I finished a book last night, which I think must be the best historical fiction novel I’ve read. Augustus, by John Williams, is the story of the Roman emperor by the same name. It’s told from multiple points of view in letters and diary entries and feels as authentic as anything you’re ever going to get in this genre. I’ve read a few books like this in the past, and though some are entertaining, they generally feel a bit contrived and as if the author is putting words into the mouth of these famous characters.
Williams is doing the same, except that it reads as if these are genuine documents, and each voice unique and individual. It helps greatly that Williams – who also wrote Stoner – is a very good writer. He’s dealing with the historical record – the murder of Caesar, the civil war with Marc Antony, the various controversies and conspiracies of the age – but to re-imagine it so vividly, and with such convincing realism, is a great feat.
If you like this sort of stuff then you should do yourself a favour.
Near the end of the book, Augustus is ruminating in a letter to a friend as he feels his life coming to its close. He reflects on the people he’s known, the friends he’s had and lost, the great moments of history he was part of. He writes as a man, as Octavious perhaps, as he started, rather than the great emperor Augustus history knows him as.
There’s a passage there which feels very true and wise, and resonated with my experience of life to this point:
“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”― John Williams, Augustus
I certainly experienced and felt the full force of the first stage, that as a young man. It’s all about adventure and questing and insatiable appetite and curiosity and proving yourself. Life is a wondrous mystery.
I’m in the middle of the second stage. Parts of life feel tragic. I look back upon my earlier days, and I’m amused by my naivety, though impressed by my idealism and sensual gusto. I wonder at the value – and futility of it all. I’m much more measured, looking at things from the outside rather than within them. I question the point of it.
I look forward to the final stage as described here – seeing life as a comedy. I can believe in this. I feel as if it’s close now and as if I may already have experienced some of this. It would come as a relief to shed the burden of the belief I carry – though that seems harder to believe. It seems to me that if this stage is true, then it explains why they say the last 20 years of life are often the happiest. It’s a letting go.
I don’t think I can ever completely let go – and I don’t think I want to. But then, I’m still in the middle stage.