Across the book clubs we read a huge range of different types of books in a year. Some stories and styles more naturally appeal than others; some winded me up thoroughly in very unexpectedly ways and a few just took my breath away.
In previous years, I’ve been hard pressed to pick a favourite story across a year, let alone across the book clubs (and – frankly – I haven’t been that bothered so I just let it go). This year however, one choice in particularly has greatly impacted upon me.
Written in 1972 and the joint winner of the following years National Book Award for Fiction, this book comprises of a series of letters which follow the path of Gaius Octavius Caesar. His path, for Williams, begins on the date that Julius Caesar is killed and follows through his ascendancy via war and violent retribution – first into the ruling triumvirs then to the position of First Citizen (Emperor) of Rome. Alongside Octavius, we learn the fates of several of Rome’s most illustrious citizens – including Mark Antony and Brutus.
John Williams – ever a writer who marched to the beat of his own drum – broke from convention in his portrayal of Augustus in a more sympathetic light than the biographers of his day. Here, Octavius is logical – his lack of mercy for his enemies seen more as pure pragmatism than cruelty or blood lust. While his reign was forged in blood and vengeance; he is also recognised as being a stable leader, one under whom Rome appeared to flourish. His letters reflect a man capable of seeing beyond his own moment of time.
“Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die.”
John Williams only ever wrote four novels and Augustus was the most acclaimed during his lifetime, though Stoner has certainly been rapidly gaining admirers in recent years. Each book was of a totally different style and subject matter. I’ve read Stoner (which I didn’t love exactly, but enjoyed the read of) and will one day tackle both Butcher’s Crossing and Nothing but the Night. I almost wish I go back in time though, to read them all in order – I can’t imagine anything ever matching up to the enjoyment I had during Augustus.
When heading into the White Swan LBC meet up; I had been worried that the book might not have had the same impact on others. I needn’t have been.
We had a fantastic conversation. We loved the epistle style; the characters; the development and the fact that Octavius himself remains silent for the first two thirds of the book. Julia was a particular conversational piece and we happily debated her change in status with glee.
Nearly everyone agreed that they would have continued reading the lives of the next three Caesars…heck, one or two or us would have read the story of the next 2000 years if John Williams had been the one writing it!
Indeed, we were so enamored with this book that we picked Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare as our 2014 Christmas read-a-long.