In 1973, John Barth won the national Book Award for his fascinating, scintillating rubix cube of a novel, Chimera. In an unprecedented move, John Williams won, too, for his fantastic novel of imperial rule, Augustus.
Barth belongs with the major, heavy duty post-modernists; he’s playful, obsessed with language and its shortcomings, challenging, at once high and low brow in his technique and interests.
For a time, Barth was a major American author, influential, ballyhooed, widely read and copied. But that time has passed. There’s something old-fashioned about his inter-textual games, his solipsism, his self-abnegation. There’s also something cruel, vicious, sardonic and self-destructive about his work. He juxtaposes silliness with violence, low culture with academic jargon. He’s one of the major figures of postmodernism, and embodies all of their sins and virtues.
Chimera follows three updated and modernized characters from antiquity. The first section follows Scheherazade on the eve of her first night with the lusty caliphate. John Barth, the author, appears and gives her a solution to her impending demise: tell him stories that never end. She does, and the rest becomes history. The other two sections follow Perseus, growing pudgy at middle age and yearning for immortality, and Bellerophon, obsessed with his reputation for posterity. Each is subverted through a fractured narrative lens. Each is witty (if a touch corny), bawdy, lusty.
Barth’s novel is about the impossibility of knowing, well, anything. Chimera details the constant reinvention of everyone, the mercurial demands of memory, the cascade of lies that constitute a human life and voice. Barth’s novel is also, despite the playful and ironic tone, full of self-loathing exhaustion with the form of the novel.
The major virtue of Chimera—it’s playful cancellation of everything occurring inside of it—is also its major problem. It’s about the writing of itself. Art for art’s sake is fine, but fake art for fake art’s sake seems a bitter pill to swallow. Reading fiction must be more than feints and gimmicks and nihilism and trickery.
Still, Barth is a fine, if occasionally clunky, writer. Here’s a taste, of Dunyazade, telling a third character, about Scheherazade:
“ ‘Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships—but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.’”
That ironic interjection of the contemporary into the timeless is supposed to be funny.
There was a time when I loved John Barth. That time has passed.
Augustus is John Williams’s grandest artistic achievement, an evocation of Octavian’s evolution as a thinker, humanist, and ruler, as well as an astonishing piece of writing. The novel takes the form of letters between various dignitaries, thinkers, artists and politicians, including Virgil, Horace, Julius Caesar and the like. The result is a mosaic of Octavian—cerebral, forward-thinking, and humane, but also draconian, puritanical, and humorless—who sacrifices most of his life and the lives of his friends and family to his devotion to the state. Octavian is stern, diabolical even, self-flagellating.
But Augustus is not some stale or staid accounting of Octavian’s rule. It unfolds in a thrilling fashion, with conspiracies, intrigues, double-crossings, and the almost-familiar weirdness of ancient Rome. In a word, it’s fantastic. He digs into the skein of Roman personalities and mores, as well as detangling the complex civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s death.
Williams sees inherent to the human condition moral choices and their consequences. He sees great drama in the real stuff of everyday lives. He also sees immense problems in the administration of governance, the gray areas between duty, honor, country, morality. Williams recognizes Octavian as real and complicated, as a man, a ruler, and a symbol. He isn’t a few throwaway lines in a textbook. He breathes.
Augustus belongs to a tiny sub-genre, fictionalized biographies of Roman Emperors. Others are Robert Graves’s I, Claudius; Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; Gore Vidal’s Julian II; and to a lesser extent (and the one on this list I haven’t yet read) Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Of these, Augustus is the best.
The writing is sterling, lucid, never boring. Williams inhabits manifold voices of various learned peoples and professions. He includes lists, fragments of memoirs, letters, prayers, minutes of official meetings.
Here’s a sample, with Maecenas writing to Titus Livius:
“You ask me about the early days of my association with our Emperor. You ought to know that only three days ago he was good enough to visit my house, inquiring after my illnesses, and I felt it politic to inform him of your request. He smiled and asked me whether or not I felt it proper to aid such an unregenerate Republican as yourself; and then we fell to talking about the old days, as men who feel the encroachment of age will do. He remembers things—little things—even more vividly than I, whose profession it has been to forget nothing.”
And there’s that sliver of menace tucked into the jocular tone, a feeling of unease and lurking violence that simmers inside the novel’s twists and turns, the dagger always (just barely) concealed in the interactions of the Roman elite.
It’s a tale of two Johns, and emblematic of a major schism in the reading habits of American letters.
Williams is serious, serene, elegant, controlled and precise. He was a professor, a scholar, a teacher. He has his own theories of fiction: regardless of the subject matter, a novel must unfold in a pleasing way for the reader.
Barth is mimetic, satirical, exuberant, artificial and pungent. He was a professor, a scholar, an essayist. He has his own theories of fiction, too; that the old forms are exhausted, ruined, and boring, and that writers must burrow into the form, shift traditions, blow the fucking thing up from the inside. Barth holds Jorge Luis Borges up as the ultimate modern author; Williams would, no doubt, favor Flaubert, Dostoevksy or Dickens. Barth is at home with self-replication, parody, contradiction. Williams tackles the issues of a life, death, moral choices.
Barth sees fiction as a meta-textual game. Williams sees it as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. To Williams, stories are holy.
Barth was born to money in the northeast, educated at top schools. Barth and his ilk are products of 1950s corporate culture and the ghastly Korean War. They saw realism as a terror, a near-unbreakable cage. They saw history as a snake eating its own tail. Unlike the Beats—whose theory of art was trangressive sex plus drug use plus eastern mysticism plus street-level patois, a sort of updated French romanticism—the postmodernists’ major themes were exhaustion with the existing forms and norms, and an abiding lack of belief in absolutes.
Williams was born to working class parents in Texas. He comes from a darker, more harried America. His dad was a janitor. He dropped out of his first college. He served two years in the Army. He belongs to no particular school. He wrote a western, an academic novel, a novel of ancient Rome.
Barth was happy to reuse and repurpose his own work and the work of others. Williams labored in specific genres, a delicate artist with delicate tools. Williams bears more than a passing resemblance to Edward Anderson, another great American author with a tiny output. (Anderson wrote just two novels, Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us.)
Barth was famous, Williams was not. But with the passing years, Barth’s books are declining, while Williams is now regarded as a major American author.
The award had never been split before. This has to do with the panel of judges: William Gass, Jonathan Yardley, Walker Percy, Leslie Fielder and Evan Connell. There’s a clear split between the traditional (Yardley and Connell) and the avant garde (Gass and Fielder), with Walker Percy straddling the two camps. I don’t know the story behind the voting, but I can imagine the growing rancor, the distrust and disgust with the opposing sides. In the end they split the top award. This is as it should be. Better to honor two writers than to ignore them all.
1972 was an intriguing year for American fiction, democratic, unpredictable, just plain weird. Writers veered into odd corners: crime, science fiction, fantasy. The line between literature and pulp was further eroded. The big theme in American fiction seems to be the (attempts at) elevation of the gutter genres.
Richard Adams published his epic tale of questing rabbits, Watership Down. Ira Levin released his feminist horror novel, The Stepford Wives. George Higgins published his great crime novel of Boston’s underworld, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Barry Hannah—what a career he had!—released Geronimo Rex. Ishmael Reed published Mumbo Jumbo. Eudora Welty released The Optimist’s Daughter. Paul Theroux, Irving Wallace, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov published novels. Hunter Thompson released his “non-fiction” travel book about bad dealings in Nevada, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
World literature continued its romp. Peter Handke, Robertson Davies, Italo Calvino, Jorge Amado, Martin Amis, Roald Dahl, Gunter Grass, Mary Renault, Graham Greene, and Kenzaburo Oe all published novels.
There is one glaring fact about the impressive array of novelists above: there’s only one woman, Eudora Welty. And only one African American. Ishmael Reed. The boys’ club mentality was still fixed. The white, male viewpoint was dominant. The keys to the kingdom remained in the hands of a select few. A literary power elite.
Still, Augustus and Chimera are superb novels. And Augustus deserved the top award.
 Or maybe it’s Butcher’s Crossing. Or maybe Stoner. All three are stupendous.
 In Stoner, he has his main character feeling vertigo over his first taste of serious literature. “What’s happening?” he asks one of his teachers. “You’re falling in love,” his teacher says.
 Of course, each genre has produced its own artists.
 A bit better than it sounds.
 He later said he made a lot of it up.