Our book today is Thorton Wilder’s wonderful 1948 epistolary Roman historical novel The Ides of March; I found a neat old green-jacketed cover at the Brattle Bookshop the other day, and I smiled all the more readily at the sight of it, since I’d recently been unutterably wearied by the hosannas showered by the book-chat world on Augustus, the wan and wordy pastiche (also an epistolary Roman historical novel) of Wilder’s book written in 1972 by John Williams (author of the stupefying novel Stoner). The high-pitched fluttering among some of the best book-critics in Christendom on the occasion of the New York Review of Books‘ reprint of Augustus in 2013 only further convinced me that the book-chat world is as prone to yearbook-signing fad-following as the most flighty college sorority. In response (mental and sometimes muttered) to each one of these ridiculous encomiums, written on deadline by writers not one of whom could bring himself actually to finish Williams’ plodding book, I often remembered the book Williams was ripping off so ineptly. And since my own copy of Wilder’s book had long since disappeared (of course), I jumped at the chance to re-read this new-old copy.
It’s a strange book, in main part because it resolutely plies an artistic middle course, a respectable, Book-of-the-Month Club path far removed from Wilder’s own best leaps of genius (the greatest of which, no matter how many high school drama clubs massacre it, is his wicked and devastatingly sad play Our Town). Since so much of Wilder is now forgotten (his novel The Eighth Day, for example, won the National Book Award and probably hasn’t been read by a single person other than myself in the last forty years), readers might forget that the man was a working author with plenty of passions and interests of his own; The Ides of March reflects a good many of those, from Wilder’s idealization of political leadership to his appreciation of poetry.
The book dramatizes events in Rome immediately leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and he dominates the narrative as thoroughly as he dominated Rome in his mode of benevolent dictator. In Wilder’s hands, he’s the quintessential great man: moderate, winningly cynical, enormously competent, and far-seeing into the hearts and minds of others. In these pages he shares the spotlight with such notable figures from history as Cicero, Catullus, and Cleopatra, as well as with that living nexus of Roman domestic intrigue, the scandalous Clodia Pulcher and her charismatic, ne’er-do-well brother Clodius. These two plot and scheme deliciously throughout the book, and Wilder imagines their dynamic as a bubbling stew of Freudian unspokens. They hate Caesar, of course, but Clodia at least is able also to appreciate him, at one point lecturing her brother about the parts of the man worth emulating:
Watch him. You might begin by imitating his diligence. I believe it when they tell me that he writes seventy litters and documents a day. They fall over Italy like snow, every day – what am I saying, they fall all over the world from Britain to Lebanon. Even at the Senate, even at dinner parties there’s a secretary behind him; the very second that the idea of a letter occurs to him he turns and dictates it in a whisper. One moment he’s telling a village in Belgium that it can change its name to his and he sends them a flute for the town band, the next moment he’s thought out a way of harmonizing the Jewish dowry laws with Roman usage. He gave a water clock to a city in Algeria and wrote a fascinating letter in the Arab mode Work, Publius, work.
And amidst all the wheeling and dealing, Wilder spares a very pleasing amount of time for poor Catullus, prompted by his infatuation with Clodia to pen both vituperative attacks on Caesar and, of course, some of the world’s immortal love poems. Wilder’s Caesar takes the former in stride with good humor, but it’s the latter, those love poems, that really confuse him. He sums it up well in a plaintive letter to one correspondent:
You will be astonished to know that the woman addressed in the poems under the name of Lesbia is no other than Clodia Pulcher to whom you and I have written poems in our day. Clodia Pulcher! By what strange chain of significances has it come about that this woman who has lost intelligible meaning to herself and lives only to impress the chaos of her soul on all that surrounds her should now live in the mind of a poet as an object of adoration and should draw from him such radiant songs? I say to you in all gravity that one of the things in this world that I most envy is the endowment from which springs great poetry. To the great poets I ascribe the power to gaze fixedly at the whole of life and bring into harmony that which is within and that which is without them. This Catullus may well be of that company. Are these sovereign beings then subject to the deceptions of the lesser humanity? What disturbs me now is not his hatred of me but his love of Clodia. I cannot believe he is addressing merely her beauty, and that the beauty of the body is sufficient to evoke such triumphs in the ordering of language and idea. Is he able to see in her excellences which are hidden from us? Or does he see the greatness that undoubtedly was within her before she wrought on herself the havoc which now arouses detestation and laughter throughout the city?
Wilder wields the epistolary form with sharp, economical grace (unlike a certain someone already mentioned), always skillfully playing against the inevitable his readers know is coming. He provides the notion of an actual plot to his story – the infamous scandal in which Clodius infiltrated an august (and exclusively female) sacred rite dressed as a woman (this profanation of the Bona Dea rite is a staple of the writers of Roman historical fiction, and understandably so: it’s tough to mess up) – but the real spectacle here is of a singular Good Man surrounded by the clutterings and clawings of lesser beings. Every time I re-read the book, I worry that Wilder had some particular American politician in mind while he was creating his Caesar (as Taylor Caldwell would rather hilariously have one in mind years later when she wrote her own Roman historical novel, A Pillar of Iron), although it would be plenty bad enough even if he was only thinking of Julius Caesar himself, a more manipulative and self-serving creep than which it would be tough to find any time prior to the Nixon White House.
But no matter who might have been on Wilder’s mind, readers own that person a vote of thanks: they inspired a first-rate novel, and an eminently re-readable one as well … and one perhaps the New York Review of Books will get around to reprinting one of these days – by way of compensation.