Saturday, May 01, 2010

Qualified Appreciation: Williams' Augustus

Chez Buce began its readaloud of John Williams' Augustus in a mood of high enthusiasm and ended in some disappointment. There's a lot to recommend and enjoy in this novel about the man who create the Roman emperor, but the novel (like, when you stop to think of it, the Empire) rather unravels at the end.

The challenge is clear enough. Augustus is one of the most enigmatic of world leaders. He seems pretty clearly to have had a vision, consistent throughout his long career. But he kept his own counsel: he accomplished almost everything by indirection and left almost nothing by way of explanation as to what drove him and why (the celebrated res gestae gives an account of what he did, but that is a different story

Williams undertakes to tell the story by refraction through letters. I confess to a taste for the epistolary--it helps to remind us that nobody is the clear, hard jewel that they like to think themselves to be. And it gives us insight into both viewer and viewed. For much of the novel, this works, as it helps us to understand both Augustus and those around him. I suspect that Williams does smooth off some rough edges: from what I learn, Augustus does seem to have been a somewhat nastier piece of business than he is made out here, more frightened and more drawn to torture, particularly of the helpless defeated. But maybe that is an artist's privileges.

So it goes for about 90 percent in the novel. In the final section, Williams undertakes an enterprise more daring: he lets Augustus speak for himself, in a long letter to an old friend. One suspects that this may been the pearl in the oyster: at some point, Williams came to believe that he might be able to explain Augustus as he had not been explained before. And I can't say it is a complete failure: a lot of his insights about the motives and intentions of the princeps are plausible, and imaginatively reconstructed.

But he goes on way too long; he repeats himself; he allows a daring enterprise descend into a self-indulgent sermon. Williams appears to believe he has endowed his emperor with a kind of Olympian detachment. In part he has, but like so many who think they have achieved Olympian detachment, Augustus has also become a garrulous old man.


larry said...

Augustus moral fate was forever sealed when, as a young man, he finally agreed with Antony on the proscription and murder of philosophy in the person of Cicero. How Virgil got along with him is utterly mysterious.

Unknown said...

Cicero was a vindictive provincial who presided over the unconstitutional execution of the Cataline conspirators including Lentulus, a sitting Praetor, without trial. He was exiled for that by Publius Clodius. If a philosopher involves himself in politics of murder and tyrany he opens himself up to the same sort of treatment. No reson to blame Octovian for that

AJ said...

Cicero's importance has been overblown by the fact that few of his contemporaries produce the sheer volume of written works that he did. It skews the record.

As to Virgil getting on with Augustus, I suspect that it was at least partially because of his role in ending the endless cycle of civil wars during the late republic(Cicero himself has to bear at least a portion of the responsibility for the Mutina period).

Or the fact that Augustus paid Virgils bills might have something to do with it...