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The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder

The Ides of March (original 1948; edition 1948)

by Thornton Wilder

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6681422,688 (3.68)34
Drawing on such unique sources as Thornton Wilder's unpublished letters, journals, and selections from the extensive annotations Wilder made years later in the margins of the book, Tappan Wilder's Afterword adds a special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.… (more)
Title:The Ides of March
Authors:Thornton Wilder
Info:Harper (1948), Edition: First Edition., Hardcover
Collections:Shelf 12: North Wall, Row 4

Work details

The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder (Author) (1948)

  1. 10
    Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore (vguy)
    vguy: Great novel about Catullus. Brings the period and his passion to life.
  2. 00
    Lesbia Mía by Antonio Priante (longway)

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In this work of historical fiction, Wilder uses a combination of letters, diary entries and official documents to tell the story of the last year of Julius Caesar’s life.

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). ( )
  BookConcierge | Nov 30, 2018 |
Wilder's own effort at giving us new insight into the murder of Julius Caesar. Told using letters, we see fate unfolding remorselessly. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
It was clever of Wilder to put this novel in the form of letters and official correspondences, because this allows the action to do the talking, and for him to use the historical Caesar and Cleopatra as a framework to ponder deeper questions – man’s role in the universe, the nature of power, and destiny. This is also certainly an erudite work, showing off not only Wilder’s education and knowledge in the classics, but also his post-war interaction with Sartre and existentialism. Here’s how he described the latter in a letter to a friend, which I smiled over: “Baby, you’ll sit up. There is no God; there is the concession of the absurdity of man’s reason in a universe which can never be explained by reason; yet there is a freedom of the will defended for the first time on non-religious grounds, and how.”

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.”

On poetry:
“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.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Aug 9, 2015 |
I found this tedious when I didn't have the wherewithal for tedious. Still, the letters were interesting, and at another time in life I would have finished it. ( )
  aulsmith | May 31, 2015 |
Read in July 2013; due for a reread. Will this epistolary novel be as brilliant this time around? ( )
  janerawoof | Oct 1, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wilder, ThorntonAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Atkinson, BrooksIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Folch, ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Oyuela, María AntoniaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pivano, FernandaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riera, ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr.Forewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Information from the Piratical Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Das Schauderin ist der Menschheit bestes Teil;
Wie auch die Welt ihm das Gefühl verteure...
Goethe: Faust, Part Two

The shudder of awe is humanity's highest faculty,
Even though this world is for ever altering its values...

Gloss: out of man's recognition in fear and awe that there is an
Unknowable comes all that is best in the explorations of his
mind - even though that recognition is often misled into super-
stition, enslavement, and over-confidence.
Information from the Piratical Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
This work is dedicated
to two friends:

Roman poet, who lost his life
marshalling a resistance against
the absolute power of Mussolini;
his aircraft pursued by those of the Duce
plunged into the Tyrrhenian Sea
and to

who though immobile and blind
for over twenty years
was the dispenser of wisdom,
courage, and gaiety
to a large number of people
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