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June 2, 2014

Today I finished the novel Augustus by John Williams.  This book was unique to me, it is a historical novel based on fact but written in the epistolary style, meaning it is structured totally of fictional letters, documents, and memoirs of the characters.  The story, as told through the eyes of many observers, is the life of Caesar Augustus.  Augustus was born Gaius Octavius and eventually  rose to power after his uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and his will stipulated Augustus as his heir.   You can read more about the novel itself at Amazon.  If I could give advice to anyone reading the book, it would be to make some notes and do just a bit of Wikipedia research on the characters as they appear, all the documents are written in a very convincing voice however having just a bit more background would allow you to place them all into the historical perspective just a bit better.

Now, the writing style is intriguing and very interesting to me.  The epistolary style evidently was a very popular writing device in the 18th Century but fell out of favor and even into ridicule before that century finished up.  At first I thought the style would be an easy way to write, perhaps even the perfect beginning for an aspiring novelist.  After getting into the book, though, I formed a conflicting opinion.  You have to switch the writing voice so many times and "stay in character", not to mention having to obtain a deep understanding of the people, places, and events that you are writing about, but yet only from the perspective of the character who is writing that particular letter or memoir.  I particularly loved the voice of his daughter Julia in the journal entries from the years she was living a life of exile on a small island. It would definitely be easier in something other than historical fiction, but I'm certain John Williams would have had his hands full in writing this book.   It was the 1973 National Book Award.

John Williams only penned 3 novels that he claimed (an early one was not to be consider, he stated).  I've read two of them and I liked Stoner very much more, though it was written mainly from the thoughts and emotions of the main character, won no awards, and was largely not considered very relevant until the last few years.  In Augustus, you really only crawl into the head of the main character during the last few dozen pages, otherwise the story comes from all the other observers of his life.  In the Stoner novel, you are inside the thoughts and head of William Stoner for the entire book.

The last novel from John Williams, oddly enough, seems to be a western.   He was the director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri and I find it intriguing that the novels are written so well with all of them being in a different format but yet he only finished three of them in his lifetime.  Williams died in 1994 at age 71.

 “It seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible
of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon
making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason
that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in
that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and
pride he would impose upon the world. I implore you, do not become
a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind.”

John Edward Williams, Augustus