A neglected masterpiece, for The Folio Prize debate

11/07/13, www.thefolioprize.com

People in early modern times tried to account for the mutability of human affairs by blaming it on the influence of the fickle, changeable moon on the sublunary world. It is not wholly fanciful to see that notion as an apposite image of the way literature is subject to the tide in tastes and sensibilities, in what’s in or out of fashion; changeability nibbles away at literature and its reception too. Richard Yates has been saved from the maws of oblivion; now it’s the turn of John Williams. How right Milton was when he wrote, ‘Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil’ (my italics). Two years ago, very few people had heard about Williams. Posterity, clearly a matter of critical mass, or a tipping point, or an illustration of the game-theoretician’s adage, ‘Everyone’s talking about this writer because everyone’s talking about this writer’, has recently salvaged Williams’s 1965 novel, Stoner. The books pages of the broadsheets are suddenly full of columns about the novel; it has sold over 100,000 copies in the Dutch translation; it’s on ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer at Waterstone’s; it’s the fastest-selling book on the Vintage list … there’s no stopping it. It’s finally arrived. Stoner is this year’s Revolutionary Road.

But instead of adding my voice to the swelling chorus singing paeans to Stoner, I’d like to draw attention to Williams’s 1972 novel, Augustus, not quite as forgotten as Stoner until very recently used to be, since the latter novel won the National Book Award but soon thereafter it began its slide into the dark and now, with all the light shone on Stoner, seems in real danger of the darkness of overshadowing falling on top of it as well. I’m going to go ahead and say it: Augustus is a better novel than Stoner.

The classical realist novel works by the triangulation of plot, character and affect, and Stoner, in which character IS plot, to a large extent, is a masterpiece of both character and emotional traction. The moral enquiry of the novel is a variant of an old problem that engaged the Stoics – how far is it possible to have a core of the self sealed off and protected from the depredations of a cruel, immoral world? The price William Stoner pays for this is incalculable, yet at the shattering end of the book the reader at least can say, ‘Here was a good man in a naughty world.’

That same moral enquiry forms the motor of the historical novel, Augustus – it’s about Octavius Caesar, later to become Augustus – but now it is not only the book’s soul but its form too. It’s what one would call a mosaic novel: information or story is broken up, staggered, refracted, echoed, seen through and from several points of views in extracts from journals, letters, senatorial proceedings, petitions, reports, memoirs, even imagined pages from a real text (Livy’s History of Rome). It must have been a fiendishly difficult novel to construct, especially its chronological spine. (An aside: Alan Hollinghurst was to use a version of this, burnished to a kind of perfection, in The Stranger’s Child, although without the jigsawness of Augustus.)

The purpose behind this fractured narrative seems to be to create a character who is largely a hole, saturatedly present in everyone’s accounts but absent himself from the text; in a 300-page novel, Augustus does not appear until page 265, in Book III, where we hear his voice for the first time. You could see Augustus as a sort of geometric locus, bounded (and indeed created) by the myriad facets formed from the different texts that talk about and feature him in Books I and II. When Book III arrives with Augustus’s first-person narration, the contents make it clear what Williams has done: he has pushed the impulse towards a stoical endurance of the world that was the dynamo of Stoner to its logical and formal extreme. For, we learn, the most powerful man in the world is so disenchanted with power, and so preternaturally aware of its inherent immorality, on the havocs it wreaks on human affairs, that he has removed a corner of his soul away, presenting a public face to the world; the real Augustus remains unknown and unknowable to the Roman world. The moral energies of both novels, Stoner and Augustus, remain incandescent and constant: how does one preserve one’s soul in the world? How does one remain good? How should one live one’s life? Can there be bigger questions than these?

Here, then, is a wholly successful book that makes its metaphorical and moral underpinnings shape its form. Those who would bring the charge against Stoner that it’s written as if modernism never happened should read Augustus to see how brilliantly the moral focus of the classical realist novel and the formal inventiveness of the modernist novel can be married. Technically, it’s an astonishing achievement. That its emotional payload is subtler than the one in Stoner, more veiled, more muted, more demanding of us to complete it, makes me love the book even more.