A few thoughts on John Williams’ brilliant historical novel Augustus

At the beginning of April, an old friend (who wrote some excellent reviews on this site in the past) told me that I needed to read John Williams’ 1972 novel Augustus. I loved Williams’ Stoner, which I read (and reviewed) a decade ago, when its cult status seemed to explode thanks to a new edition from NYRB. After Stoner, I tried a few times to read Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, but never got too deep into it. I handled copies of Augustus a few times at bookstores, but the subject didn’t appeal to me. But my friend recommended it, and he’s never steered me wrong, so I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open.

I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open and didn’t put it down that much, unless I had to, until I’d finished it. The novel tells a life story of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, grand nephew Julius Caesar, who suceeds and avenges his assassinated great uncle (and adoptive father) to become the first Emperor of Rome. I was surprised at how much Roman history I remembered—some of it through two Shakespeare plays, some of it through an old HBO show, but most of it from, like, school. And this is one of the most fascinating elements of Augustus—Williams takes an old story and revivifies it.

Essentially an epistolary novel, Augustus features a rotating cast of voices. Prominent among these voices are Augustus’ — or really, Octavian’s — core group of friends, Maecenas, Agrippa, and Virgil. We also hear from notables including Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, and Ovid, as well as many other voices, both invented and historical. There’s something addictive about Williams’ lucid prose, which imbues each character’s voice with its own distinctive style without falling into rhetorical gimmickry.

The early parts of the novel focus on young Octavian’s rise—the assassination of Julius Caesar, the warring Triumvirate, the political intrigue which overlaps with familial duty. We see Octavian/Augustus from multiple perspectives, but Williams’ withholds his hero’s voice until late in the novel. It’s Augustus’ daughter Julia who emerges, slowly, as the novel’s most sympathetic (and ultimately tragic) hero. Her sections of the book are particularly poignant, and recall from Stoner the doomed relationship between William Stoner and his daughter Grace.

Augustus is sad and wise but never dour. Williams harnesses the intellect and soul of his characters, who are simultaneously mortal and timeless. So many passages seem to describe life in the present-day United States (as well as other Western democracies). Consider the lines Williams attributes to Augustus’ intellectual adviser Maecenas, writing late in his life to the historian Livy:

What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.

The complacency, the greed, the cynical failure to not just live up to its expressed ideals, but to take for suckers those who would still believe in those ideals—there’s something heartbreaking about the way Augustus anticipates contemporary democracy in peril to spectacle, hypocrisy, and avarice.

The titular character takes over in the brilliant last act of Augustus. Our Emperor is an old man, melancholy, reflective, but ultimately hopeful that he’s left the empire in good hands (he hasn’t). His final letter echoes Maecenas’ concerns about the corruption of Roman ideals:

. . . I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world. Julius Caesar had come to power in a world that was corrupt beyond your understanding. No more than six families ruled the world; towns, regions, and provinces under Roman authority were the currencies of bribery and reward; in the name of the Republic and in the guise of tradition, murder and civil war and merciless repression were the means toward the accepted ends of power, wealth, and glory. Any man who had sufficient money could raise an army, and thus augment that wealth, thereby gaining more power, and hence glory. So Roman killed Roman, and authority became simply the force of arms and riches. And in this strife and faction the ordinary citizen writhed as helplessly as the hare in the trap of the hunter.

And yet Williams’ Augustus is a realist, but one who tempers his perceptions of reality in a compassionate idealism:

Do not mistake me. I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.

I haven’t done enough to convey how wonderful Augustus is. Very highly recommended.

(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels

Abel Garland

Abel Magwich

Adolphus Tetterby

Alfred Jingle

Affery Flintwinch

Anne Chickenstalker

Anthony Jeddler

Augustus Snodgrass

Barnaby Rudge

Bayham Badger

Bazzard

Bella Wilfer

Bentley Drummle

Betsy Prig

Betsy Quilp

Betsy Trotwood

Brownlow

Bucket

Bumble

Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby

Charity Pecksniff 

Clara Peggotty

Cleopatra Skewton

Clickett

Cornelia Blimber

Canon Crisparkle

Charles Cheeryble

Chevy Slyme

Clarence Barnacle

Clarriker

Creakle Continue reading “(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels”

(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels

Abel Garland

Abel Magwich

Adolphus Tetterby

Alfred Jingle

Affery Flintwinch

Anne Chickenstalker

Anthony Jeddler

Augustus Snodgrass

Barnaby Rudge

Bayham Badger

Bazzard

Bella Wilfer

Bentley Drummle

Betsy Prig

Betsy Quilp

Betsy Trotwood

Brownlow

Bucket

Bumble

Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby

Charity Pecksniff 

Clara Peggotty

Cleopatra Skewton

Clickett

Cornelia Blimber

Canon Crisparkle

Charles Cheeryble

Chevy Slyme

Clarence Barnacle

Clarriker

Creakle Continue reading “(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels”

“Of Superstition” — Francis Bacon

“Of Superstition” by Francis Bacon

IT WERE better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion, as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal, men should say, there was no such man at all, as Plutarch, than that they should say, that there was one Plutarch, that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn. And as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men. Therefore theism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Caesar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition, is the people; and in all superstition, wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order. It was gravely said by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrine of the Schoolmen bare great sway, that the Schoolmen were like astronomers, which did feign eccentrics and epicycles, and such engines of orbs, to save the phenomena; though they knew there were no such things; and in like manner, that the Schoolmen had framed a number of subtle and intricate axioms, and theorems, to save the practice of the church. The causes of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; overgreat reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church; the stratagems of prelates, for their own ambition and lucre; the favoring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters, by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations: and, lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters. Superstition, without a veil, is a deformed thing; for, as it addeth deformity to an ape, to be so like a man, so the similitude of superstition to religion, makes it the more deformed. And as wholesome meat corrupteth to little worms, so good forms and orders corrupt, into a number of petty observances. There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done, when the people is the reformer.

 

“Of Death” — Francis Bacon

“Of Death” — Francis Bacon

MEN fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other. Certainly, the contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak. Yet in religious meditations, there is sometimes mixture of vanity, and of superstition. You shall read, in some of the friars’ books of mortification, that a man should think with himself, what the pain is, if he have but his finger’s end pressed, or tortured, and thereby imagine, what the pains of death are, when the whole body is corrupted, and dissolved; when many times death passeth, with less pain than the torture of a limb; for the most vital parts, are not the quickest of sense. And by him that spake only as a philosopher, and natural man, it was well said, Pompa mortis magis terret, quam mors ipsa. Groans, and convulsions, and a discolored face, and friends weeping, and blacks, and obsequies, and the like, show death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the mind of man, so weak, but it mates, and masters, the fear of death; and therefore, death is no such terrible enemy, when a man hath so many attendants about him, that can win the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death; love slights it; honor aspireth to it; grief flieth to it; fear preoccupateth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperor had slain himself, pity (which is the tenderest of affections) provoked many to die, out of mere compassion to their sovereign, and as the truest sort of followers. Nay, Seneca adds niceness and satiety: Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest. A man would die, though he were neither valiant, nor miserable, only upon a weariness to do the same thing so oft, over and over. It is no less worthy, to observe, how little alteration in good spirits, the approaches of death make; for they appear to be the same men, till the last instant. Augustus Caesar died in a compliment; Livia, conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale. Tiberius in dissimulation; as Tacitus saith of him, Jam Tiberium vires et corpus, non dissimulatio, deserebant. Vespasian in a jest, sitting upon the stool; Ut puto deus fio. Galba with a sentence; Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani; holding forth his neck. Septimius Severus in despatch; Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum. And the like. Certainly the Stoics bestowed too much cost upon death, and by their great preparations, made it appear more fearful. Better saith he, qui finem vitae extremum inter munera ponat naturae. It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit, is like one that is wounded in hot blood; who, for the time, scarce feels the hurt; and therefore a mind fixed, and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the dolors of death. But, above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is’, Nunc dimittis; when a man hath obtained worthy ends, and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy.—Extinctus amabitur idem.

 

(An Incomplete) List of Ridiculous Names in Charles Dickens Novels

Abel Garland

Abel Magwich

Adolphus Tetterby

Alfred Jingle

Affery Flintwinch

Anne Chickenstalker

Anthony Jeddler

Augustus Snodgrass

Barnaby Rudge

Bayham Badger

Bazzard

Bella Wilfer

Bentley Drummle

Betsy Prig

Betsy Quilp

Betsy Trotwood

Brownlow

Bucket

Bumble

Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby

Charity Pecksniff 

Clara Peggotty

Cleopatra Skewton

Clickett

Cornelia Blimber

Canon Crisparkle

Charles Cheeryble

Chevy Slyme

Clarence Barnacle

Clarriker

Creakle

Dick Datchery

Dick Swiveller

Dolge Orlick

Duff

Durdles

Ebenezer Scrooge

Elijah Pogram

Ephraim Flintwinch

Fanny Cleaver

Fanny Squeers

Flora Finching

Fagin

Fezziwig

Fledgeby “Fascination”

Grace Jeddler

Gaffer Hexam

General Cyrus Choke

Grewgious

Helena Landless

Henrietta Boffin

Henrietta Petowker

Ham Peggotty

Hannibal Chollop

Harold Skimpole

Herbert Pocket

Isabella Wardle

Jemima Bilberry

Jerry Cruncher

Job Trotter

John Peerybingle

Josiah Bounderby

Kit Nubbles

Kenge

Krook

Lavinia Wilfer

Lucretia Tox

Luke Honeythunder

Malta Bagnet

Mercy Pecksniff 

Martin Chuzzlewit

M’Choakumchild

Mealy Potatoes

Mould

Ninetta Crummles

Nadgett

Nathaniel Winkle

Neckett

Nemo

Newman Noggs

Noddy Boffin

Oliver Twist

Peg Sliderskew

Pet Meagles

Pleasant Riderhood

Polly Toodle

Paul Sweedlepipe

Perker

Phil Squod

Prince Turveydrop

Pumblechook

Quinion

Ruth Pinch

Redlaw

Rogue Riderhood

Sairey Gamp

Sissy Jupe

Sophronia Lammle

Susan Nipper

Sleary

Sloppy

Slurk

Smalweed

Smike

Snagsby

Snawley

Stryver

Tartar

Theophile Gabelle

Toots

Trabb

Tulkinghorn

Tungay

Tattycoram

Uriah Heap

Vholes

Vincent Crummles

Volumnia Dedlock

Wackford Squeers

Zephaniah Scadde