The Ides of March – Thornton Wilder

A terribly clever epistolary novel by the author of Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Ides of March consists of four sections, each of which begins earlier and ends later than the last, each with a different theme. The first introduces the characters, the second deals with love, the third with religion, and the fourth with politics and death–specifically, the assassination of Caesar, who is the main character.

While it’s far from being historically accurate, Wilder gets points in my book for being upfront about the changes he made to history and about his intentions–more a “fantasia” as he calls it than a historical reconstruction. This is in contrast to authors like Conn Iggulden, who seek to minimize the extent changes they made (in the case of Iggulden, these are egregious changes to the same period as The Ides of March).

The book is dedicated to Lauro de Bosis, an antifascist writer (who had translated Wilder’s work) who died in plane crash after flying over Rome to drop subversive leaflets, and to Edward Sheldon, a physically disabled friend of the author’s who provided him with guidance, similar to the in-text relationship between Caesar and his correspondent on Capri, a severely wounded, reclusive torture survivor who is Caesar’s closest friend.

This last is the worst failure of a Chekhov’s gun I’ve ever seen. The mysterious correspondent remains silent throughout the text, yet is built up by other characters. I was expecting a letter from him to finally tie the plotline together and show us what was special about him, but he remains unknowable. Worst correspondent ever!

Some of Wilder’s changes didn’t seem to add anything to the text (eg having Cato alive messes with Porcia and Brutus’s motives without providing any interesting scenes) and his explanation for Clodia’s lashing out (that she was raped by a relative as a young girl) isn’t very well-explored and is a bit cliched.

I’m not making this book sound very appealing, but it’s a marvel of construction, taking the reader over the same ground several times without getting boring, and the characterization is very fine, particularly of Caesar himself, groping for a “limit [he] can respect” in the solitude of absolute power, as the other characters grope for this same limit in the social and ethical spheres. I’m not at all sympathetic to the historical Caesar, but Wilder’s Caesar can do the terrible things Caesar did and remain fascinating and complex.

The ebook version contains some extra material, including discussions by the author of what is fictional and real in the story and how he drew his conclusions. For example, the main trait of Caesar’s that he seized on was his famous clemency, and the Capri (non-)correspondent was inspired by a moment in De Bello Gallico when Caesar’s emotion breaks through for a moment in describing the death of an officer.

I now want to read Wilder’s Alcestiad, the beginning of which is sketched in the novel, attributed to Catullus.

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