Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review of Augustus by John Edward Williams

by John Edward Williams
(New York Review Books Classics. 1972)

Reviewed by Greg Gilbert


Described by Goodreads as an “epistolary, historical fiction,” John Edward Williams Augustus begins just prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar and concludes at Augustus’ death, spanning his life in two sections, his rise and his governance. The Washington Post declared Mr. William’s book, “The finest historical novel ever written by an American.” Across the board, from amateur reviewers, such as yours truly, to highly esteemed professional reviewers, the acclaim for this book is enthusiastic, and appropriate.

This is a book for three readings, first for the sheer pleasure of its extraordinary unspooling of personalities and events; next, alongside historical/scholarly resources; and then, once again to take it all in as one. Finally, a fourth reading may be advisable, as I will soon explain.

Williams’ epistolary approach is interesting in that it permits a frame for each voice, not unlike that of a play but by employing journals and correspondences to reveal the dynamics of specific relationships and how they fit within the intrigues of Rome. Most interesting, the epistolary approach succeeds in ways that a play’s format cannot by moving through time. The arrangement of correspondences and journals is not confined to strict chronology, but, rather, crisscrosses the years with Augustus from 44 BC to 14 AD. Thus, while the central action ratchets forward, there are fascinating associations between cause and effect, the ways in which the parts of society interact and are shaped by a center that at any time may or may not hold, the role of Caesar, who, within this work, is both a man in every sense –and a god. The shifting chronologies provide ironic insights and teleologic understandings that allow the reader a feeling of prescience as the central story advances. A sizable cast, as in Russian literature, can become burdensome, but not so with Augustus. Much like life itself, the characters occupy their small universes of jealousy, love, and ambition, but in the background there is Rome, at once eternal and fragile, personified in the person of Augustus.

Augustus, like King Lear, is a tale that evolves with the age of the reader. While a younger and, perhaps, less patient reader may skim various reflections on age and youthful thought, the book’s ages-of-life considerations are respectful and wise, a delight for this septuagenarian. Having now read two of Williams’ four novels (Stoner and Augustus), I am resolved to read anything and everything of his that is available. By any measure that one might offer, Mr. Williams is an American master, one that I recommend most enthusiastically.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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