On John Williams’s Novel “Augustus”: A Conversation

By Charles J. Shields, William GiraldiNovember 16, 2014

On John Williams’s Novel “Augustus”: A Conversation

WILLIAM GIRALDI: John Williams’s resurrection from the boneyard of obscurity has been stunning to witness. I’m usually skeptical of any Lazarus act, of any literary movement undertaken with such unblinking gusto, but the Williams revival is outright gratifying: it feels something like justice in a world badly deprived of it — justice for this sapient, deep-seeing novelist almost incapable of composing a bum sentence. To enter into Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner, and AugustusAugustus especially — is to enter into the architecture of an expert craftsman absolutely unafraid of the confrontation with the direness and deliverance of human living. As his biographer, you must be thrilled by this second act, by this afterlife Williams is experiencing.

CHARLES J. SHIELDS: The literary parallel that comes to my mind is what happened to Melville. He died in such deep obscurity that more than one New York newspaper began his obituary with a sentence like, “The current reading generation will not be familiar with the name Herman Melville, but there was a time when the writer’s work was on everyone’s lips.” The Melville Revival didn’t occur until 45 years after his death. Williams didn’t die unknown of course in 1994, but he saw nothing during his lifetime like the attention that’s been given to his novels recently. And I bring up the Melville-Williams connection for another reason, too. You mention “the architecture of an expert craftsman.” As an experiment, I broke one of Melville’s shorter chapters in Moby-Dick into free verse — it read and sounded gorgeous. Williams was that sort of craftsman, too. Roxie Munro told me this anecdote: At Yaddo, one evening during dinner she asked him, “So, what kind of day did you have, John?” “Great!” he said. “I wrote eight perfect sentences.” What’s your opinion about why Williams is being carried into the pantheon dead instead of living?

Our need for beauty and wisdom is such that we will find it: sooner or later, one way or another, beauty and wisdom will have out. Williams’s fate was such that he couldn’t be granted the laurels he deserved while living, and that’s a familiar enough story among great artists. Would he have been less resentful in life, less prone to drain the bottle and smoke his lucks black, had he been awarded the fame that his tremendous talented warranted? Impossible to say, since fame is its own kind of noose. I like your correlation to Melville because in many ways America was unready for Melville’s cosmic vision; it took the cataclysm of the First World War to bring Melville’s far-reaching mythos back into our grasp. Although nothing on that scale has happened to precipitate this Williams revival, I do think that entire zip codes of readers are thirsting for the purity and depth of Williams’s prose, for his expert craftsmanship, his gorgeous storytelling. Discerning people everywhere are fed up with electronic inanity, with the sovereignty of cyberspace. They feel blitzed by it all and are seeking the sane and lasting pleasures in the breed of literature Williams created, in those perfect sentences you mentioned. I have to ask: of Williams’s three novels, which is most special to you?

Of his three major novels — Williams was just apprenticing with Nothing but the Night (1948) — Augustus is my favorite, and here’s why. As a biographer, I admire to distraction ancient historians such as Tacitus, Sallust, and Plutarch. It’s because of the call to integrity that speaks through their style. Tacitus: “A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.” I hear that voice in Augustus — that wise-weary voice that tries to rouse mankind to choose courage, honor, and suffering over an easy and untried life. That call is at the center of biography too where we see individuals tested over a lifetime. So perhaps that’s why I admire Augustus so much because it reaches for the same claims as biography. A novel, Williams said, is about a life. But the same could be said about Stoner too, couldn’t it? It’s about a life and the call to integrity. Augustus is superior though, in my mind, because in this — Williams’s third and last novel — he has come to full maturity in his writing. His prose is as thick and rich as marbled meat.

Incidentally, I asked a European — Oscar van Gelderen, who’s going to bring out my biography in the Netherlands (no publisher here expressed much interest) — why Williams is such a sensation in France, Germany, and other places. He said it’s because Europeans are interested in characters’ interior lives — in their existential choices. I wonder: Is this a gloss on how “electronic inanity,” as you call it, has influenced Americans’ taste in reading?

One is tempted to say that this must be one of the malignant factors, yes, and yet almost anywhere you look in the history of literary comment in English — in Edmund Wilson, in Virginia Woolf, in Chesterton, in Wilde, in Mencken, in Dr. Johnson, in Emerson — you find the castigation of common reading habits. Emerson said people don’t deserve good books, they’re so pleased with bad: he was talking about Americans, of course, but Wilde and Chesterton said much the same thing, and they were speaking of Brits. I have more faith in my fellow Americans than, say, Mencken had, and I do think that Williams will catch fire as hotly here among discerning readers as he has in Europe.

And I couldn’t agree more about Augustus. You ask if Stoner can claim some of the same strengths as Augustus and I think it can, yes, to a point: it’s a beautiful book, beautifully written and modulated, perfectly controlled, deeply felt. Both Morris Dickstein and Steve Almond have written that it’s not only a beautiful novel but a great one, and I differ slightly with Morris and Steve here. To my mind Stoner doesn’t quite make the great novel that Augustus does. One has the urge to say that a great novel must itself be about greatness — somehow, one way or another, a great American novel must confront greatness. Huck Finn, Moby-Dick, Gatsby, Augie March — each in its own way makes potent statements about the character and destiny of American greatness. Stoner doesn’t quite. It’s concerned, in part, with the opposite of greatness — an Everyman’s contented capitulation to failure and disappointment, his acceptance of a mediocre fate. The pathos of the book is tremendous and tremendously moving and memorable, but in Augustus Williams understood what he himself required to fashion a great novel: a great leader and a great empire. And I can never shake the suspicion that through Octavius and Rome, Williams is really writing about American power.

Well, I’m going to arm-wrestle you over the nature of greatness — I happen to think Stoner includes that theme, too. You see, I think you’re comparing a painted miniature of George Washington to the faces on Mount Rushmore: the subject is greatness, but it’s a matter of scale. Panoramic history tends to look like greatness right away. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that greatness is fundamentally courage. And when Stoner breaks his career to defend the bedrock purpose of a university during that horrible, meretricious oral exam of a graduate student, he is as deserving of the mantle of greatness as Horatius at the bridge.

However, let me turn this discussion of greatness a few clicks in the direction of John Williams as an author. There are authors who have delivered outstanding pieces of historical fiction about great individuals: Robert Graves, Patrick O’Brian, Mary Renault, and Thornton Wilder, for example. But Augustus is not just about Romans who rank as great: it’s once again about the quality of the desire for greatness. No biography of Augustus could have done more to reveal the character of people who strive for it. And what a technical masterstroke by Williams to let them speak for themselves through the intimacy of letters. No descriptions of 10,000 legionnaires marching across a plain; no scenes of galleys ramming each other at Actium. Plot is practically dispensed with. Williams is like a medium who calls forth the voices of the dead, ever-poised on the thin edge of triumph or humiliation, for whom it is eternally now. And we hear them speaking in our ear. What courage on Williams’s part!

Goethe once remarked that every artist needs a touch of audacity in order to make art. In Augustus Williams has much more than a touch — he has a smack, a shove, a stomp of audacity. The sheer ambition of the thing. The book is a miracle: it shouldn’t work, no way it should work — an epistolary novel about Rome’s first emperor, told in the ancient yet natural and varied voices of all the key players? — and yet it succeeds beyond all measure. The tag "historical novel" can have a touch of pomp and gilder to it — you settle in for a series of set pieces, for pageantry and reportage. Or else you settle in for sheer satire, as in Joseph Heller’s novel about King David, God Knows. Augustus is different. The humanizing of these heroic individuals required an uncommon genius. It does seem to me that Williams comprehends the difference between the brand of courage you yourself see in the university life of William Stoner and the brand of courage, of heroism really, it takes to lead an empire.

I’m thinking of that scene early in the book, related in the journals of Salvidienus. It’s March of 44 BC at Apollonia, and the four friends — Octavius, Maecenas, Agrippa, and Salvidienus — are resting on a hill as the cavalry does maneuvers below them. They josh with one another and you can feel the large love among these friends and comrades. Then they spot a horseman in the distance, galloping toward them, and Octavius senses that something’s wrong. He recognizes the horseman from his mother’s house. And in fact the horseman has arrived to deliver a message to Octavius, a message that his uncle and adopted father, Julius Caesar, has been murdered on the Senate floor. The grief and shock of this affects all four of them, but Octavius has a weighted calm about him. The scene ends with Octavius walking off onto the field by himself, "a slight boyish figure," Williams writes, "moving slowly, this way and that, as if trying to discover a way to go." It’s an extraordinary scene, extremely touching, and pivotal for the hero journey of Williams’s main character: this is the moment he recognizes his fate. He hasn’t necessarily embraced this fate yet, but he’s recognized it, this 19-year-old kid who will become Caesar Augustus and alter the trajectory of the Western world.

You know, you point to something that I hadn’t realized. Perhaps Augustus draws much of its power from understatement. A kind of playing against character (and incidentally, Williams wrote plays and acted in college, a part of his development that hasn’t come to light yet). For that scene you describe, few authors could resist a Hollywood moment of Octavius’s companions taking a knee at the announcement of Caesar’s murder, and saying as one, “Hail, Caesar!” to that teenager. But not Williams. The moment is not what we expect. It’s just news and Octavius is just an unprepossessing young man. How ingenious, revealing, and technically risky — all at once — of Williams to make the frail vehicle of letter-writing bear the whole weight of character development and history of the Roman world. What a deft and unpredictable achievement as a novel.

Yes, and the masterstroke of leaving Octavius’s own words for the last sliver of the novel — the narrative tension that builds, the tautness of the telling. When we finally hear his own voice at length, not filtered through others, it is not at all what we expect and yet it is perfectly correct: a voice shaded slightly with regret, with a patient wonder at what it was all for, all the clamoring for empire, for greatness. A lesser novelist would have not resisted the temptation to relay this entire narrative in the booming voice of the Revered One, which is what the name "Augustus" means — the significance of the term is religious rather than political, although that dividing line could be a rather diaphanous one, as Octavius knew and exploited.

Also, although Williams’s portrait of Octavius is overwhelmingly favorable and humanizing, he doesn’t blot out the nefarious bits: Octavius schemed and betrayed and butchered when necessary. Everywhere you look in the record — in Tacitus, in Suetonius, in Cassius Dio, in recent biographies by Anthony Everitt and Adrian Goldsworthy — you find an essentially bifurcated ruler. A ruler with a sense of humor who lived in relatively modest housing and refused to refer to himself in tyrannical tones, and a ruler who wouldn’t balk at executing 300 senators or a surrendering army if the health of the empire was threatened. Williams has Octavius say: "How contrary an animal is man." But Williams doesn’t accentuate the sensational parts; he doesn’t have to. As you say, he comprehends that understatement is the only proper means of telling this tale of greatness. The novel is the towering achievement of his life.

I can tell you this as Williams’s biographer: not even Augustus brought him the attention he deserved in his lifetime. In 1973, Williams shared the National Book Award for Augustus with John Barth’s Chimera, the first time the fiction award had been split. Many in the literary community believed honoring Williams was actually an apology for having been overlooked. And even then, despite how the National Book Award steamed tardily into his career, Augustus only sold 10,000 copies. Williams’s other novels bobbed in sales just a little. He continued teaching at the University of Denver, though some of his colleagues detected feelings of envy trailing after him. On a personal note, he had married his fourth wife, a former student, Nancy Leavenworth, the year before.

But his health was declining. Students marveled how he conducted his classes, alternating between taking a drag on a cigarette, exhaling, and then clapping an oxygen mask over his mouth for a breath. In 1984, some colleagues celebrated his retirement with “John Williams Day.” He offered his papers to the University of Denver library. They turned him down. Williams, 71, died March 3, 1994, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The New York Times obituarist described him as a professor and “educator” and novelist, as if the sum of all three made his passing noteworthy. A pretty Stoner-ish ending to a life devoted to literary achievement. But for those of us who admire his work, there’s some satisfaction in this: When he won half of the National Book Award for Augustus, Carol DeBoer-Langworthy, who teaches now at Brown, interviewed him for the University of Denver Magazine. She was a young graduate student. She asked him, “What will your acceptance speech be about?” For the first time in their conversation, he became a little heated: “A defense of the goddamn novel!” His conviction that the traditional form, approach, and purpose of the novel will endure over what he called Barth’s “one-trick pony” of innovation has been borne out.


William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters and is a senior editor for AGNI at Boston University.

Charles J. Shields is author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, and Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. He is writing the first authorized biography of novelist John Williams.

LARB Contributors

Charles J. Shields is author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, and Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. He is writing the first authorized biography of novelist John Williams.

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, the memoir The Hero's Body, and an essay collection, American Audacity. He is an editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.


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