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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Ides of March

Obviously a book about Julius Caesar with the title The Ides of March may lack a certain edge of suspense that some readers yearn for. But a brilliant author finds ways to offset that.

Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March was written in 1948. I had never heard it referred to by anyone (though it got excellent reviews in its day), but stumbled on an old paperback copy in the library's discard box. (You never know what will turn up there.) It sat on my shelves then for ages, until I needed something very slim to fit in the pocket of a sports jacket I was wearing to the opera. To my surprise, I found it one of the finest works of fiction,especially historical fiction, that I have encountered in years (well, since Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red anyway). And the suspense comes from the exploration this "collection of documents" provides into a dozen fascinating characters, reading their letters, their private notations, historians' commentaries, poesy (from Catullus), secret agents' reports, etc. All the main characters are brilliantly drawn, all are impressively distinct, and each one is so surprising and so delightful that the tension comes from anticipating still more surprises and delights as document succeeds document -- and Wilder never disappoints.

Wilder (one of the most learned American writers of his time, by the way, and the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes) admits he is not trying to reconstruct history; this is a "fantasia on historical themes." Some of the characters in the novel are people who were dead before 45 BCE, when his story begins (Clodia-Lesbia, Catullus, Clodius Pulcher, Caesar's aunt Julia); one or two are inventions; but the others (most magnificently the thoughtful, superhuman Caesar himself, Cleopatra - yes, she was in Rome that year, a celebrated actress, Caesar's silly second wife Pompeia and charming third wife Calpurnia, his ex-lover Servilia, HER son Brutus, his wife Porcia, and the orator Cicero) were alive and kicking, and their words as set down here bring figures to life who might or might not have lived, who represent real human beings as they might have existed, lived their lives, thought about politics and poetry and religion, 2000 years ago. Or so it seems to me, who dislike "modern" types in "historical" novels.

All too short but entirely delicious this taste of a brilliant writer's consideration of certain historical problems, and his elegant solutions to telling such a story from so many viewpoints, allowing us to appreciate them all.


1 comment:

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Sounds wonderful!

But I can't give it till I get myself a copy first... This sounds like one to savor.