Because I like to think myself above everything zeitgeisty, when the John Williams revival hit fever pitch and everyone was raving about Stoner, I decided I needed to know what this was all about without leaping with both feet onto the bandwagon.
So, motivated by this and a lifelong obsession with Ancient Rome, I picked up Augustus.
I don’t like epistolary novels in general – I feel that the premise stretches my disbelief too far. I don’t often like novel adaptations of Roman history, because they are never as good as the immortal I, Clavdivs. It is rare that I am ever deeply impressed by the style of anything written after 1650.
I was stunned by Augustus. Williams’ prose is simple, and yet also lacks nothing. He has that rare gift of economy of description. I have seen Cleopatra represented time and time again. Williams’ Cleopatra appears for a total of about fifty words, most of which do not describe her, and yet I was left with a vivid image of a full character. The only other Cleopatra whom I have found so evocative is Shakespeare’s.
Why did I knock off half a star, I hear you cry. Well, as stunning and subtle as the novel was up until the last chapter, what I had thought was a sly and well-judged decision to only describe Augustus from others’ perspectives came crashing down around me, as Augustus speaks in a “letter” that takes up the last twenty or so pages, explaining away many of the pleasant ambiguities and giving the whole novel a rather different feel. I feel I would have swooned with joy at how transcendent it had all been if it had finished just one chapter earlier. As it was, I still very much enjoyed it, but I was left a little miffed.
That aside, I am sorry to say that I am now part of the John Williams zeitgeist bandwagon, and I am probably going to head out right now to the library to read Stoner…
Rating: 4.5 stars