the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

THE com­men­tary on Bring up the Bod­ies and its prequel Wolf Hall sug­gests Hilary Mantel has el­e­vated his­tor­i­cal fic­tion to a new level of lit­er­ary re­spectabil­ity. Amid the (de­served) praise, I came upon a ri­val to Mantel in the genre — his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with a pow­er­ful bi­o­graph­i­cal fo­cus — by a lit­tle-known US writer, John Wil­liams.

That novel, sim­ply ti­tled Au­gus­tus, was first pub­lished in 1972 and went on to win the Na­tional Book Award. It tells, in epis­to­lary form, the story of Julius Cae­sar’s adopted heir, Oc­ta­vian, who was to be­come Au­gus­tus. It’s dif­fi­cult to make this kind of nar­ra­tive work: the writer must not only ven­tril­o­quise the writ­ten speech of characters who died 2000 years ago, he must also strip their dic­tion of overt ar­chaisms so the tone is mod­ern with a slight pe­riod in­flex­ion that varies with the so­cial class of the speaker.

If, for ex­am­ple, I were to dis­cover be­neath the floor­boards of my Vic­to­rian home an old yel­lowed let­ter from the hand of its orig­i­nal owner, the phras­ing would doubt­less sound stranger to my ears than the lan­guage fash­ioned by Wil­liams for the characters of Au­gus­tus. Here, to con­vey some­thing of the voice given by Wil­liams to Oc­ta­vian him­self, is the world-weary em­peror cor­re­spond­ing in mid­dle age while at sea to the his­to­rian Ni­co­laus (a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure): I tire, my dear Ni­co­laus. It is my age. The vi­sion in my left eye is nearly gone; yet if I close it, I can see, to the east, the soft rise of the Ital­ian coast that I have loved so well; and I can dis­cern, even in the dis­tance, the shapes of the par­tic­u­lar cot­tages and even make out the move­ment of fig­ures upon the land. In my leisure I won­der at the mys­te­ri­ous lives that th­ese sim­ple folk must lead. All lives are mys­te­ri­ous, I sup­pose, even my own.

And then there’s the ob­vi­ous chal­lenge of weav­ing let­ters, jour­nal en­tries and dis­patches — a pot­pourri of frag­ments all voiced in the first per­son — into a nar­ra­tive with thrust and psy­cho­log­i­cal pen­e­tra­tion. The epis­to­lary form is a hard quarry from which to hew in­ci­dent, di­a­logue, dra­matic shape: es­sen­tial em­bel­lish­ments of the fic­tional art. Wil­liams rises to the chal­lenge. The re­sult is a beau­ti­fully crafted work of imag­in­ing erected around a pre­ex­ist­ing his­tor­i­cal frame: a wor­thy pre­cur­sor to Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell se­ries.

The name John Wil­liams is a bit of a bar­rier to Aus­tralians with lit­er­ary tastes. Ev­ery time I’ve rec­om­mended Au­gus­tus to a friend I’ve been forced to ex­plain that the au­thor is no Aussie folk bal­ladeer. A nov­el­ist and poet of low birth, he lec­tured in English at an Amer­i­can univer­sity, and died in 1994. Since Au­gus­tus I’ve read two of his other three nov­els: Butcher’s Cross­ing and Stoner. It’s been said of Wil­liams that his fic­tions are so dif­fer­ent from one an­other they could have been writ­ten by dif­fer­ent nov­el­ists: an ob­ser­va­tion that has also been made about Mantel.

Stoner is his most per­sonal novel: it tells the story of a young man from a dirt-poor un­e­d­u­cated Mid­west fam­ily who finds his way into the US univer­sity sys­tem, lives through two wars, en­dures in­sults to his rep­u­ta­tion, bar­ri­ers to his progress, and a roller­coaster of an af­fec­tive life and, ul­ti­mately, achieves very


lit­tle other than to live the life of the mind. The some­what lugubri­ous tone is set in the open­ing para­graph where Wil­liams writes with spare, al­most un-nov­el­is­tic, mat­ter-of-fact­ness: Wil­liam Stoner en­tered the Univer­sity of Mis­souri as a fresh­man in the year 1910, at the age of eigh­teen. Eight years later, dur­ing the height of World War I, he re­ceived his Doc­tor of Phi­los­o­phy de­gree and ac­cepted an in­struc­tor­ship at the same univer­sity, where he taught un­til his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor, and few stu­dents re­mem­ber him with any sharp­ness . . .

Af­ter this lugubri­ous open­ing the reader is en­ti­tled to won­der: why should I care? The na­ture of Stoner’s jour­ney, though, is quick to un­fold. What kept me turn­ing the pages was Wil­liams’s chill­ing por­trait of cam­pus pol­i­tics and its courtly in­trigues. In many ways this is the dra­matic cen­tre of the book — in­ept gov­er­nance and per­sonal in­jus­tice — and it helps to ex­plain how a writer drawn to the life of Au­gus­tus can be equally cap­ti­vated by that of a mi­nor fig­ure of Amer­i­can academe: it is the game of power, played for enor­mously dif­fer­ent stakes, that unites both tales.

But there is an­other thread lin­ing th­ese two books, and it is ex­pressed in the quote above by the char­ac­ter of Au­gus­tus: ‘‘ All lives are mys­te­ri­ous, I sup­pose, even my own.’’ Wil­liams’s great fic­tional achieve­ment in Stoner is his abil­ity to an­i­mate the mys­tery of his main char­ac­ter’s life with such sym­pa­thy and per­fec­tion of tone that he be­comes, for us, as imag­i­na­tively am­ple as the ruler of the world.

It’s in­ter­est­ing how th­ese fic­tion­alised lives evoke other forms of por­trai­ture, par­tic­u­larly in the plas­tic arts. Mantel’s vi­sion of Thomas Cromwell brings Hans Hol­bein’s por­trait im­me­di­ately to mind, while Wil­liams’s Stoner sug­gested to the Ir­ish nov­el­ist John McGa­h­ern, who in­tro­duced the book, an in­tensely self­ab­sorbed Ed­ward Hop­per por­trait. Of course it’s dif­fi­cult to think of an im­age of Oc­ta­vian that does any psy­cho­log­i­cal work at all as they were all, more or less, works of pro­pa­ganda.

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