How to make Julius Caesar interesting
Posted October 11, 2007on:
It’s a novel I’ve barely mentioned here but I zipped through The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder in the first few days of October. I rescued it, free of cost, from a campus book store sale remains, but was not enthused about the find. I associated novelizations of of Ancient Rome, especially about Gaius Julius Caesar, with ‘pedigree’ pop fiction, probably written with an eye on a movie or tv adaptation (so the writer hopes). I didn’t know a thing about Wilder’s reputation.
Coincidentally, I came upon a Paris Review interview with him in the No. 15 issue in 1956 and decided I was interested in what he had to say. When I reached the interview’s last page I was reluctant to abandon engagement with such a reflective, exceptional mind, never mind that he’s the only author I’ve ever read in any interview who made such an interjection:
Wilder: I thought we were supposed to talk about the art of the novel. Is it all right to go on talking about myself this way?
Interviewer: I feel that it’s all to the point.
It turned out that his books might be worth a look after all because he was also preoccupied with creating experiences rather than moral improvement (in part because he’s so so conscious of his own didactic nature), of squaring the experiences of the individual in the vast context of world events and history, and of love. It seemed so me.
You’d think that I rushed to the book, was immediately immersed in its world, left impressed, immensely pleased, and yearning for a few more pages. Well, I didn’t rush off — I took more than a week to pick up The Ides of March — and on the first try I thought that, sure it might be worth my time, but I’m in the mood to be distracted by something else. Perhaps I needed time for my mind to acclimatise to an epistolary novel. The second time around I enjoyed it as much, if not more than I expected.
It was my first epistolary novel and the form proved to be a great way of breaking through my historical novel prejudice. There’s no time wasted on elaborate world rebuilding, ‘evocative’ descriptions of togas, columns, market stalls and arena events. That the average reader has a basic grasp of the events in Julius Caesar’s life made it easier to get straight into things from the first Augurs report to the Supreme Pontiff.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s introduction was clearly a paltry attempt on HarperCollins’ part to lend some eye-catching lustre to the reprinting of Wilder’s backlist. Vonnegut gave a basic biographical background, mentioned something about Wilder and Vonnegut Sr. learning Latin in school, and declared that he could never ever say a bad thing about the swell, three time Pulitzer winning writer. Eh. Wilder’s short preface was more informative: he stated that ‘historical reconstruction is not among the primary aims of this work’ (God bless him), and he pointed out some of the historical liberties he took along with those facts that might seem fictional.
For all but the classics I abhor extraneous ‘P.S.’ type material at the back of books. I flipped through the afterword, curling my lips at extracts from Wilder’s personal letters to family, but found a nice overview of critical reactions to The Ides of March at its publication. The selected quotes from the negative reviews were puzzling. There are some books you enjoy but can see exactly why another reader may close the book with an adverse reaction; I couldn’t do so here. The “contrived” description was puzzling because it lacked context, and the accusation of it being “cerebral” was too stupid to spend any time on. Orville Prescott for the New York Times daily view didn’t think it all bad but figured, ‘Like a Roman portrait bust, it is cold, precise, artful and quite lacking in the divine fire that glows about a major work of art.’
That’s mostly rubbish. I wouldn’t say that the book is heated by a divine bunsen burner turned way, way up, but it certainly isn’t cold. The book is a series of letters from prominent public figures, of various statures, some invented (as far as I know) like Lucius Mamilius Turrinus, a great friend of Caesar, and the more familiar like Cicero and Clodia Pulcher. Most of the letters are from Caesar to his secluded friend, a multiple amputee who lives in seclusion on the island of Capri. These letters offer him a rare opportunity to reflect on the management and, because of the prominence of religion in Roman life and Caesar’s strategic placement of himself as a divine descendant, of what it is to be human in relation to powerful beings whom supposedly affect every facet of your life but by their natures you do not know and cannot control. How much control, then, does one have over one’s fate, how much of it is your own will, and what is chance, and what is simply because of the lazy stupidity of men? Do the gods even exist? He writes of love too, of Cleopatra, of the rarity of “disinterested love”, especially for powerful rulers, of what goes into making intelligent, admirable, superior men (great women, apparently) and…of so many other things. None of it is given in the style of a class lecture nor are you given the impression that any character is the author’s mouthpiece. They read like the charged sort of conversations any persons who’ve been curious about the world and their place in it have had with friends after class, in a bar, on the couch etc. And through these revealing exchanges, and other letters from people like Cicero, Caesar’s paternal aunt, and servants about Julius, we discover why he was such a charismatic and equally repellent person. They really made him breathe for me in a way previous movies and accounts about him never did. (Although Ciaran Hinds turn in HBO/BBC’s Rome made me see why he was a favourite with women.) I’ll post an excerpt of one of the letters in a different post.
The other charge I found equally incomprehensible was that the book was “pedagogical” which I’ve already answered, I think. The tone of Caesar’s letters to Lucius was one of a friend, and often one could see an evolution of Caesar’s thoughts as they went on. In the book he’s a man very sure about a great deal of things, but never closed to further intellectual exploration. Others too, despite Wilder’s (unnecessary) declaration that this book was fiction and therefore not accurate, wailed that it was “preposterously” and “aimlessly” wrong. Ah well.
I’d like to read more of Wilder, especially his plays, but there are so many other books demanding my attention that I probably won’t do so for some time.