responds: “You must believe that I did not know.”
But if that relationship is the ultimate turn in the plot, it is also the most powerful illustration of the emotional life of these characters. In his final reflections, Octavius muses on this uncertainty to Niclaus of Damascus. He believes that she did know. Most interesting here, beyond Octavius’s certainty, is the reader’s pleasure in noting the subtleties of expression with which they communicate. They have ample ground to resent each other and the novel’s multiple narrators show that each would be justified in their hostility. Yet beyond the severe emotional demands that Roman politics have made on their personal lives, they preserve their love for each other through their elevated decorum and their ability to understand meaning that exists beyond speaking, beyond even the most skillful use of vocabulary words.
It’s tempting to claim that Williams’ novel recreates a past time and a bygone cultural perspective, a time when individuals with iron wills were sharply distinct, yet never totally estranged from their worlds. These individuals had the agency to make meaningful and heroic sacrifices on behalf of their communities. It’s a suspect claim, though, since, like Julia’s guilt, it would be impossible to know for certain. A pleasure of learning Latin is the exposure to a social landscape different from our own. In that world, language resonated with clarity and richness apparently lacking in contemporary usage. Williams’ novel sustains and is animated by that fantastic nostalgia of completeness, that is, until the last letters: Julia’s ultimate diary entry, Augustus’ musings to Niclaus of Damascus, and Niclaus’ narrative to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher. In these letters, Williams’s characters reflect with a profound skepticism about their world. It is a sense, not unfamiliar to the 21st century, that what one had wanted to say still remains unshared.
It is a sense, not unfamiliar to the 21st century, that what one had wanted to say never quite translates.
Ana Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania and teaches high school English in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is working on a translation of Herralde Prize-winning author Alvaro Enrigue’s first novel.