It’s been two blessed years since the New York Review of Books reprinted John Williams’s flatulently boring 1965 novel Stoner and the presumably bored grandees of the book-chat world surprised all rational people by taking it up as some sort of lost classic and singing its praises from every literary pulpit in the English-speaking world. Two blessed years since this furtive and thankfully short-lived attempt at a Williams revival.
It was long enough for me to hope that the lunacy had departed from the book-chat ranks, who’d then drift back to over-praising stridently pixie-ish Workshop women. But no – the NYRB struck again by reprinting Williams’s stupefyingly dull 1972 novel Augustus, and it, too, has reaped heaps of grotesquely inaccurate praise. The attractive paperback features a specially-commissioned new Introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, one of our most intelligent and pleasingly mandarin book critics. At first his excellent essay raised my hopes, since for the first few hundred words it seems very pointedly to avoid actually praising the book (I smiled when he calls it Williams’s “most rigorous” book, which is certainly true as far as it goes). But no, the ether eventually affects even his first-rate brain and the superlatives start rolling out – culminating rather unforgivably in his equating of Augustus with a handful of truly great historical novels like The Memoirs of Hadrian and the novels of Mary Renault.
And one of my most reliable reactions to such a frustration – turning to National Geographic – was thwarted this time around, and for, amazingly enough, the exact same reason! The latest National Geographic features a cover story that doesn’t just flirt within the prospect of renovating the reputation of the Roman emperor Nero but actively engages with it. I wasn’t prohibited from inquiry by the issue’s absolutely awful cover (quite possibly the worst the magazine has ever sported – an illustration of a statue of Nero holding up a lighted match while a background of Rome burns), and I settled in with Robert Draper’s article hoping against hope that the tag-lines about revisiting “Rome’s Bad Boy” was an exaggeration merely meant to sell magazines.
But no, alas. Draper goes to Rome and manages to find half a dozen bumptious Italian historians willing to say that Nero got a bad rap – that despite all those murdered relatives and despite the fact that he flattened half of Rome for his egomaniacal building projects (helpfully illustrated in the text), he was actually a progressive and misunderstood ruler. Two of the people Draper interviews say the same thing: that Nero was “no better and no worse” than the emperors who came before him or after him – a statement so preposterous it must require, I guess, the restraint of a National Geographic writer not to laugh right in the faces of the people who say it.
So: Roman revivals on all sides! Where to turn for relief? Well, fortunately the world of high fashion always makes such perfect sense …