Thornton Wilder’s 1948 historical, epistolary novel. I read a paperback edition without the now-standard Kurt Vonnegut introduction. I wonder what old Kurt had to say?
2 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Intrigue, gossip, and plotting in Rome told through letters in the year leading up to Julius Caesar’s assassination.
The climactic event of The Ides of March is right there in the title: Caesar’s going to die. Wilder’s task is to make the journey interesting. Great books are written around fictionalizing historical events: Don DeLillo’s Libra and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 come to mind, though I’m more familiar and interested in Oswald and JFK’s assassination than I’ve ever been in Caesar.
Therein lies problem one: I have no interest in this book’s content, only in the author. I bought it for Wilder’s name (Bridge of San Luis Rey having won my heart), so a piece of the blame for the 2-star rating is firmly on me.
Problem two, closely related to problem one: Wilder assumes that his reader is interested in his topic and bringing their own historical knowledge to the party. On principle, I refused to look up any of the historical figures in The Ides of March while reading. My challenge to Wilder was to see if he had created a compelling standalone narrative. (He did not.)
His characterizations are fantastic; Clodia and Caesar are especially fascinating. Wilder creates multi-faceted characters, showing us the many ways an individual can be seen. Even when the views seem to contradict, we understand why everyone feels the way they do. We can agree with someone for hating Caesar, then agree with another for loving him.
But I don’t know the history of these people and by the end of The Ides of March, I was left with more questions than answers. Characters that seem hugely important are never seen on-screen (Lucius); abruptly kicked out of the narrative with unexplained fates (Pompeia); built up, then given no resolution (Clodia and Clodius; Cleopatra and the son she claims is Caesar’s). None of Wilder’s conflicts are resolved in the text. Again, a book like this has to be able to stand on its own.
Wilder also uses an experimental form that didn’t work for me. The Ides of March is told in four parts. Each part covers a longer amount of time than the one before, while encompassing the one before. That sounds insanely confusing, so just imagine a book taking place in 2016 divided like this:
Part 1: June – July 2016
Part 2: May – August 2016
Part 3: February – October 2016
Part 4: January – December 2016
As a concept, it’s intriguing. In execution, it presents a problem of false climaxes without resolution. By Part 4, I was tired to treading over the same ground and getting nothing for it.
(Though, I love Wilder for trying. Especially if it influenced authors like David Mitchell – see Cloud Atlas for a similar idea done almost flawlessly.)
This work is dedicated
to two friends:
LAURO DE BOSIS
Roman poet, who lost his life
marshaling a resistance against
the absolute power of Mussolini;
his aircraft pursued by those of the Duce
plunged into the Tyrrhenian Sea;
who though immobile and blind
for over twenty years
was the dispenser of wisdom,
courage, and gaiety
to a large number of people.
Lauro Adolfo De Bosis (1901 – 1931) was an Italian poet, aviator, and anti-fascist. He died after taking off with a half-fueled plane (after only seven-and-a-half hours flying experience) to drop antifascists leaflets over Rome while Mussolini was sitting in council. By the time the Italian Air Forces responded, De Bosis had flown over the sea to Corsica and was never seen again. Wilder’s dedication to him is seen as a parallel between De Bosis and Catullus.
Edward Brewster (Ned) Sheldon (1886 – 1946) was an American dramatist. His plays include Salvation Nell (1908) and Romance (1913), which was made into a motion picture with Greta Garbo. After becoming ill at age 29 with crippling rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually claimed his sight (around 1930), Sheldon became a source of emotional and creative support for his many friends, including Thornton Wilder and Ruth Gordon. The similarity between this and Wilder’s characterization of Lucius Mamilius Turrinus is clear.
The principal liberty taken is that of transferring an event which took place in 62 B.C. – the profanation of the Mysteries of the Bona Dea by Clodia Pulcher and her brother – to the celebration of the same rites seventeen years later on December 11, 45.
(from Wilder’s introduction)
Bona Dea (“The Good Goddess”) was a divinity in ancient Roman religion. She was associated with chastity and fertility in women, healing, and the protection of the Roman state and people. Her rites allowed women the use of strong wine and blood-sacrifice, things otherwise forbidden them by Roman tradition. Men were barred from her mysteries and the possession of her true name. The goddess had two annual festivals. One was held at her Aventine temple; the other was hosted by the wife of Rome’s senior annual magistrate, for an invited group of elite matrons and female attendants. The latter festival came to scandalous prominence in 62 B.C., when the politician Clodius Pulcher was tried for his intrusion on the rites, allegedly bent on the seduction of Julius Caesar’s wife.
I am not going to look up every historical name in this book (mostly from stubbornness; Wilder should have done the necessary describing) but Clodia/Claudilla Pulcher is the most compelling and essential character in The Ides of March and is worth a brief biography:
Clodia (born Claudia, ~95 B.C.), nicknamed Quadrantaria, and occasionally referred to in scholarship as Clodia Metelli (“Clodia the wife of Metellus”), was one of three known daughters of the ancient Roman patrician Appius Claudius Pulcher. Like many other women of the Roman elite, Clodia was very well educated in Greek and Philosophy, with a special talent for writing poetry. Her life, immortalized in the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero and also, it is generally believed, in the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, was characterized by perpetual scandal. When her husband died in strange circumstances in 59 B.C., Clodia was suspected of poisoning her husband.
For the rest of the characters, I stuck to Wikipedia’s short descriptions.
The projects which now visit me, however, involve elements about which I am not certain that I am certain. To put them into effect I must be clear in my mind as to what are the aims in life of the average man and what are the capabilities of the human being.
I am no longer immediately filled with compassion when I encounter one of those innumerable persons who trail behind them a shipwrecked life. Least of all do I try to find excuses for them when I see that they have found them for themselves, when I see them sitting on the throne of their own minds, excused, acquitted, and hurling indictments against the mysterious Destiny which has wronged them and exhibiting themselves as pure victim.
Imprisonment of the body is bitter; imprisonment of the mind is worse.
He listens with such total attention to every little thing one struggles to say. And those great eyes are so flattering, flattering and frightening. They seem to say: “You and I are the only really sincere people here; we say what we really mean; we tell the truth.”
Why have you never been anything more than Tribune? Because your plans always begin with next month.
Am I sure that there is no mind behind our existence and no mystery anywhere in the universe? I think I am. What joy, what relief there would be, if we could declare so with complete conviction. If that were so I could wish to live forever. How terrifying and glorious the role of man if, indeed, without guidance and without consolation he must create from his own vitals the meaning for his existence and write the rules whereby he lives.
You said that the universe did not know that men were living in it.
Your frequent charge that I do not love you cannot be repeatedly answered without humiliating us both.
“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.”
“Every man must have an audience: our ancestors felt that the Gods were watching them; our fathers lived to be admired of men; for Caesar there are no Gods and he is indifferent to the opinion of his fellow men. He lives for the opinion of aftertime; you biographers, Cornelius, are his audience.”
It is the rage of the soul that there is a body and the rage of the body that there is a soul.
Let us have Anacreontic threnodies on this bird and impassioned exhortations to kisses beyond counting.
adjective – (of a poem) written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, known for his celebrations of love and wine.
noun – a poem written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, especially one celebrating love and wine.
noun– a lament.
“All that a man wishes to accomplish he must complete in this life, for there is no other.”
“It is difficult to be at once happy and puzzled.”
The effects of consanguineous marriage having been fortunately mitigated by impotence on the part of the Kings and gallantry on the part of the Queens.
adjective – relating to or denoting people descended from the same ancestor.
The adherence of a people is not acquired merely by governing them to their best interests. We rulers must spend a large part of our time capturing their imaginations.
You have not been writing to me but to that image of me lodged in your head whom I have no wish to confront.
This letter, like all letters, is totally unnecessary.
The murderer survives the victim only to learn that it was himself that he longed to be rid of. Hatred is self-hatred.
Never, never, can I conceive of a love which is able to foresee its own termination.
It is difficult (…) to escape becoming the person which others believe one to be.
I am a man who more values a gift by its appropriateness than by its expense.
If our minds can make such Gods and if from the Gods we have made there flows such power, which is no more than a power resident within us, why cannot we employ that power directly? These women are employing but a small part of their strength, because they are ignorant that that strength is their own (…)
Let each woman find out in herself her own Goddess – that should be the meaning of these rites.
Anyone would be bad, if you told them all the time that they were bad.
 There is a fictional narrator within the text; guessing and assuming as though we are reading through real documents. He presents himself with italicized asides, like the following:
As to this last matter [the death of Catullus?], I don’t wish you ever to mention it again.
I appreciate what Wilder is attempting to do but, as narrative and/or entertainment, this is failing. He’s adding unnecessary layers of confusion. Why not have his letter-writer be more clear? Why add another layer of fiction?
In a book, conjectures have a way of looming larger than facts. Facts can be controverted; a gloss can nullify them; but conjectures are not easily dismissed. The histories we read are little more than processions of conjectures pretending they are facts.
(p.202 – 203)
“I have turned the conversation to praise of this man, only to discover that I am being listened to by a breathless and half-swooning girl, convinced that she was the only inspiratrix of that parded career.”
adjective – (archaic) – having spots like those of the leopard.
The “Andromache” of Apelles (…), the greatest painting in the world.
Apelles of Kos (4th century BC) was a renowned painter of ancient Greece. Pliny the Elder rated him superior to preceding and subsequent artists.
In Greek mythology, Andromache was the wife of Hector, daughter of Eetion and sister to Podes.
I can’t find an “Adromache” of Apelles.
Life, life has this mystery that we dare not say the last word about it, that it is good or bad, that it is senseless, or that it is ordered.
Life has no meaning save that which we may confer upon it. It neither supports man nor humiliates him.
Word-for-word, Wilder is an amazing writer. The quotes I’ve pulled from The Ides of March are beautiful and vivid and I will continue seeking out his novels. But I’m not going to recommend this one unless you’re interested in Julius Caesar or his times.
As much as I admire the experimental style, I would have loved to see Wilder attempt a straight narrative of the same events. There is so much potential in his characterizations but I never connect emotionally – I’m being jerked around between characters too much. Wilder needs to tell me why I should care about these people and he never does; he assumes I already know.
Next week, Stephen King’s Novella/short story collection Hearts in Atlantis.
(All of these Stephen King reviews are leading up to something, I swear.)