john Williams’ “Augustus”

Mendelsohn_2-081414_jpg_250x1401_q85Daniel Mendelsohn at The New York Review of Books:

How to write about such a figure? In Augustus, the question is slyly put in the mouth of the emperor’s real-life biographer Nicolaus. “Do you see what I mean,” the confounded scholar writes after a meeting with Augustus, whose notorious prudence he cannot reconcile with an equally notorious penchant for gambling. “There is so much that is not said. I almost believe that the form has not been devised that will let me say what I need to say.”

This is an in-joke on Williams’s part: the form Nicolaus dreams of—which is of course the one Williams ended up using—is the epistolary novel, a genre that wasn’t invented until fifteen centuries after Augustus. And yet its roots go right back to his reign. The Roman poet Ovid—also a character in Augustus, providing gossipy updates on the doings of the imperial court—composed a work called Heroides(“Heroines”), a sequence of verse epistles by mythical women to their lovers.

The epistolary form, so long associated with romantic subjects, is in fact ideally suited to Williams’s quasi-biographical project.

more here.