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
FICTIONALISED LIVES EVOKE OTHER FORMS OF PORTRAITURE
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.