Tag Archives: Quote

Bringing Augustus To Life: A John Williams Quote

5 May

Just  before the current lock-down started in the United Kingdom I had the deep pleasure to read the novel Stoner, by the American academic and novelist John Williams.  It left a strong desire to explore his work further and I was excited to learn that each of his four published novels are unalike in form and style, focusing on completely different periods and utilising a variety of perspectives.  As time turned, and it became apparent that we would have to lock ourselves away from the social world, I sought continuing joy through the written word.

I quickly came across the next book by Williams that caught my attention – a self-titled work of fiction focused on the life of Augustus (64 BC – AD 14), otherwise known as Gaius Octavius.  He was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar who went on to become the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruling from 27 BC to AD 14 following the vanquishing of Caesar’s assassins and victory in the subsequent civil war.  Following Augustus’s numerous victories in battle and the consolidation of his political power, he helped to implement changes that oversaw Rome transition from a Republic to its first phase as a burgeoning imperial empire, thus helping to usher in a relatively prosperous and peaceful 200-year period known as the Pax Romana.  Augustus was arguably one of Rome’s most remarkable and adept political leaders.

The remarkable bronze Meroë Head of Augustus with striking glass pupils and calcite irises. Found in 1910 at the ancient Nubian site of Meroë, Sudan, the Greek-style statue is thought to date from 29 BC. Image credit: Wikipedia.

In Williams’s epistolary novel we are first introduced to Gaius Octavius through his friends and from there we follow his life, with nuanced views and fictional scenes giving emotional heft to the historical fact.

I’ll end it there with the novel description as I really just wanted to draw attention to the quote below from Williams himself, taken appropriately enough from a letter to a friend detailing his struggle of how to represent the novel’s historical figures and fictional viewpoints in a accurate manner, as it pays to bear in mind that the novel is as much about the people surrounding Augustus as it is about himself:

Those people were very real and contemporaneous to me. I wanted a kind of immediacy in it,  but I couldn’t figure a way how to do it. I also knew that all educated Romans were great letter-writers. Cicero would write eight, ten, twelve letters a day. And the Roman postal service was probably as good as our postal service is today. . . I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them. I didn’t want to have a twentieth-century vision of the Roman times. So the epistolary form lets the people speak for themselves… The provincial notion of how much more advanced we are – that’s nonsense.

– Quoted from Williams (2003: x).

There is a great point made repeatedly throughout the novel that history, both what we as individuals chose it to record and what it actually records through the medium of time, can only ever be what survives.  In ‘Augustus’ we are instead presented with fictitious multi-faceted views of historical figures and it is to the credit of William’s imagination and literary skill that they seem so alive and vital in this supremely accomplished novel.

Bibliography

Williams, J. 2003. Augustus: A Novel. Vintage: London.

Williams, J. 2012. Stoner: A Novel. Vintage: London

Consequence and Obligation: Barry Lopez’s Horizon (2019)

20 Apr

I have to admit that as much as a fan of travel literature as I am, I had not read or heard of any of the Barry Lopez‘s previous writings on culture, anthropology, or ecology, including even his seminal 1986 volume Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. This happily changed recently when I came into the possession of his latest work, the more autobiographically minded Horizon (2019), earlier this month following a cracking review of it in the Guardian newspaper.  I am glad to say that I am now, in part, rectifying this gap in my knowledge and I have spent many happy hours re-reading and pondering his exquisite writing.

Horizon is a hard work to classify – it is not your typical autobiography as Lopez’s life experiences are only alluded to rather than fleshed out in detail, but the depth of his thoughts and experiences of journeying across the earth, uncovering the bonds between both humanity’s impact on the planet and co-dependency with the natural environment, are richly described and expounded upon.  This is further enriched with input from a wide range of friendships with ecologists, geographers, historians, archaeologists and artists alongside inhabitants of the places his visits.

horizon barry lopez

Noted explorer and writer Barry Lopez along with the cover of Horizon (2019, his autobiographical exploration of humanity and the natural world. Image courtesy of Literary Arts.

I am struck by the syntax that Lopez uses to draw in the reader into his way of seeing the world; it is a world not riven by borders (physical or mental) between humanity’s cultural world and the natural world but by the blindingly obvious partnership and balance that is needed between the two.

In an early section of the volume Lopez discusses the material objects that act as his talismans as reminders to, or from, previous expeditions and how they link both memory and experience to inform his guiding values in interpreting the world around him.  It is a particularly moving point in which to provide the bedrock for the rest of book and into Lopez’s own evaluation of his critical thinking over time.  In the passage quoted below an Arctic artefact linked to functionality is heavily imbued with a sense of place within the give and take of humanity’s survival:

‘Next to my bed is a sand-cast silver harpoon tip, a stylized replica of a toggling implement that Eskimo hunters have used for centuries to secure and retrieve seals.  A gift from my wife.  To provide food for one’s family , whether it is seal meat or a sack of grain  or the flesh of an avocado, is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life.  To act here is to face one’s own complicity, to choose to take life in order that one’s own kin might continue to live.  When I lie down to sleep far from home, I place this small work of art close by on a folded scarf.  It was crafted by a man named Jimmy Nagougugalik, an Inuit artist and hunter from Baker Lake, in Nunavut, Canada.  It reminds me of the centrality of the symbolic in human life, and of both the consequence of providing and of the obligation to provide.’

– quoted from Lopez (2019: 40).

The volume is laced with an undercurrent of worry for the future generations of the world, in both the political and physical sense, as we head to unprecedented population numbers and increased stresses on the environment leading to resource depletion, unsustainable economic growth and ecological damage.  Yet there is a hint of hope, that if a balance can be achieved and stability in how we manage our resources then we can live more harmoniously in sync with each other and the natural environment.

If you are looking for a volume to read that will challenge the way you think about humanity’s impact on the earth and are curious to read about far-flung places with an anthropological slant then this may be the book for you.

Bibliography

Lopez, B. 2001. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. Vintage: New York.

Lopez, B. 2019. Horizon. London: The Bodley Head.