An American academic in charge of creative writing at the University of Denver writes three novels in twelve years. They are unconnected apart from a shared fastidious composition. The first (1960) is set in Kansas in the 1870's and concerns a young man looking for adventure in the wilderness of the West. The second (1965) traces the unexceptional life of an assistant professor at a Midwestern university in the first half of the last century. Little more than a ripple of appreciation is raised. In contrast, the third novel (1972) – an account of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus – shares the US National Book Award for Fiction. Yet it is a brief efflorescence. Soon the book is interred with its predecessors in that well-stocked necropolis of forgotten literary talent. The author dies twenty-two years later, in 1994, a further novel unfinished at the time of his death.
The three books were Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus, their author the peppery, chain-smoking John Williams – and there it might have ended. But in the early 2000s resurrection stirred. Through a grapevine of still appreciative readers and booksellers, interest reawakened in Stoner with its meticulous dissection of love, conflict and loss. The book was reissued and, after a hesitant start, sales took off. In 2013, the forty-one-year-old novel was voted Best Book of the Year by Waterstones.
It was only after reading Stoner that I looked at the brief list of Williams’s previous works (they include a fourth novel – his first, written in 1948 – which he later disowned). The title Augustus immediately attracted me. Direct me to novels about the classical world and I am as a white bull with gilded horns to the slaughter. It has been so ever since I read an easily digestible version of the Odyssey as a child. Could this match Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian (SF no. 2), Robert Graves’s Claudius, Mary Ren
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