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Photo by Nancy WilliamsAugustus

By John Williams

Original Publisher: The Viking Press, Inc.
Current Publisher: Vintage (Random House, Inc.)

Harold Augenbraum writes:

I would love to have been a fly on the wall of the 1973 Fiction panel discussions. The judges seem to have fallen into two camps: what you might call “post-modern” (Fiedler, Gass), and traditional (Connell, Percy, Yardley). And so they split the award between John Barth’s Chimera and John Williams’ Augustus, two novels as different in style as they could be, despite the link between the former imagining the inner lives of mythical characters and the latter the inner lives of historical people from the ancient world.

I’m not one for heartfelt portrayals of wisdom and sincerity, of characters trying to work through personal or existential crises, to look for meaning in someone’s actions, and I’m not even sure that Williams was trying to do this, but if the interviews with him give any clue, this was what piqued his interest. I prefer no meaning, or the impossibility of meaning, or the nonexistence of meaning. So in reading Augustus, which Williams himself said was the depiction of the development and workings of the mind of a seemingly honorable man who is forced to perform evil acts in order to achieve a greater good—including the exile of the people closest to him—as Augustus Caesar had to do with his own daughter and his lifelong friends, I’m a bit at sea. Williams re-creates the Roman Empire from the death of Julius Caesar to the last days of Augustus, the machinations of the court, the Senate, and the people, from the sickly boy to the sickly man who almost dies during expeditions to what would seem to be the ruthless ruler. He uses an epistolary, polylogic format, and in the end all these voices, like a collage, meld together around the main character. Monologue becomes action, but action never becomes character. Instead, an image of brutality questions its own origins. Read it in conjunction with Robert Graves’s more flamboyant I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, works hugely different in tone and approach, and tell me what you think.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9781400076734

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Brock Brower for The Late Great Creature
  • Alan Friedman for Hermaphrodeity
  • Barry Hannah for Geronimo Rex
  • George V. Higgins for The Friends of Eddie Coyle
  • R.M. Koster for The Prince
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Transparent Things
  • Ishmael Reed for Mumbo Jumbo
  • Thomas Rogers for The Confessions of a Child of the Century
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer for Enemies, A Love Story
  • Eudora Welty for The Optimist's Daughter

Fiction Judges that Year: Evan Connell, Leslie A. Fielder, William Gass, Walker Percy, Jonathan Yardley

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

John Williams’ was the author of four novels and two collections of poetry, as well as the editor of an anthology titled English Renaissance Poetry. When he died in 1994, Williams left an unfinished fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason.

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Reader Comments (2)

Mr. Augenbraum,

In the case of John Williams, it might be worth noting (and linking to) the fact that NYRB Classics has brought out reissues of two of his other novels--Stoner and Butcher's Crossing. Enjoying this blog a great deal.


Drew Johnson

August 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Johnson

Here you have a very merry

September 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWactUtics
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