Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Ides Of March

Title : The Ides Of March (1948; 191 pages)
Author : Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
Genre : Classical Literature
Rating : C+

This Month I Read...
Thornton Wilder was an American playwright and novelist. He won Pulitzer Prizes for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and Our Town (1938).

TIoM is one of his later works, and frankly was not a big seller. It deals with the 6 months or so leading up to Julius Caesar's assassination ("Et tu, Brute", and all that). At 191 pages, it was an opportunity to read something "high brow" for a change, without too much of an investment in time.

This is not a historical novel - Wilder makes that clear from the beginning. He 'borrows' a number of things that actually occurred 5-15 years earlier, and time-shifts them to 45-44 B.C. for the sake of his book.

What's To Like...
The style is wonderfully unique. There's a high-falutin' word for it : epistolary. Basically, the story here is written as a series of letters from/to the various characters - Caesar, his wife, a lady named Clodia, Cicero, Cleopatra, etc. You can read more about this style here. It works. I'd enjoy trying to write a story in this mode.

Being a series of letters, there's always a convenient place to stop if you're a late night reader like I am. Overall, Wilder divides TIoM into 4 "books". They are not chronological; instead, they deal with different themes. Book 1 introduces the characters; Book 2 deals with Love; Book 3 focuses on Religion; and Book 4 details the events that lead up to Caesar being perforated 23 times.

The book provides some delightful glimpses into the daily thoughts and activities of people living at the height of the Roman Empire. Okay, actually it's all just Wilder's opinions as to what these would have been, just like Shakespeare did in his play. But it's still quite interesting.

The central theme of the book is the "human-ness" of us all. Slave or emperor; ancient Roman or modern reader; we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Inspiring? No. But can you relate? Absolutely.

What's Not To Like...
PWP? For the acronymically-challenged, click here. If you're looking for an action-packed storyline, you're better off with Gene Wilder than with Thornton. Ditto for hoping for any humor and/or surprising plot twists. This book can drag at times, especially if you have to plod through a verbose diatribe by Cicero or some flowery prose by Catullus.

What Makes Thronton Wilder Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize...
I've read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and will comment on it at some other time. And I've had to sit through Our Town at least once a long time ago, as it used to be the default choice for every High School Drama Club director who found himself with a limited budget and a dearth of talent.

There are recurring themes in Wilder's works. First and foremost is the focus on our humanity. We may aspire to have the world revolve around us, but the truth is, God makes the rain fall on everyman.

Speaking of the Deity/Deities; Wilder doesn't seem to have a high regard for theism of any sort. At its best, the concept of God(s) serves to give us inner comfort and inspiration; at its worst, Religion exists to be manipulated for self-serving purposes.

So what is important to Thornton Wilder? Love. Pure and simple; and in all of its aspects. We live; we die; and in a couple generations, no one remembers us. But to love, and be loved, makes it all worthwhile.

Ah, but I digress. The Ides of March is a decent book, if you're in the mood for something philosophical, rather than a thrill-a-minute tale. We'll give it a C+ and snort condescendingly to indicate we've read something high-brow. We'll recommend it to others, but I don't think this will motivate me to pick up anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Elizabeth Browning.


Anonymous said...

Nothing short of threats of physical violence should ever motivate you to pick up anything by Nathanial Hawthorne. Ever.

terry said...

We were assigned once in High School to read The Scarlet Letter. I read the first page, and quickly decided to purchase the Cliff Notes instead. I think it's the only time I ever did that. I did not regret my decision.