Chances are if you know John Williams it’s through Stoner, his 1965 novel about an obscure literature professor that within the last few years has been called both the “best American novel you haven’t read” and an “international literary sensation.” Perhaps lesser known is Augustus, his fictionalized account of the life of the first Roman emperor, which won the 1973 National Book Award. In a year in which accepted notions of leadership qualities and presidential temperament were overturned, this historical novel about the man who a little over two thousand years ago took it on himself to set Rome straight made for unexpectedly topical reading.
Not that getting something from Augustus is contingent upon the candidacy and ultimate victory of the person soon to be sworn in. As with Williams’s previous two novels (1960’s Butcher’s Crossing being his first), it’s composed in clear, confident prose that works like a good engine—quietly, smoothly, seemingly effortlessly—in pushing the narrative toward a climax made more powerful by its understatedness. Unlike those works, it’s written in the epistolary style. Letters and journal entries from a wide cast of characters—boyhood friends, political allies, plotters and would-be usurpers, poets and teachers, minor senators, spouses, offspring—deliver the drama of the story, whose elusive protagonist does not account for himself in his own voice until the closing pages. It makes, as the cover copy of a lesser work might have it, for a sweeping, absorbing saga.
Across its pages we hear, for example, the petulance of Marcus Antonius as he variously beseeches Octavius (as Augustus was still then known), complains about him to others, and plots against him with Cleopatra. We hear from a Julia who is not the nymphomaniac of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, but a reflective if still unapologetic woman writing about her father from the tiny island to which he’s exiled her. We learn of the ever-frail health of Augustus from doctors’ records and from his wife Livia’s missives to confidantes; we get the necessary exposition on the larger history from the plainly written memoir excerpts of the stolid and loyal Marcus Agrippa.
Irony necessarily abounds. Early on, Cicero confidently boasts: “I have seen Octavius. … The boy is nothing. We have nothing to fear”—this just a year before Antonius, with the blessing of “the boy,” will have his head and hands. Others similarly underestimate him. And in a letter toward the end of the novel, composed after the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, we hear Philippus of Athens enthusiastically envisioning the long-awaited fulfillment of Augustus Caesar’s dream in the person of the incoming Nero.
Throughout, Williams is so exacting in voice, characterization, and historical detail that every correspondent is immediately recognizable and flawlessly consistent: we come to know who’s writing even without necessarily having to refer to identifying headings. And no special familiarity with Roman history is required; Williams lays out the orienting facts plainly and straightforwardly, and uses the drama to illustrate their relative importance to one another.
In his author’s note Williams says: “[I]f there are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction.” Of course, writers of historical fiction tend to say things like that, but the words carry special weight for an author whose modest output provides copious evidence of how fiction, historical or otherwise, can convey such special truths. In this case, it’s the words he gives to Augustus in the novel's closing pages: that a man in the end “is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself: “ Bonus: Augustus, like Williams’s two other novels, is issued by the indispensible New York Review Books, and it comes with an insightful introduction from Daniel Mendelsohn.