Augustus by John Williams

Historical novels can be frustrating reads. A writer can easily take too many liberties with the historical context. Further, it is tempting for an author to produce an entertainment which lacks the psychological insight of something focused on contemporary concerns. In this text, John Williams largely avoided these common errors.

Williams, a novelist who worked in academia, was a disciplined artist. His ability to deal with complexity was evident in his famous ‘Stoner’ and his touch did not desert him when dealing with relationships at the summit of the Roman Empire. The text is composed of imaginary letters which are a pleasure to read. Parts of the novel form quite a subtle meditation on getting old.

Nonetheless, it is the style which appeals more than the content of the book. Several passages are composed of immaculate prose and an example may illustrate this:

“The sunlight catches the flecks of white foam that top the little waves, the waves slap gently and whisper against the sides of our ship, the blue-green depth of the sea seems almost playful; and I can persuade myself now that after all there has been some symmetry to my life, some point; and that my existence has been of more benefit than harm to this world that I am content to leave.”

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