Book Review

Roman Around: Three Imperial Paperbacks

there were emperors; i am emperbored

written at some point in february 2021

Feeling uninspired, unexcited and utterly utterly bored of the drudgery of the present February, I decide a triple dip into some oldish books about ancient Rome: some historical fiction and a very fucking charming non-fiction paperback.

Augustus by John Williams

Like everyone else with two eyes and a susceptibility to doing what other people do, I read John Williams’ Stoner a few years ago, and like anyone with any functioning critical facilities and 21st century ethics, I hated it. Why, then, did I choose to read another book by Williams?

In part, I suppose, because I forgot who he was.

Charmed, as always, by the recognisable design of the NYRB Classics, I leered over the book and thought a National Book Award winning (whatever that means) epistolary novel about the intrigues of Roman court life 2000-plus years ago would be fun. By the time I connected the name with Stoner and my memories of its disgraceful gender politics and underwhelming, inappropriately hyped, prose, the damage had been done and the book was mine. And, now I’ve decided to post about multiple books at once to keep TriumphoftheNow.com from the perennial dead-end of stream of conscious scream of ennui (I didn’t know I could be this unhappy without being suicidal: the medicine works, I suppose, even if nothing else does atm), a themed trip to a bustling Mediterranean empirical city seemed like it would be a good way to spend a week or so. 

Augustus tells the life of Emperor Augustus, the Roman who ended up on top following all the mess after the assassination of Julius Caesar. If you’ve read/seen either/both of ol’ Willy Shakespeare‘s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, then you know what’ll happen during the most adventure-packed pages.

Williams constructs the novel as a fragmentary text comprised of assorted faux found texts: letters, of course, but also public proclamations, private diaries, poems, notes, minutes from meetings etc, all of which seeks to create a myriad of perspectives (tho tbh not a myriad of voice) to create a mock historic document.

It’s fun, I suppose. I’m writing this a week after finishing it when I’ve read two other, more memorable books about ancient Rome, so my memory is weak.

Whatever, I suppose.

Yeah.

It’s fine, but somehow feels longer than it is while still being very enjoyable.

Very effective use of dramatic irony throughout: Williams presumes (likely correctly) that his readers will recognise names and events and their fates long before they do. Why is Mark Antony loitering around Egypt? Will this child descendant of Augustus turn out to be a wise ruler oh and his nickname is Caligula? etc.

It’s solid, I suppose, though – as with Stoner – Williams’ absence of interest in the inner lives of women and their existence beyond the trad sexist’s mother/whore dichotomy is plain as fucking day.

Tiberius by Ernst Mason

I bought this from my favourite kooky antiquarian bookseller, Monkey’s Paw, teasingly (because it’s been closed for browsing since before Christmas) located steps away from my workplace.

It’s a 1960s cheap, garish paperback from the USA that – in that old school, non-fiction, “this is how it happened” style of writing – tells of the life of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor. 

It’s full of scandal and cold war era asides like (I’m paraphrasing): “this crazy behaviour is even worse than the evil Soviet Union!”, with accusations of acts of extreme moral evil grouped with accusations of standard adult naughtiness, which says more about the sexual lack in Ernst Mason’s life than the depravity of Tiberius.

The prose is trashy and tabloid, it’s an incredibly fast read and it’s aimed at the general reader. Sensationalist, reporting clear wild rumour as certain dry fact: I loved it.

Once Monkey’s Paw reopens I will scout its paperback and history sections for more books from this Ballantine series, as the other trashy pulp non-fiction books it advertises on the reverse sound just as sleazy, just as trashy, just as fun.

100 pages for this kinda text is the perfect length. Genuinely, I’d recommend lol.

Claudius the God by Robert Graves

It’s been years since I read I, Claudius and I don’t know why it took me so long to get round to reading its sequel. No, I do, but I don’t want to say. Reminders of things best forgotten.

Like its other half, Graves writes Claudius the God from the perspective of Emperor Claudius, this time nearing the end of his reign and reminiscing about personal power, rather than its absence.

Claudius goes on a big trip with his soliders to see and conquer England, he heads off an uprising led by his friend-rival, Herod Agrippa, and is eventually poisoned to death by his fourth (or maybe fifth, I forget) wife, his neice and the mother of infamous Roman bad boy, Nero. 

Graves covers the death by having Claudius write himself up to the end of his ambition, the end of his hope, through the despair of his (for him) heartbreaking third (or maybe fourth, I forget) divorce/execution (his wife was having multiple affairs and planning a coup with a load of her boyfriends), so he has made a “for appearances’ sake” incest-marriage, sits down to write his life, adopts his nephew/cousin/stepson Nero knowing that, as soon as he does so and Nero’s inheritance to emperorhood is confirmed, his wife will likely kill him.

Claudius begs his one non-adopted son to leave Rome before making the formal announcement of his successor, but his son refuses to, and Claudius knows this will result in the son’s death as soon as he has been disposed of. Claudius is ready to die: he’s had his little emperor heart broken and he’s written his memoirs: what else is left?

It’s – as was I, Claudius – very very funny in places, and it’s also quite sad, melancholic. Claudius’ despair, even couched in the repressive language Graves uses to convey “translation from the original Greek”, conveys a real emotion, which is kinda impressive, I think. 

Yeah, whatever.

It’s fun, but it’s also very long (400 pages but feels like 600) and doesn’t really change its pace or its intensity much as it goes on.

I keep writing about pace atm.

I don’t know what I mean by that.

Does the pace in my own writing vary in a satisfying way? Am I being a hypocrite here?

I think, alas, I’m just thinking about pace in the books I read because there’s no variety in pace in the life that I lead. Rn. Because of the pandemic.

Christ. Every post here ends with, begins with, or contains these comments about boredom. I’m so bored. I wish I wasn’t so bored. I am so so bored.

Sorry. You’re probably bored, too. And if you’re not bored, there’s probably much worse going on for you, so apologies for that. Alternatively, tho, maybe you’re reading this in five years’ time and you barely even remember those lost years from the start of the decade when everything shut down for a pandemic that didn’t quite get round to the “piles of corpses in the street” aesthetic that would have, maybe, at least made it terrifying enough to never become dull.

Fear is a powerful emotion, a rich source of energy and flux; there’s not enough fear; there’s not enough of anything at all…

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