"Augustus", "Books Most Enjoyed By MillersTime Readers", "Stoner", 1973 National Book Award, John Williams
…you might try his last novel, Augustus.
Augustus (1971) tells of the life of Gaius Octavius Thurinus aka Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius aka Imperator and (finally) as Augustus who, following Julius Casesar’s assassination, becomes one of three military dictators of the Roman world. Eventually Augustus becomes its sole ruler and the founder of the Roman Empire, ruling from 27 BC until he died in 14 AD.
Williams tells Augustus’ story through a series of letters, ‘official’ documents, journal entries, and other largely invented writings. He states in an author’s note, “…if there are truths in this work, they are truths of fiction rather than of history. I shall be grateful to those readers who will take it as it is intended – a work of the imagination.”
And a wonderful novel it is (it was a co-winner of the 1973 National Book Award). I knew very little, or remembered very little, of early Roman history, but I came away from Augustus believing I had a sense of the man, those around him, and the events of his time.
Altho Stoner and Augustus lived very different lives and in very different times, there are similar themes in the two novels, particularly the question: ”Where does the truth of a life lie?” Just as Williams did in the final chapter(s) of Stoner, so does he give us (imagines) Augustus reflecting on his life in the final ‘letters’ of Augustus.
There’s an excellent introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn in the new New York Review Book edition (paperback) of Augustus that not only discusses Augustus/Augustus but draws parallels to all three Williams’ novels, particularly between Stoner and Augustus.
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PS – If you don’t know about the book Stoner, check it out. It was written in 1965 and reissued in 2003 and has had sort of an underground resurgence in the US and has been a best seller in Europe (even though it’s a book whose story takes place in the US).
Two terrific reviews of Stoner:
You Should Seriously Read “Stoner” Right Now, NYTimes Magazine, May 9, 2014.
The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of, The New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2013.
Stoner will certainly be on my list of Books Most Enjoyed by MillersTime Readers in 2014. (Reminder: your submissions for this year’s list should be emailed to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Dec. 20, 2014. For details, see this post.)