When one adores a book as much as I did with John Williams’ Stoner (1965), it is perhaps obvious that said one will happily search out everything else said Williams has ever published. The second of his novels, for me, came in the form of Augustus, a novel of the Roman Empire, and, according to The Washington Post, ‘the finest historical novel ever written by an American’. John McGahern, the author of the Vintage introduction, writes: ‘Neither Stoner nor Augustus is any less or more achieved than the other: they are simply different works by a remarkable writer working at the very height of his powers’. All high praise indeed, but could Augustus, the winner of the 1973 National Book Review, also wow me as much as Stoner? Only an immersive Sunday morning read could tell…
First published in 1971, and reissued both by Vintage and NYRB, I have seen very few reviews of Augustus. Before I begin with my critique, let us go over the background of the novel. It follows Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar. After Caesar is murdered, Octavian, just nineteen, finds himself heir to the ‘vast power of Rome’. Despite many things which were up against him, he became Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor: ‘Augustus healed the wounds of Rome and made it whole again’. The novel is told through epistolary means – letters and fragments of memoir, for instance – and is pieced together accordingly. Some of the extracts are short, and others are far more comprehensive. This is a simple yet effective approach if one discounts the lack of chronological ordering, which can sometimes confuse things.
I must admit that I do not read much set within the Roman Empire, and was drawn to this essentially just because of the author. It is not that I have little interest in the period, for I do, but with regard to historical novels, I prefer to read those which are a little closer to our own century. For me, novels set within Ancient civilisations can be rather hit and miss, and I never really got on with those by Mary Renault, for example, who is rather revered in the field.
From the very beginning, Williams’ sense of place is well built: ‘Dust rises in billows as the horses gallop and turn; shouts, laughter, curses came up to us from the distance, through the thud of hoofbeats’. In fact, Augustus is a very well-written piece, but a few of the differing narrative perspectives felt too similar in their use of vocabulary and turns of phrase to have been written by different characters. None of the voices which Williams crafts are distinctive enough to be instantly recognisable; as with the dating of each entry, one must always be on guard in the respect of attributive voices. Despite this, the perspectives are interesting; there are friends of Octavius’, as well as those who believe him to be a ‘whey-faced little bastard’. Marcus Antonius, for instance, writes to the Military Commander of Macedonia that Octavius ‘certainly is something of a fool; for he gives himself airs that are damned presumptuous in a boy, especially in a boy whose grandfather was a thief and whose only name of any recount is a borrowed one’.
One of my fundamental problems with Augustus was that none of the characters quite came to life, and I thus could not fully immerse myself within it. I am unsure as to whether this was solely due to Williams’ focus upon real historical figures, or just because of the distancing, rather fragmented narrative styles into which he presents his story. The portions of letters which featured a first person protagonist were largely not long enough to actually build anything realistic, or powerful.
I am fully aware that I should not be providing a comparison here, but for me, Augustus did not stand up to Stoner in any way. This novel feels as though it could have been written by a different author altogether; there is none of the quiet, understanding power which fills Stoner, a facet of Williams’ work which I so admired. Despite this, it has piqued my interest in trying another Williams novel, merely to see how it compares. There is a lot to like in Augustus, and I would heartily recommend it for its wealth of historical detail, and the weaving together of facts, but not if you want an immersive book to lose yourself in completely.