Friday, 7 June 2019

Book Review: The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder
The people who rule a country, be it a republic or a monarchy, a democracy or a dictatorship, even a tyranny, quite naturally provoke controversy. They carry the burden of responsibility, but often everybody else seems to know better than they. Sometimes this may even be true, especially when looks, charisma and populist catchphrases – in other words a good performance – make the public blind to their incompetence and to their lack of ideals. At the same time, power can corrupt even the most able ruler because it easily produces a growing hunger for more. This is a dangerous game as Caius Julius Cæsar knew well, and yet, he continued to undermine the Roman republic. In The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder the Dictator’s writings and those of friends and foes, men and women, citizens and slaves bring to life the atmosphere in Rome in the months before his assassination.

Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in April 1897, but grew up in China until the family settled down in California in 1912. After graduation from Yale University, he studied in Rome and then taught French in New Jersey, while doing his master’s degree at Princeton University. Although having written ever since his school days, he published his first novel, The Cabala, only in 1926. Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and best-selling The Woman of Andros (1930) soon followed. Until 1938, Thornton Wilder taught at Chicago University and continued producing translations, novels like Heaven’s My Destination (1935) and numerous plays in a line with Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) or the screen play for Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. After having served Air Force Intelligence in Africa and Italy during World War II, he became visiting professor at Harvard University. Most notable among the writer’s later works are the novels The Ides of March (1948), The Eighth Day (1967) and Theophilus North (1973; reprinted as Mr. North) and the plays The Matchmaker (1954) and The Alcestiad (1955). Thornton Wilder died in Hamden, Connecticut, in December 1975.

The texts combined under the title The Ides of March document in four books social and political life in Rome during the months leading to Caius Julius Cæsar’s assassination in 44 B.C. Several of the letters, diary entries and official communications focus on everyday matters, notably invitations to dinner parties, to be dealt with in a well-to-do Roman household like the Dictator’s, while others refer to city talk that may revolve around Cæsar’s latest edicts just as well as around upcoming religious feasts. Many reveal political schemes, discuss poetry or simply gossip about disreputable Lady Clodia Pulcher and her brother.
“[…] Clodia has become the most discussed person in Rome. Verses of unbounded obscenity are scribbled about her over the walls and pavements of all the baths and urinals in Rome. I am told there is an extended satire dedicated to her in the cooling-off hall of the Baths of Pompey; seventeen poets have already put their hands to it; it receives additions daily. […]
The lady, it is reported, has heard of these tributes. Three cleaning men are engaged nightly in surreptitious erasure. They are overworked; they cannot keep up with their task.”
Between August 8 and March 15, more than a dozen people record events, plans, observations and thoughts in writing, among them Cæsar himself. In long journal-letters to his – fictional – friend Lucius Mamilius Turrinus who retreated to the quiet island of Capri after having been maimed by the enemy during a campaign in Gaul and who never writes back, he often gets carried away. Apart from summing up current affairs to keep the reclusive friend up-to-date about Roman society and politics, he indulges in discussing poetry and in philosophising. With pleasure he dwells on the nature of love, religion and politics.
“And yet I am a politician: I must play the comedy of extreme deference to the opinions of others. A politician is one who pretends that he is subject to the universal hunger for esteem; but he cannot successfully pretend this unless he is free of it. This is the basic hypocrisy of politics and the final triumph of the leader comes with the awe that is aroused in men when they suspect, but never know for certain, that their leader is indifferent to their approval, indifferent and a hypocrite. […]”
One of the most illustrious letter-writers is Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, lover of Cæsar and mother of his son, whose presence in Rome causes controversy and hostile feelings in the family as well as in the population. But she isn’t the major reason why Cæsar finds himself ever more often the target of attacks from political opponents and people fearing for the century-old Roman republic. He knows that he is unpopular for gradually having united the power of an absolute ruler in his hands and that it’s only a matter of time that he’ll die from the hands of an assassin…

The author calls his historical novel titled The Ides of March “a fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic” with little claim to historical truth. It’s really an epistolary novel based primarily on letters that – except for several poems from the pen of Catullus and the closing text by Suetonius – all sprang from the writer’s own imagination. In particular, he took liberties with the chronology of events of which some took place earlier than stated and with the biographical data of his letter-writers because some didn’t live to see Cæsar assassinated. This doesn’t matter, though, because there isn’t much of a clear plot-line, anyways. The choice of literary form although certainly inspired by Ancient Roman writers like Cicero makes the novel feel rather artificial to me, more like a nineteenth-century work awkwardly transposed to antiquity. Contents and language, too, appear too modern to me. The narrative perspective constantly changes with the person who pens the respective passage and so does the tone ranging from very personal to highly official and from wicked to amiable. Latin poems are always followed by their English translations that unpleasantly break the flow of an otherwise smooth read.

Admittedly, my prime reasons to review The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder were its literary form and its publication date after World War II. Lacking a true passion for historical novels because I prefer non-fiction to evoke the past, its setting in Ancient Rome was to me a deterrent rather than a lure. On the other hand, I like to leave my usual rut now and then. The book didn’t turn out to be my favourite read of all times as was half to be expected, but although the author showed off his expertise in the classics in a way that quite bored me, my time wasn’t wasted. At least, I now understand why my English teacher frowned at me seeing Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey on my reading list for school leaving exam! Others may appreciate the bestseller from the 1940s, so I recommend it nonetheless.

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