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‘Augustus’ by John Williams ***

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.
9780099445081

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.

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Italy 2016 (Naples, Rome, Capri, Pompeii)

Another grand adventure with The Beard, to one of my favourite countries.

Music:
‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ by Death Cab for Cutie | ‘Handsome Devil’ by The Smiths | ‘The Ocean’ by Manchester Orchestra | ‘To Sleep’ by Fightstar

Timings:
00.00 Naples | 00.54 Rome | 05.27 Naples | 06.58 Capri | 09.18 Pompeii | 11.23 Naples

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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

My revisited choice for our Fifty Women Challenge was Muriel Spark’s The Public Image.  One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

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‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

Just one of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

Purchase from the Book Depository