Drawing on such unique sources as Thornton Wilder's unpublished letters, journals, and selections from the extensive annotations Wilder made years later in the margins of the book, Tappan Wilder's Afterword adds a special dimension to the reissue of this internationally acclaimed novel. The Ides of March, first published in 1948, is a brilliant epistolary novel set in Julius Caesar's Rome. Thornton Wilder called it "a fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic." Through vividly imagined letters and documents, Wilder brings to life a dramatic period of world history and one of history's most magnetic, elusive personalities. In this inventive narrative, the Caesar of history becomes Caesar the human being. Wilder also resurrects the controversial figures surrounding Caesar -- Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, and others. All Rome comes crowding through these pages -- the Rome of villas and slums, beautiful women and brawling youths, spies and assassins.
It’s somewhat interesting to see the side of Caesar dealing with day to day operational issues with running the state, ruing the superstitious rites of the religion of the day, and maneuvering through politics with great clemency and stoicism, but I think critics were right in pointing out that the novel is a bit on the intellectual side, one saying it was like a Roman portrait bust, “cold, precise, artful, and quite lacking in the divine fire that glows about a major work of art.” Have a look at the amazing (to me anyway) quotes though:
On being too decisive without deliberation; it reminds me of a leader I know:
“Caesar is not a philosophical man. His life has been one long flight from reflection. At least he is clever enough not to expose the poverty of his general ideas; he never permits the conversation to move toward philosophical principles. Men of his type so dread all deliberation that they glory in the practice of the instantaneous decision. They think they are saving themselves from irresolution; in reality they are sparing themselves the contemplation of all the consequences of their acts. Moreover, in this way they can rejoice in the illusion of never having made a mistake; for act follows so swiftly on act that it is impossible to reconstruct the past and say that an alternative decision would have been better. They can pretend that every act was forced on them under emergency and that every decision was mothered by necessity. This is the vice of military leaders for whom every defeat is a triumph and every triumph almost a defeat.”
On love unrequited; this from the poet Catullus:
“It is torture to be awake and not beside you; it is starvation to be asleep and not beside you. At dark I went out with Attius – another torture, to be thinking only of you and yet not to talk of you. It is midnight. I have written and written and torn up what I have written. Oh, the sweetness, the wildness of love, what tongue can tell it? Why must I attempt it; why was I born to be hunted by demons to tell of it?”
On the meaning of life; I loved the last line:
“You taught me all that I know; but you stopped short. You withheld the essential. You taught me that the world has no mind. When I said - that you remember and why I said it – that life was horrible, you said no, that life was neither horrible nor beautiful. That living had no character at all and had no meaning. You said that the universe did not know that men were living in it.
And this one, arriving at truth by subtraction:
“And none of these meanings are meanings for me, though at various times in my life I have held all of them. With the loss of each of them I have been filled with an increased strength. I feel if I can rid myself of the wrong ones, I shall be coming closer to the right one.
But I am an aging man. Time presses.”
“Life has no meaning save that which we confer upon it. It neither supports man nor humiliates him. Agony of mind and uttermost joy we cannot escape, but those states have, of themselves, nothing to say to us; those heavens and hells await the sense we give to them … With this thought I dare at last to gather about me those blessed shades of my past whom hitherto I had thought of as victims of life’s incoherence. I dare to ask that from my good Calpurnia a child may arise to say: On the Meaningless I choose to press a meaning and in the wastes of the Unknowable I choose to be known.”
“I believe that all poets in childhood have received some deep wound or mortification from life which renders them forever fearful of all the situations of our human existence. In their hatred and distrust they are driven to build in imagination another world. The world of poets is the creation not of deeper insights but of more urgent longings. Poetry is a separate language within the language contrived for describing an existence that never has been and never will be, and so seductive are their images that all men are led to share them and to seem themselves other than they are. I take it to be confirmation of this that even when poets write verses which pour scorn on life, describing it in all its evident absurdity, they do it in such a way that their readers are uplifted by it, for the terms of the poets’ condemnation presuppose a nobler and fairer order by which we are judged and to which it is possible to attain.”
I knew before starting out that it was told in a format of a series of letters and that it had some serious historical inaccuracy. The historical inaccuracy didn't so much bother me; the letter format though made it hard for me to really get into the flow of the story. Though it did lend it a certain "historical" feel in a sense.
Certain things were very odd, like at one point there's a series of chain letters being distributed around Rome, which would be very difficult to do in a age without a printing press or copy machine. And there's an "Aemillian Droughts and Swimming Club" which just took me right out of the time period of the novel every time it was mentioned, because it just didn't fit.
A lot of really antiquated ideas about women in here, and I can't honestly tell if it's because Thornton Wilder was writing this in the late 1940s or if he was writing what he thought Roman men thought about women (which they well might have).
I didn't really buy that Caesar would be so fascinated by Catullus. I don't know, I just didn't.
Overall, I kind of felt like I wasn't really smart enough to enjoy a book like this.
Publius Clodius was caught disguised as a woman attending the rites of Bona Dea which were strictly for women only; he was allegedly there to see his presumed lover who was then Caesar's wife (the one he divorced for not being "above suspicion") -- she was not in fact his wife at the time of the events leading to his death. It is told as an epistolary novel with wonderful letters not only from the characters already mentioned but also other figures such as Cicero and letters to a hideously mutilated Roman officer whom Caesar takes care of. Rereading it lately, I thought some of Caesar's philosophical musings pretentious but much of the rest stands up --it develops real suspense even knowing how events turned out.
Thank heavens I already knew the basic outline of this story. It was simply torture to read. Wilder divides the novel into four “books.” But the time frames overlap. For example, book one begins with a letter dated Sep 1 (45 BC), includes later entries marked “written the previous spring, has a memo dated Sep 30 near the end, followed by two undated notes, and a final document “written some fifteen years after the preceding.” Then we move on to Book Two, which begins with a letter dated Aug 17 (45 BC). S*I*G*H
The second difficulty I had was with the names / relationships. They frequently use nick names or code names when trying to ensure secrecy from prying eyes, should a letter fall into the wrong hands. THEY know who they refer to, but this reader was frequently confused.
And the third reason I found this so challenging are the many asides / footnotes / remarks that the author inserts. For example, in Book I, in the middle of a rather long “historical document” the author writes: Here follows the passage in which cicero discusses the possibility that Marcus Junius Brutus may be Caesar’s son. It is given in the document which opens Book IV..
Now, I appreciate Wilder’s writing, and there were times in the book that I was completely engaged in the story. I was fascinated to read of the intrigue and espionage, the role of Cleopatra, etc. But on the whole … well I think I had more “fun” translating Cicero’s oration against Cataline when I studied Latin in high school (and I hated that).