My Secret Obsession with Virgil’s Aeneid

New Virgil paperback reviewed in the TLS!

New Virgil paperback!

I don’t usually read the TLS (Times Literary Supplement).

I skim newspaper reviews to find out what’s being published.

I don’t need anything too intellectual.

I once canceled my subscription to The New York Review of Books because the long political essays bored me to death.  I preferred the shorter, more straightforward reviews in The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post.

I am not a scholar, but, yes, I admit I have a degree in classics and I read Latin poetry.

“Sickening,” a friend said  as we sat on a park bench on our lunch hour when I told her this was something I enjoyed.

I recently turned to the TLS because of its pro-classics bent.  It actually printed a review of a new edition of Virgil’s Aeneid Book XII.

I reread Virgil’s Aeneid (in Latin) every year. I recently taught excerpts, in Latin and in translation, to an adult ed Latin class.   After the director of adult ed decided I was teaching too much grammar (though Latin students prefer ablative absolutes to hearing me drone on about Roman culture), I amused myself by adding bits and pieces of Virgil to the curriculum.  Virgil made easy!  By dint of spending entire days making worksheets, I was able to teach my beginning students to translate some famous lines.

Aeneas and Turnus, by Luca Giordano (17th century)

Aeneas and Turnus, by Luca Giordano (17th century)

Anyway, it was  a matter of duty (very big in ancient Rome) to introduce them to the great epic.   I am shocked when I meet someone who has not read Virgil’s  Aeneid, which, as T. S. Eliot pointed out in his essay, “What Is a Classic?”, is probably the only classic in Western literature, the only perfect meeting of a language and literature at the height of civilization.

The TLS caught my eye this week because of Denis Feeney’s review of new Cambridge editions of Virgil’s Aeneid Book XII and Horace’s Satires Book I.

It is unprecedented for a mainstream publication to review scholarly editions of Roman poets.  Or at least it would be in the U.S.

The reception of new classical commentaries is usually lukewarm.  When Richard Tarrant’s new commentary on Virgil’s Book XII was published last fall,  Harvard’s classics dept. website was about as good as it gets:

Congratulations to Professor Richard Tarrant for the September release of his commentary on Book XII of Virgil’s Aeneid, the first ever single-volume commentary to be published on Book XII alone. It is available in paperback and hardcover through Cambridge University Press.

Inspired by the TLS–oh my God, another commentary!–I have secretly ordered Tarrant’s  edition of Book XII.  Horace’s satires are good, but frankly I need to replace ALL of my Horace, since my book is falling apart…

The Virgil is a secret gift to myself.  I already have, yeah, the scholarly Williams, the accessible Pharr, and far too many other editions.

But it is always fascinating to read new commentaries, which help with interpretation, philology, and history.

I am looking forward to what Tarrant has to say.

I was going to buy some pasta jars, but oh well…

Reading in Bed & Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me

Reading in bed illustrationI’ve been on a break, and it’s been fabulous.

Why write ever?   That’s what I’ve been asking myself.

It’s much more fun to spend Saturday reading in bed.

There are strict rules for reading in bed.  First, you must pick out five or six books and arrange them near your pillow. Miss Buncle’s Book might be good for the first hour, but what if you suddenly crave Vanity Fair or Casino Royale?  Second, set your tea tray on the bedside table.  You’ll need  tea and snacks:  I had to make do with a stale piece of fudge from Christmas, because I didn’t feel like getting out of bed to bake Our Famous Weekend Oatmeal muffins. (“You bake them.”  “No, you bake them.”)  Third, close the bedroom door:  you don’t want those pesky family members or pets interfering with your reading.

It’s nice to take a day off.

Photo on 2013-02-16 at 22.43 #2

Reading in bed.

Yes, I finished Norman Collins’s charming, funny, sad, albeit very long, novel, London Belongs to Me.  It is not quite a classic, but is a rambunctiously entertaining middlebrow novel.  It is the kind of book  Virago or Persephone readers might enjoy.

In this moving novel, Collins interweaves the stories of the motley lower-middle- and lower-class residents of Number 10 Dulcimer Street in London.  Their stingy landlady, Mrs. Vizier, broods in her basement apartment, wondering if any of her tenants are bringing the tone of her house down.

But her tenants are a plucky lot, and they support one another through innumerable troubles, including a murder trial.

London Belongs to Me Norman CollinsIn the preface, which is a paean to the city,  Collins describes London architecture, from shabby cathedrals, mansions, and crowded markets to “mile upon mile of little houses, most of them as shabby as St. James.  If you start walking westwards in the early morning from somewhere down in Wapping or the Isle of Dogs by evening you will still be on the march, still in the midst of shabby little houses–only somewhere over by Hammersmith by then.”

Then he moves on to people:  “Real Londoners who sleep the night in London as well as work the day there.”

And of course this is a novel about real Londoners.

Collins’s quirky characters are reminiscent of Dickens’ Londoners.  Mr. Josser, a retired clerk, dreams of moving to a rural cottage, but first must battle his sharp-tongued but compassionate wife’s prejudice against the country.  Connie, a former actress who works as a cloakroom attendant at a night club, ignores old age by perkily insinuating herself at parties, crime scenes, and other dramas.   Percy, a mechanic and thief, gives stolen rugs to his mother, Mrs. Boon, who has no idea he is a criminal.  Mr. Squales is a medium who cons Mrs. Vizier, the landlady, a spiritualist, into supporting him; and Mr. Puddy, a night watchman,  is a canned food gourmand whose whole night is ruined when a can opener fails.

The novel begins with Mr. Josser’s retirement from Battlebury and Sons on Christmas Eve in 1938.  They give him a gift of a “handsome clock, a mammoth marble affair with an eight-day movement.”  Mr. Josser comically and precariously lugs it on the tram and to the wine shop and then home.  After he stops at a shop to buy a bottle of wine and Christmas crackers, he can’t seem to balance clock, umbrella, rolled-up coat, and shopping.

“The clock itself was extraordinarily difficult to pick up–difficult that is for a man who is already carrying his office coat, an umbrella and a box of crackers.  He would never have managed it, in fact, if a passer-by hadn’t come along and offered to help him.  With his aid, Mr. Josser finally got the clock up–there were queer jangling noises inside it as he moved it–and then the stranger piled the box of crackers on top of everything else.  Mr. Josser was simply a pair of legs walking along under a large and awkward load.”

Once home, Christmas turns into the  kind of long family party we all recognize.  But this isn’t a cozy family book.  There is lots of action.

Connie is arrested in a raid at the night club, and would have been evicted if the Jossers hadn’t supported her.  Percy has a tremendous crush on Doris Josser, which luckily she doesn’t return:  he ends up killing a blonde during an argument while he speeds through London in a stolen car.  Again, Mr. Josser is the paterfamilias:  he spends hundreds of dollars in savings to hire a lawyer for Percy in the murder trial.

And London is getting ready for war:  the Jossers’ son, Ted, and Doris Josser’s fiance, Bill, a young doctor, enlist:  who will look after Ted’s hapless wife, Cynthia, and Baby?

I cried over Dunkirk:   that tragic scene alone is worth reading the book for.

Londoners go on, even in wartime.

By the end of the book I felt a part of London, too, though I live in a city on the prairie.

A very good read!

Mirabile Recommends: Books for Both Genders

exhausted-woman“Reading books by men exhausts me,” I told my husband crossly.

I am in the middle of Dave Eggers’ Hologram for the King, a beautifully-crafted novel about a failed Schwinn bicycle salesman/executive turned IT  salesman in Saudi Arabia; he spends his days waiting for a meeting with the king in a city barely under construction.

Eggers is a brilliant writer, the founder of McSweeney’s, and the winner of countless awards.  This book was recommended by many readers I respect.

A-hologram-for-the King Dave EggersIt is not that I don’t admire Eggers’s fascinating, multi-layered novel, which required enormous research and is yet a very fast read.  Eggers explores the consciousness of Alan Clay, a divorced 54-year-old American who has lost his dream of manufacturing and selling beautiful bicycles.  He has made and lost a fortune over the years, is in debt and about to lose his house, and cannot pay the college tuition for his daughter if he doesn’t make the deal in Saudi.

The scenes are very vivid:  the desert, the drives, the sea, the drinking in hotel rooms, the lack of a sense of time, the surreal embassy party, and a road trip with his taxi driver.  Eggers seamlessly weaves history and politics into the elegant narrative: a  history of Schwinn, the history of American manufacturing being transferred to China, the politics and culture of Saudi Arabia.

It is a very well-written, architecturally solid book, but the very breadth exhausts me.  And I do feel the male voice is sometimes draining.  It’s not just Alan:  it’s many male characters in many books by men.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Delillo, Tom Wolfe, etc.

Let’s just sit down and have a cup of tea with Barbara Pym before I get back to Eggers.   Since Thursday is Valentine’s Day, I am recommending Eggers’ Hologram and four other unromantic novels as gifts for both men and women.

Scenes from Provincial life & Metropolitan lifeWilliam Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life.  These charming autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant are the first two in a series of five autobiographical novels praised by such “angry young men” as Kingsley Amis and John Braine.

The narrator, Joe Lunn, a novelist, is quietly rebellious.  In Scenes from Provincial Life, published in 1950 and set in the ’30s, he describes the boredom and the politics of teaching at a boys’ school, a job he takes strictly to support his writing.  He is having an affair with Myrtle, an advertising illustrator who wants to marry him, and he loves to go to bed with her, but cannot imagine being married.  Their hours at a weekend cottage sometimes overlap with those of Joe’s pushy gay friend, Tom, an accountant who insists that he needs more time with his lover, Steve.  Tom’s overwrought relationship with Steve is observed with some amusement by Joe, but his own with Myrtle is equally complicated.  There are many scenes between men and women, and men and men.  And the relationships change as time passes.

In Scenes from Metropolitan Life, a post-war novel I really think is a minor classic, Joe is  a civil servant in London, working in a government office with his friend, Robert, a novelist we know slightly from Provincial Life.  The descriptions of the politics of the workplace are superb, and  the mechanizations of Dr. Chubb, an engineer transferred to their department, to usurp Joe’s job, are funny, horrendous, and suspenseful.  (Dr. Chubb reminds me of Widmerpool in Dance to the Music of Time.)

Love affairs are at the heart of the book:  Joe again meets Myrtle, who is married to a soldier still not demobilized, and they embark on an affair; Robert has an affair with the beautiful, neurotic Julia, who claims to be married to a Polish officer.  The men want to marry, and the women sometimes do, sometimes do not.  Very funny, very realistic, and worth reading on its own.

Sweet-Dove-Died- pymBarbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died.  This sophisticated novel is not your typical in-love-with-the-vicar kind of Barbara Pym novel.  When the heroine, Leonora Eyre, faints after buying a book about the language of flowers at an auction,  Humphrey and his nephew, James, both antique dealers, help her outside, take her to lunch, and befriend her.  Leonora, a middle-aged beauty, falls chastely in love with the sexually ambiguous Ned, while Humphrey falls more sexually in love with her.   Leonora’s dislike of sex precludes consummation of either relationship.

And when Leonora learns that James is having an affair with a young woman, she schemes wickedly to get her out of the picture.  Then an American assistant professor, Ned, who has seduced James on vacation, proves to be Leonora’s match.

Funny and so beautifully written.

left hand of darkness3.  Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  I recently reread this science fiction classic, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1969;  alas, I had to return it to the library before I wrote about it, so I’m afraid this will be sketchy.  Set on the planet  Winter,  Genly Ai, an envoy, must try to persuade the inhabitants that other solar systems and species exist and that it will be to their advantage to join an inter-planetary coalition.  His main contact, Estraven, the king’s chief advisor, falls out of favor, and after he is banished, Ai, too, must leave.  Both end up across the border in the same surfacely reasonable but actually cruel country,  and Estraven saves Ai from a concentration camp.  The two dangerously escape by sled across glaciers.

Le Guin describes the cold so sharply that I had to put on more blankets.  She obviously knows a lot about winter camping.  The escape scenes are full of practical details about how much weight to carry and how much or little food one must eat.

The novel is complicated by the concept of kemmer:  people on Winter do not have one sex.  They go into kemmer, taking on the characteristics of either a man or a woman, and can be biologically both mothers and fathers.  Genly Ai’s close relationship with Estraven raises sexual questions.

LeGuin writes beautifully, and the book is written as an anthropological report containing  Ai’s observations, Estraven’s journal entries, tales, etc.

Time: A Decade of Walks

"Woman in the Garden," Jószef Rippl-Rónai

“Woman in the Garden,” Jószef Rippl-Rónai

I know my urban neighborhood by heart.  I walk it, I bicycle it.

I am outdoors.  I feel the cold air.  I trudge, I skim the pavement, I am bored or happy according to the weather.  It was brown and windy today and I sat on the steps of the Greek Orthodox church to adjust my hood.  I took off my gloves to pull my hood up over my hat, but it fell down too far over my face and made me claustrophobic, so I took it off again.

Tree-lined streets, Arts-and-Crafts bungalows, the meridians with flowers in the spring time (brown dirt or snow this time of year), the neighborhood grocery store, the good indie coffee houses, the hardware store, the health food store, and the library.

There have been a lot of changes in the neighborhood in the last 10 years.

The clock speeds up and the years pass rapidly some time after the age of 40.  Businesses come and go.  The bagel store has closed (weren’t you eating cinnamon bagel bites just yesterday?), a gym has closed, a used bookstore, a record store, an Italian restaurant, and an entire strip mall is empty except for the odd tattoo parlor and DUI counseling office.

Another gym has opened, a small indie bookstore, a cheese store, a candy store, a consignment shop, and a bar.

The neighborhood public library has been renovated. It is now a spacious building with a tower, fireplace, and comfortable chairs.  The old overcrowded library had buzzing fluourescent lights, few chairs, and not enough books.  Now there is room for books and people, too.  Old books have been brought out of storage and reshelved.  I am delighted to find such great browsing.

Then there’s nature.  Nature is the biggest consideration on walks, don’t you think?  There are some beautiful gardens in our neighborhood.  You can’t tell much this time of year, but that scraggy-looking brown wispy twiggy area is a wild flower garden in summer.  See those sycamore trees?   They’ve grown tall in just a few years.  They’re not my favorite, but a very smart buy for a family in need of shade in a treeless yard. See over there? In a few months the crab apple trees will be blooming.  You will walk down the street and the branches of flowers will brush you.

But nature has suffered in the last decade.  Many trees have fallen in devastating storms.  A neighbor’s tree split and crashed on to our roof, the bulk of it falling across the driveway.  A huge branch from our tree fell  across another neighbor’s driveway, extending from the garage in the back yard to the street. You see the wounded trees, the trees cut down, branches dragged to a truck, then the stumps, then the wood chips, then the holes where the trees were.

Future generations, beware of the weather.

The weather has changed in the Midwest. My hometown is a good gauge of climate change.  The Catholic church where my mother went her whole life, St. Patrick’s, was destroyed by a tornado in 2006.   Jackson Pollock’s  painting, “Mural,” had to be moved when the University of Iowa Art Museum was evacuated during the flood of 2008.  It went first to the Figge in Davenport, then to the Des Moines Art Center, and is now being restored at the Getty Museum in L.A.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

The Neal Smith trail on the Des Moines River was closed for a few years due to flooding in 2010.  It had to be repaved and the levees rebuilt.  Bridges on the Chichaqua Valley Trail were wiped out and were not rebuilt until last summer.

If I think about all the changes in my lifetime, it is too much to take in.  When too many businesses close, we worry that people will pack up and move to the suburbs.  When bookstores move to the internet, we are not able to browse and miss items we might have seen in physical stores.  When cities lose population and stores, we lose part of our culture.

We are also seeing a civilization in flux as the climate changes and storms and floods wreck our environment.  There will be rock concert benefits in New York, but not for the rest of us.

And so we cope by walking around the neighborhood.  Know your neighborhood, know the changes.

Barbara Pym & Unsuitable Fashions: I Go to the Joslyn Art Museum

some-tame-gazelle pymI read Barbara Pym on the way to Omaha.  It’s not a very long trip.  Bounce into the car at 9 a.m., open your copy of Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle,  and a few hours later you look up and find yourself in the city.

You probably know nothing about Omaha.  It is actually a very nice city, as we discovered when we moved to this area.  Right now there is a wonderful exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, “Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum,” and if you don’t live in New York, as we don’t, it is a great opportunity to see modernist paintings  by Robert Henri, Georgia O’Keefe, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Max Weber, Reginald Marsh, Gerald Murphy, William J. Glackens, John Steuart Curry, and Maurice Prendergast.

Robert Henri's portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

I especially admired Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American art. Her husband thought her pants so outrageous that he refused to hang the painting in their mansion.

You may wonder what Gertrude’s unsuitable pants have to do with the novelist Barbara Pym.  She was nothing like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as you can see from the photo of Pym below.  While Gertrude, a wealthy sculptor and lover of modern art, lounged in a beautiful blue silk embroidered jacket and teal pajama pants, Barbara wears a down-to-earth print vest and skirt that no cat’s claws will pill.

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

But Pym is obsessed with fashion in her books.

In life she was also besotted by fashion, according to many entries in A Very Private Eye:  An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym and edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym.

In her witty, beautifully-crafted first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, the fiftysomething heroine, Belinda Bede, muses endlessly about clothes.  Belinda wears “suitable” dresses and sensible shoes, while her younger sister Harriet reads Vogue and insists that Miss Prior, the village seamstress, make her fashionable dresses with the latest sleeves.  The Bede sisters live next door to the vicarage, and since their lives revolve around the church, they are always planning what to wear to church functions:  garden parties, concerts, and lectures.

Pym SomeTameGazelle- open roadBut all is not perfect in this seemingly rather asexual world. Belinda is in love with the Archdeacon, her old boyfriend at Oxford, whom she lost to a snobbish medievalist, Agatha, now his suitable wife;  Harriet is obsessed with whoever the curate is of the moment, and entertains the very young Mr. Donne with meals of boiled chicken and pudding. Even Harriet’s quasi-romance is imperiled:  there is a possibility that Mr. Donne is in love with an older woman, a medievalist at Oxford.

Belinda has frequent clashes with Agatha.  When Belinda hangs green festoons around a stall for the vicarage garden party, Agatha takes them down and redoes them.  Agatha is threatened by her rival Belinda’s seemingly endless ability to listen to the Archdeacon quote poetry.

But back to clothes:  before the vicarage garden party, Belinda is sewing.  She knows she will wear a crepe de Chine dress and coatee with sensible shoes that are a little too heavy for the dress.  But what will the others wear?

“Agatha Hoccleve would of course wear a nice suitable dress, but nothing extreme or daring.  As the wife of an archdeacon she always had very good clothes, which seemed somehow to emphasize the fact that her father had been a bishop.  Then there was Edith Liversidge, who would look odd in the familiar old-fashioned grey costume, whose unfashionably narrow shoulders combined with Edith’s broad hips made her look rather like a lighthouse.  Her relation, Miss Aspinall, would wear a fluttering blue or grey dress with a great many scarves and draperies, and she would, as always, carry that mysterious little beaded bag without which she was never seen anywhere.”

Harriet, who wears high heels to the garden party, though Belinda wondered if they were comfortable, buys Vogue patterns a size or two too small so she can just squeeze into her tight-fitting clothes.  Sensible Belinda believes that she and Harriet should be beyond fashion at their age, but Harriet debates whether she should wear her white fur cape or a gold lame jacket to a church concert.  In the end she goes with the cape.  Unlike Belinda, Harriet has suitors:  an Italian count who lives in the village courts her.

Sewing and knitting are constant activities.  The women are always letting out seams, knitting pullovers, and darning sock. When Miss Prior, the seamstress, comes to the Bedes to sew clothes, chair covers, and bathroom curtains, you would expect her to be stylish, but “her dress was drab and dateless.”  Important though she is in village life, her status is surprisingly low.  Belinda wants to give her a good lunch, but Harriet insists on feeding Miss Prior cauliflower cheese and saving the meat for dinner for the curate, Mr. Dunne.  When the caterpillar cheese has a caterpillar in it, Belinda is even more embarrassed, and suggests that Miss Prior must get better meals at the Archdeacon’s.  But Miss Prior, giggling, confides that the food is terrible there.

This brilliant first novel, published in 1950, is utterly charming.   I very much enjoyed Pym’s descriptions of what people wear as well as who they all are, and, yes, this novel actually is Austen-ish, unlike many of the novels described so.

Barbara Pym Giveaway!

Pym_GlassBlessings-lowresWould anyone like a free e-book copy of Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings?

The publisher Open Road Media has offered to give away one free copy to a Mirabile Dictu reader.

She is one of my favorite writers:  she often wrote about intellectual women who love vicars too much.   And this year is the centenary of her birth.

Just leave a comment and I’ll draw a name out of the hat on Monday.

Here is the Open Road Media synopsis of A Glass of Blessings:

Barbara Pym’s early novel takes us into 1950s England, where life revolved around the village green and the local church—as seen through the funny, engaging, yearning eyes of a restless housewife.  Wilmet Forsyth is bored. Bored with the everyday routine of her provincial village life. Bored with teatimes filled with local gossip. Bored with her husband, Rodney, a military man who dotes on her. But on her thirty-third birthday, Wilmet’s conventional life takes a turn when she runs into the handsome brother of her close friend. Attractive and enigmatic, Piers Longridge is a mystery Wilmet is determined to solve. Rather than settling down, he lived in Portugal, then returned to England for a series of odd jobs. Driven by a fantasy of romance, the sheltered, naïve Englishwoman sets out to seduce Piers—only to discover that he isn’t the man she thinks he is. As cozy as sharing a cup of tea with an old friend, A Glass of Blessings explores timeless themes of sex, marriage, religion, and friendship while exposing our flaws and foibles with wit, compassion, and a generous helping of love.

Well, to one