Colin Farrell’s Latin

I planned to do some research in the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library.

The library was eerie, the first floor under construction with plastic sheets for walls and wires popping out everywhere.

The Special Collections rooms on the third floor were closed.  It hadn’t occurred to me that they would be closed on Saturday.

It was raining so hard that I didn’t feel up to leaving the library right away.

I lounged around on the fourth floor with some classical journals.  I read a few articles and reviews.  And then I came across an article that all of you will want to read, because it is very, very funny: Monica S. Cyrino’s “I Was Colin Farrell’s Latin Teacher” (Classical Journal, Feb./March 2012, Vol. 107/No. 3).

Monica S. Cyrino, a classics professor at the University of New Mexico with an interest in film, received an e-mail from a producer asking her to write a few lines of Latin dialogue for Colin Farrell.  He was playing a vampire in  a remake of the movie, Fright Night. (The film was being shot in New Mexico because of the state’s tax breaks.)

Colin Farrell in Fright NIght

Colin Farrell in Fright Night (2011)

Farrell, who is a bibliophile (one of Cyrino’s students spotted him buying poetry books at a Barnes and Noble), thought his seduction lines would be sexier in Latin.  As he dropped onto a dance floor and whisked away a teenage girl, he was supposed to say:  “You just need a taste.  You’ll see.  It can be like a dream.”

Cyrino translates the Latin with a graduate students, and is invited onto the set to meet Farrell, but there is a lot of hanging around, and since Farrell, his stand-in, and his stunt double all wear black jeans and a black shirt, it is difficult to tell one from another.

She has just reached into a cooler to get a bottle of Evian when Joy Ellison, his vocal coach, brings Farrell over to meet her.  “Nice to meet you, love!”

My hand was still stuck in the cooler.  I yanked it out and held it in front of me, dripping wet and frozen, and for a minute I was in a state of acute aporia.  Should I wipe my soaking hand on the $300 cashmere top that I had so insouciantly donned for the day?  Or should I give my cold, wet hand to Alexander the Great?

Colin Farrell, Alexander

Colin Farrell, Alexander

Colin laughingly shakes her hand.

“You’re on set all day, right, love?  Will you be here later so we can talk about the Latin scene?”

Later they go over the sexy Latin together, and he asks her if they can reverse the last two words, so the line ends with the word somnia (dreams):  Solum necesse est sapias.  Percipies.  Par ac somnia.

“It doesn’t change the meaning, now does it, love?”

And she immediately thinks he knows Latin, because how else would he know that?

“Nah, love…They stopped Latin and corporal punishment the year before I came up…and ya see how I turned out?”

All right, now here’s what I’m thinking.  He’s teasing her!  Because, honestly, if he doesn’t know any Latin, why would he want Latin in a vampire movie? How would he know about the Latin word order?

Doesn’t this sound like a dream?

(The Latin lines were cut from the film.)

Back Yard Books: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

Portrait of a woman reading by Lillian Mathilde Genth

Portrait by Lillian Mathilde Genth

I do not read beach books.

I am not at the beach.

I am reading in the back yard.

The back yard is better than the beach.

Clover, squash, bridal wreath, geraniums, tiger lilies, catnip,  peonies, cucumbers, and coleus flourish in our organic back yard.

The wind blew the umbrella off the table so I am sitting in my Adirondack chair.

Witchy and windblown, I read.

I have read several  “backyard books” this summer.  I flew through  Thomas Mann’s fast-paced 700-page classic, Buddenbrooks.

Buddenbrooks was a bestseller in its day.  It is the story of the decline of a German merchant family.

In the introduction to the Everyman edition, T. J. Reed says Mann’s complex first novel is reminiscent of the social novels of  Balzac, Tolstoy, and Flaubert.

Buddenbrooks thomas mannOne can see the resemblance between the openings of War and Peace (which I recently finished) and Buddenbrooks. War and Peace begins with a soiree where the most important people in society meet to gossip and discuss Napoleon’s war in Europe. Buddenbrooks begins with a homecoming party at the Buddenbrooks’ gorgeous house in the Meng Strasse.  The  whole family loves to entertain:  Consul Jean, his wife, Elizabeth, his parents, and their three children (who  grow up to be the main characters), stolid Thomas, witty Christian, and the mischievous girl, Tony.

Mann’s characters converse more lightly than Tolstoy’s, but his characterizations even of minor characters are superb.  Herr Jean Jacque Hoffstesde,  “the town poet, …was sure to have a few rhymes in his pocket for today…”  Herr Gratjens, the broker “was forever rolling up a scrawny hand and holding it to his eye like a telescope, as if examining a painting–he was generally recognized as a connoisseur of fine art.”  Therese Weichbrodt, the headmistress of a school, is described as a hunchback:  she “was not much taller than a table.  She was forty-one years old, but, having never set much store by external appearances, she dressed like a woman in her sixties.”

Thomas is the responsible son who takes over the business.  He is stern and inflexible, but not unsympathetic:  he cannot marry the flower girl he loves; his grain business falters when he is middle-aged;  his soophisticated music-loving wife is out of his league; their son, Hanno, is musical and sensitive; and he is very ill in his forties.

But Thomas has no empathy for others.  He tells Uncle Gotthold, who is a failure and who married a woman of a lower class:

If I had been like you, I would have married my shop girl years ago.  But one must keep up appearances….  You had too little momentum and imagination, too little of the idealism that enables a man to cherish, to nurture, to defend something as abstract as a business with an old family name–and to bring it honor  and power and glory.  This requires a quiet enthusiasm that is sweeter and more pleasant, more gratifying than any secret love.  You lost your sense of poetry, although you were brave to love and marry against your father’s will…Didn’t you know that one can be a great man in a small town?  That a man can be a Caesar in an old commercial city on the Baltic?

Resilient Tony is probably capable of helping with the business, but her career is to be marriage:  that is woman’s lot.  She  falls in love with a medical student, but her father forbids the match; he steers her to a man who looks good on paper. When they learn Grunlich has faked his financial accounts and is in debt, she comes home and gets divorced.  Later she marries a sweet, rather eccentric, badly-educated man of her choice, Herr Permaneder, with no better result.  He cheats on her, and she comes home again with her daughter.

It is all part of the decline of the family.

Their brother, unconventional Christian, loves the theater, going to the club, and back-stage women.   He cannot work, though the family does not understand this. He feels sick most of the time.   He goes to London and South America to escape the family firm, but he never lasts long at a job. He doesn’t see the need to work when the family is so rich.  Later, Thomas cuts off his funds when he learns Christian is wants to marry his mistress.

Thomas’s son, Hanno, dominates the last part of the book:  he grows up hating school, has a musical bent, and a friend who is also artistic.  His father does not understand him.

We hope throughout the novel that the Buddenbrooks will survive.

“You’re making good progress in that,” my family said several times to oblivious me, reading.

“Uh huh.”  I didn’t really hear what they said.  It’s that kind of book.  Utterly engrossing.

Are You Pretentious? What to Read with Your Glasses on

"Women Reading," Picasso

“Women Reading,” by Picasso

It’s hot outside.

I don’t care.

It’s summer.

We are the only people in the neighborhood who don’t have our air conditioner on.

I don’t want to be shut up in the house after the long, cold spring.

I am spending every possible free moment reading in the back yard at “our cafe table” under the umbrella.

My cousin, the librarian, hangs out here regularly since breaking up with her boyfriend.  Now she sits in my chair in the back yard, reads my beach book,  Saki’s The Unrest Cure and Other Stories, and drinks my iced tea in my favorite plastic highball glass.

I go in to refill her glass. When I come back, she says, “Kat, you are so pretentious!”

It seems she had scrolled through the bookmarks on my computer and didn’t at all like the sound of the TLS or Abebooks:  Depressing Russian Literature.

“What the f— is Rogue Classicism?”

I look at her through my glasses. Actually, bifocals.  I  wear my bifocals to read.  And to see.  “I’ve got Hulu.”

“Do you actually watch TV?  This stuff is about reading.”

I have not watched anything at Hulu for a long time. I do not admit this.

Chatting to a librarian is a bit like entertaining an N.S.A. agent.  She has now analyzed my bookmarks (reading, reading, reading!) and will no doubt post some of them hilariously on her Facebook page.

Shopping is far more important than reading, she says.   She wants to take me to the mall for a makeover (Lizzie Arden), to the hairdresser for some of that scrunchy silver stuff that makes highlights even in white hair, and find me something less t-shirty-and-jeans to wear.

Well, I’m not doing any of that.

Instead I will make a list of  What to Read with Your Glasses on.

Here are my Top Six, and please recommend some.

1.  The TLS is edited by Peter Stothard, author of my new favorite book, Alexandria:  The Last Days of Cleopatra.  For those looking for intellectual entertainment,  TLS is livelier than, say,  The New York Review of Books, which I tried in vain to “unsubscribe from” for many years.  The TLS covers a broad range of books:  it has  a classics section (does any review publication in the U.S. have that?), with fascinating reviews of scholarly books and Latin texts; many novels in translation are reviewed  among the  fiction and literature; and then there are the history books, art history, politics, nonfiction, criticism, autobiographies, biographies, and a crossword puzzle.

2.  The Washington Post book section, edited by the indefatigable Ron Charles, who also tweets, reviews, and makes satiric videos, is the best review section in the U.S.  Michael Dirda and Jonathan Yardley are the other two brilliant staff critics.  There are also many excellent reviews by freelancers.

3.   Largehearted Boy is a music blog that features authors’ playlists, articles about books, and daily downloads of music.

4.  Reading Copy is the  Abebooks blog.  It has book news, photos of beautiful book covers, occasional reviews, and book lists.

5.  Arts & Letters Daily from the Chronicle of Higher Education provides links to articles, reviews, and debates at other publications.

6.  At the Willa Cather Foundation website,  you can find Willa Cather  news, virtual tours of Red Cloud, where Cather grew up, and read back issues of  the scholarly Newsletter and Review.

I hope you have your glasses on!

Work & Eight Great Novels of the Workplace

Up the Down Staircase:  A Really Bad Day in the Workplace

Up the Down Staircase: A Really Bad Day in the Workplace

According to a Gallup poll, 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces’ and ‘less likely’ to be productive.

That means they don’t like their jobs.

I’m not surprised.

Women of my generation who earned liberal arts degrees from state universities didn’t think much about the looming spectre of the workplace.   The women who would be CEOs and the nation’s leaders graduated from other schools.

It was assumed we would teach.

We would teach the children of the CEOs.

We taught.

My first friend to earn a Ph.D. in English quit her job as a Visiting Lecturer after one year and went to library school.

My most brilliant friend taught at several colleges and was denied tenure.  He went to law school.

My first friend to teach at a boarding school wrote me a long heartbreaking  letter saying that she was wasting her life.  She quit to get married.

I taught for a few years, but like most of us found it so draining that I went on to other gigs.

The workplace can be an office, a factory, a store, a restaurant, an insurance company, a

Since all of us work, have worked, or have calculated ways to work less or not at all, it is odd that work is not described in fiction more often.

Here is a  list of Eight Works of Fiction about the Workplace.  I need two more for a traditional ten, so please recommend.

Roast Beef Medium edna ferber1. In Edna Ferber‘s brilliantly funny collections of career-woman short stories, Roast Beef, Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney & Co., the plucky heroine, Emma McChesney, is a very successful traveling saleswoman. She rises from traveling petticoat salesman – she has the much-coveted Midwest region – to partner of Featherstone Petticoats.

Sometimes when Emma is on the road, she is nostalgic for roast beef.

As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley….There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat…. She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.

Nevada Imogen Binnie2.  In Imogen Binnie’s bold, if wildly uneven, new novel, Nevada (the selection of this month’s Emily Books club), the heroine, Maria, a transgender woman, works in a bookstore in New York City until she breaks up with her girlfriend and takes a road trip.  With the road trip the novel turns into a kind of Y.A. novel, but here Maria thinks about her job.

It is a bookstore, though, so she gets, like, I am looking for this book, it has a blue cover, a lot.  It’s supposed to be the worst annoying thing you can ask a book seller, but she’s into it.  People alays think they know less thatn they acutlaly do about a book.  She can usually draw it out of them and figure it out.  When did you see it?  Where did you hear about it?  Is it a happy book?  These conversations can almost be like a moment of actual human connection, except it’s basically a one-direction connection.  Maybe in another life Maria will be a therapist or a social worker or something.

220px-WeekInDecember sebastian faulks3.  In Sebastian Faulk’s A Week in December his characters’ attitudes toward the workplace are brought into sharp relief the week before Christmas.  Jenni Fortune, an underground tube driver, loves her job but is being sued by a “jumper”;  Gabriel, a depressed lawyer, loves to read Balzac but is bored by his job;  Veals is an unscrupulous financier who likes to take phone calls in an alley; and Tranter is a freelance book reviewer interested only in bad reviews. “Crash was what he wanted:  crash and burn–failure, slump, embarrassment.”

4.  In Doris Lessing’s Love, Again,  the 65-year-old heroine, Sarah, a powerful, busy playwright and manager of The Green Bird, a “fringe theater” in London, writes a play and song lyrics based on the journals and music of Julie Vairon, a French mulatto artist and composer.  When they rehearse the play in France  for a festival to be staged near Julie’s house in the woods, the atmosphere becomes romantic and enchanted; and the sexual tension is palpable.  People begin to fall in love, but the novel is also about the theater.

doris-lessing love, again5 & 6.  In William Cooper’s charming autobiographical novels, Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Metropolitan Life,  the narrator, Joe Lunn, describes his work as a physics teacher in a boys’ school and a civil servant in London.

Scenes from Provincial life & Metropolitan life7.  H. G. Wells’ Kipps, a  charming fairy tale,  is the story of a draper’s apprentice whose life is magically transformed by a legacy.  Wells, who also worked in a draper’s shop, portrays  Kipps’s boredom and bewilderment during the long hours at this unfulfilling job.

His round began at half-past six in the morning, when he would descend, unwashed and shirtless, in old clothes and a scarf, and dust boxes and yawn, and take down wrappers and clean the windows until eight.  Then in half an hour he would complete his toilet, and take an austere breakfast of bread and margarine and what only an Imperial Englishman would admit to be coffee, after which refreshment, he ascended to the shop for the labors of the day.  Commonly those began with a mighty running to and fro with planks and boxes and good for Carshot the window-draper, who whether he worked well or ill, nagged persistently, by the reason of chronic indigestion, until the window was dressed.

8.   Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter.  Charles works as a civil servant and pines for Laura, a librarian who used to be his girlfriend; his best friend Sam is an unemployed jacket salesman.  In the ’70s, when this novel is set, college graduates were as underemployed as they are now.  Beattie understands office life.

Chilly Scenes of Winter

Mirabile Goes Southern: Elizabeth Spencer’s The Voice at the Back Door

Elizabeth Spencer The Voice at the DoorThere comes a time in summer when it is too hot to go to Shakespeare in the Park and I have already been to  all the bookstores and museums.  So I sit in my Adirondack chair in the back yard and look at my new trees (there was a bird in the linden yesterday). And then I pick up a copy of Elizabeth Spencer’s The Voice at the Back Door and that is the last you will see of me for days.

This superb novel, set in Mississippi in the 1940s, is a gorgeously-written story of Southern politics, race, and romantic love triangles.  Although the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury recommended it for the prize in 1957, the board of directors chose not to grant the award that year. (Anyone who has read this astonishing novel knows how fatuous that decision was.)

The novel begins (literally and figuratively) with a sheriff’s race.  In the small town of Lacey, Mississippi,  Sheriff Travis Brevard races his car from his African-American mistress’s house on the outskirts of town to the grocery store in town owned by Duncan Harper, a former college football star.  Travis is dying, but doesn’t want to die at his wife’s house.

To Duncan, Travis looks drunk.

The dialogue is pitch-perfect.

Duncan,” he said hoarsely, “I’m hot as a fox.  Cut out that damn gas and give me a cold Coke.”

“Sure,” said the grocer, thinking that if it were whisky he would surely have smelled it by now.  He pried the cap from the bottle and offered it doubtfully.  “Travis, you don’t look good.  Let me just ring and see if the Doc’s in his office.”

Travis says he wants Duncan to take over as sheriff when he dies because Duncan is too good to “sell Wheaties.”  He adds that the chief competition will be Jimmy Tallant, a war hero who is now a bootlegger. He recalls how Duncan’s football stardom used to bring the town “up.”

I used to go all the way up to the university on weekends to see you play.  I went over to Baton Rouge too and down to New Orleans more than once.  We would all go to see you play.  Then we would come home and read about it in the paper.  They called you the fastest running back of the year.  They named you ‘Happy’ Harper.”

The cover fell off my book, but I kept reading.

The cover fell off my Time-Life paperback, but I kept reading.

Spencer’s bold characterizations of  Travis, Duncan, and Jimmy are stunning.   Travis is a” good ol’ boy” who turns to Duncan, shrewdly realizing that Duncan will protect the old values of the South (except perhaps on the “Negro Question,” but Travis may have also been thinking of his “Negro” mistress).  Travis dies in the store after asking Duncan to take his job.

Duncan, appointed temporary sheriff and intending to run for office, is an ethical man of letters as well as a former football star:  when there is a question after a fight about the safety of Beck Dozer, a brilliant African-American veteran of World War II whose teacher father was shot in the courthouse in 1919, Duncan claps Dozer in jail and sits beside him to make sure there isn’t another shooting.  Dozer said he had cut up Grantham, Jimmy’s bootlegging partner, with a razor after Grantham refused to sell him drink. Jimmy and some friends show up at the jail, toting guns, but they just take a snapshot:   the whole scene was cooked up between Jimmy and Dozer (who was paid hundreds of dollars) so that Jimmy could take a picture and send it to the paper saying Duncan is “a nigger lover.”

What many don’t understand is that Jimmy is bound to Beck Dozer, because Jimmy’s father  killed his father.  The two have a strange understanding of each other.

This is the kind of back-door politics that Spencer so exuberantly describes.  The back door is a literal symbol:  Dozer goes to the back door of Duncan’s house when he needs help; women go in and out the back door of Jimmy’s place when their husbands don’t know they’re there;  and drinkers also go out the back door.

Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer

When Spencer wants to shut down Jimmy’s bootlegging operations, Mr. Trewolla, the jailer, tells him it won’t happen.  “Don’t think you’ve cramped their style.  There’s just as much going out the back door as ever went out the front.”

The women, both at the front and back doors, are memorable. Tinker, Duncan’s tiny, beautiful, popular wife, hates politics but loves him desperately.  Duncan married Tinker because he was jilted by his lover, Marcia Mae, but half the town is in love with Tinker.  Jimmy has always loved Tinker, though he is married to Bella, his business partner’s sluttish daughter.  Marcia Mae, Duncan’s ex-fiancee, has recently come back to Lacey, a widow of a partying soldier.  She loves Duncan, but she cannot stay in Lacey:  she hates the small town; she hates the way Duncan won’t openly come back to her.  Bella, Jimmy’s wife, who has had affairs, is surprised when her baby doesn’t quite look like anybody. Lucy, Dozer’s wife,  is terrified when Dozer is accused of shooting Jimmy.

This novel is a classic:  I urge you to read it.  It reminds me very, very slightly of William Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, only it is better-written and much more interesting.  At the Southern Festival of Books in 2001, I heard Spencer read from her collection of short stories, The Southern Woman.  I liked her very much, and I liked her cat totebag (a totebag with a cat design).

This is why we go to book festivals:  to discover writers we do not know.

And if you can recommend any good book festivals, let me know.  It’s time I attended one again.

My Cat Sent an E-Mail

I want the real life
I want to live the real life–“The Real Life,” John Mellencamp

Parody of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks

Parody of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

I love the internet.

An online book group I belonged to once gathered at The Southern Festival of Books.

I have done e-mail interviews.

I have written fan e-mails to favorite writers (though I think they would prefer real fan letters).

I have read blogs and international newspapers.

I have read approximately 40 books by Trollope as a longtime member of Ellen Moody’s Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo Groups.

On the other hand, my family believes I should get offline because of the National Security Agency electronic surveillance program.

It is devastating to learn that this seven-year-old NSA surveillance program of metadata from cell phones and e-mail flourishes under Obama. According to Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker (June 24, 2013), the information has not yet been used to abridge “any citizen’s freedom of speech, expression, or association,” as far as anyone knows.  But he adds,

The harm is civic.  The harm is collective.  The harm is to the architecture of trust and accountability that supports an open society and a democratic polity.  The harm is to the reputation, and, perhaps the reality of the United States as such a society, such a polity.

This is not why we voted for Obama.

The NSA surveillance may not affect us much so far, but what if a future government starts a Fahrenheit 451-style purge based on misinterpretations of the data (in Ray Bradbury’s book and Truffaut’s movie, the government favors book burnings and reports of subversion among readers and thinkers)?

There has been a kind of flatness about Obama’s presidency  It is not that he hasn’t done good:  no one else could have passed a Health Reform bill (people have tried), he got the troops out of Iraq, recognized climate change, and has supported gay marriage.

Still, there has been that shiftiness about Guantanamo.  We would have liked to see the Patriot Act revoked.

One can’t help but think the NSA agents and government subcontractors have us exactly where they want us on the internet.  Everything we do is here forever.

Most of us are boring.  I don’t have a cell phone.  My e-mail is hardly incendiary.  Three of the more riveting emails I’ve written lately?  “Have you seen Argo?”  “No, it’s not too bad out,”  and “My book hasn’t arrived.”

At my blog the “surveill-ors” can read about bicycling and novels.  Most disturbing is the fact that they will think I am a really bad writer.  If I’d only known, I would have written more carefully.  I’M JOKING!

E-mail is not the greatest invention.  I prefer to write real letters, though I seldom do it anymore.  In Nora Ephron’s book, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, she  wrote a funny list, “Things I Won’t Miss.” Third on the list was e-mail.

E-mail can get you into trouble.  Once I sent a personal e-mail to an entire group by mistake.  Worse, my cat once sent the rough draft of an email to my boss by jumping on the keys.  That did not end well.

And yet I love the internet.  I will continue blogging.

A Trip to the Joslyn Art Museum, Coffee, & The Bookworm

Joslyn Art Museum

Joslyn Art Museum

We went to Omaha.

We go to Omaha to see the art. Oh yeah, you say,  Omaha.  Are you sure?

The Joslyn Art Museum, a beautiful Art Deco building, is one of the better museums in the Midwest. We know the permanent collection very well:  the Degas sculpture of the dancer, Mary Cassatt’s “Lydia Reading the Morning Paper,” Jules Breton’s “The Weeders,” Jackson Pollock’s “Galaxy,” the Native American collection,   and Jean-Léon Gérôme’s dreadful tiger painting, “The Grief of the Pasha.”

Mary Cassatt, "Lydia Reading the Morning Paper"

Mary Cassatt, “Lydia Reading the Morning Paper”

We were there for the new exhibition, “Renoir to Chagall:  Paris and the Allure of Color,” a collection of French paintings from the Dixon Galleries and Gardens in Memphis.

It is a remarkable show, and if you don’t live in a city with a great Impressionist collection (like Chicago), it provides a wonderful opportunity to spend time with Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Raoul Dufy, Gaston La Tuche, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bether Morisset, Degas, John Singer Sargent, and my new favorite painter, Jean-Louis Forain.

But can you talk about art? After reading a few placards, my husband can talk about brush strokes and color. I’m better at finding patterns in the exhibition (I call it the Carrie in “Homeland” thing).

My only original observation was that many (at least three-fourths) of the paintings had a water theme.   Take Gaston La Touche’s “The Joyous Festival (1906), a water scene with four dancing figures, Chinese lanterns, musicians looking as though they are almost in the water, and fireworks (or are those fountains?  I need new glasses).  La Touche knew and was influenced by Degas and Jean-Louis Forain.  He also drew from the Rococo outdoor scenes of Fête Galante paintings.

Gaston La Touche, "The Joyous Festival"

Gaston La Touche, “The Joyous Festival”

Monet’s “Port of Dieppe, Evening” (1882), a harbor painting, was a favorite of many of the women.  “I love that,” one woman said.  “I love that,” I said.  My husband liked it, but was more conservative about it.  Or I should say he was much more modern, because Chagall was his favorite.

Monet, "Port of Dieppe, Evening"  (much more beautiful when you see the painting)

Monet, “Port of Dieppe, Evening” (much more beautiful when you see the painting)

My new favorite painter, however, is Jean-Louis Forain.  I admired his watercolor on a linen fan, “Dancer with a Rose.”  His “Dancer with a Mirror,” pastel on wave paper with blue fibers, is even more beautiful.


Jean-Louis Forain, “Dancer with a Mirror”

Forain’s “Woman in a Cafe” (1885) is the most interesting portrait in the exhibition.  Although I am not that woman in the painting (the placard said she was possibly a courtesan), I recognize the anxiety of waiting, the tiredness. She is no longer young.   Divorced in our late thirties and forties, we all used to look like that in coffeehouses.  (I’m sure you remember.)

Jean-Louis Forain, "Woman in a Cafe" (1885)

Jean-Louis Forain, “Woman in a Cafe” (1885)

 Forain liked to paint “the world of the café, brothel, racetrack, ballet and other aspects of modern Parisian life in the late nineteenth century,” according to the Joslyn Art Museum mobile tour.  (I don’t have an iPhone, so I couldn’t listen to this at the museum.)  I wish I knew more about the tradition of the courtesan in la vie moderne.

The exhibition will be there until September 1.

And then coffee and books.  I feel very guilty, but we had coffee at Starbucks.  We wanted comfortable chairs, to read our books, and to be ignored.  The patrons did seem to know the baristas, though:  it was like a neighborhood coffeehouse.

And then we went to an independent bookstore, The Bookworm.

The Bookworm, Omaha

The Bookworm, Omaha

If you’re going to display Dan Brown’s Inferno, you might as well display Dante, too.  I was very interested in the Robin Kirkpatrick translation (Penguin Deluxe Classic edition) of The Divine Comedy, but realized that it would be ridiculous to buy it, since we already have a couple of good translations.  (The store has lots of Penguins.)

A display at the Bookworm.

A display at the Bookworm.

I liked this paperback display even more.  Everything from the new Pharos editions of “out-of-print, lost, or rare books” to David R. Gilham’s City of Women to Stav Sherez’s A Dark Redemption to Tracy Chevalier and Donna Leon.  Paperbacks for summer.

 We did not have time to stop at A Stitch in Crime (a mystery bookstore) or Jackson Street Booksellers (a used bookstore), but I already had God knows how many books on my e-reader that I didn’t run out of books on the way home.

A very nice day in Omaha.

Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.

A Sense of Flight: An Interview with James Dickey

James Dickey

James Dickey

I have been weeding my papers–less is more–and rescued this 1987 interview with the poet and novelist James Dickey (1923-1997) from a filing cabinet.  If I may say so, I did an excellent job, though I had, alas, to write it up quickly.  Dickey was on a national book tour, promoting his novel Alnilam.

(Note: This charming, brilliant poet was desperate to escape the book tour and the hotel, and asked if he could have dinner at my house.  (It was the freaked-out from the tour vibe.)   I politely told him I had to write up the interview, but much later realized I should have brought him home and let my husband and a couple of friends (surely some friends would have wanted to meet him) entertain him while I worked.)

Here is the interview:

James Dickey

James Dickey

“It’s good, isn’t it?” said James Dickey, flipping through a copy of his newly published novel, Alnilam.

The National Book Award-winning poet and novelist who wrote Deliverance in 1970 strode across the hotel lobby, straw hat adding height to his already looming six foot three.  (“I picked this up in a resort for $2.75.”)  The biggest man in sight, he was also the only one dressed like a sportsman, the only one to have disembarked from a plane with a volume of Ruskin in his hand, and the only one who would ask you to read aloud the epigraphs to his novel.

“Did you like the part about skating?  he asked, turning to page 81.  “I worked hard on that because I like it myself.  I like the idea of skating not just in a roller rink but out on the streets.”

The characters in Alnilam (an Arabic word meaning string of pearls and the name of the central star in Orion’s belt) skate, swim, run, and, most important, fly.  In a poetic novel dense with allusions to myth, philosophy, and even Milton, the motif of flight emerges as the central theme.  When Cahill, the protagonist, learns that his son, Joel, has died in an Air Corps training accident, he travels to the camp to unravel the identity of the son he has never met.

“It’s really a book about the birth of a legend,” Dickey explained.  “Joel is an inexplicable creature of the air himself, a sort of Rimbaud of the air.  He’s a charismatic character for whom everyone has an explanation.

“One of the things I wanted most to do with this book is to restore the true sense of flight.  I just came up here on an airline, but being on an airline is like being in a hotel at 35,000 feet.  Man has been capable of true flight for less than 100 years, and these frail little trainers (planes) that these boys are in give the body the true sense of being caged in the air.”

Dickey’s own experiences during World War II in the Army Air Force indirectly led to his career as a writer.  Between flying missions over the South Pacific, he passed the time writing letters back to women in Atlanta.  “I think the magic moment came when I put something down and I looked at what I had said and thought, ‘That’s not bad.’  I got interested in the thing itself rather than my ulterior motives,” he said, claiming that before that letter he had been more interested in sports than in poetry.

After the war he continued writing while finishing school on the GI bill, and even during six grueling years in the advertising business.  “I did it at night, I did it on airplanes, I did it in restaurants.  The more I did, the more I saw I could do.  I knew that of all the things I had tried, this was the best for me.”

Eventually, as his reputation as a poet grew, he found more congenial work as a college English teacher.  “To a writer, any job is in the way, but no American poet is going to make enough to support himself, let alone anybody else,” he said.  And he loves his work at the University of South Carolina.  “I would never leave teaching.”

Although he admits that poetic language is the mainspring of his two novels, Deliverance and Alniham, he doesn’t insist on that aspect of his work. “Things written in prose, if they approximate poetry, can approximate poetry in a bad sense as well as a good sense,” he said modestly.

Alnilam james dickeyBut Alniham, 682 pages and 37 years in the writing, is stunning, innovative in form, and sharply attentive to prose rhythms.  Parts of the novel are told through the heightened, almost visionary sensibility of the protagonist, who has recently gone blind as a result of diabetes.  Dickey frequently splits the page into two columns, the left-hand side relating Cahill’s impressions and the right-hand side showing the actual scene.  Some reviewers have found this poetic device distracting.

“There’s no correct way to approach it,” said Dickey.  “Part of my intent was that everyone would have his way to deal with it.  Good Lord, is there no ingenuity among reviewers?  I would regard it as a challenge.  I would think I was the only one really capable of solving the true way, and that probably even the author himself didn’t know.”

He says he doesn’t worry too much about trying to please the public.  “If you’re a writer, you look at things from the standpoint of their intrinsic interest to you, whether it would be interesting to spend your time on it, and not necessarily whether it would hold other people.”

He likes to work on several projects simultaneously, booby trapping the house with typewriters and wandering from one to another.  He  is currently at work on two narrative poems.

In his free time, he plays tennis, plays guitar (he composed the guitar music for the movie, Deliverance), and spends time with his family.

During the interview, he charged a glass of wine to his account, slowly spelling out his name for the waitress.  “Dickey, James Dickey, D-i-c-k-e-y.”  Not a flicker of recognition.  Such is the obscurity of an American poet.

With and Without Narrative: Margaret Wilson, Willa Cather, & Bess Streeter Aldrich

A Midwestern masterpiece.

I often say there is no narrative in the Midwest.

Farm wife:  “Town is nicer.”

Worker: “Ate vanilla at Blue Bunny (an ice cream factory) every day for 40 years.”

It was very difficult to get hold of a story when I was growing up.

People need narrative.  At the University of Toronto, psychologist Maja Djikic and two colleagues did a study of 100 students indicating that those who have just read a short story are more comfortable with ambiguity than those who have just read an essay.

Midwesterners, too, are starved for narrative, even those who claim they don’t read fiction.  A Prairie Home Companion is popular on NPR.   Fans follow Garrison Keillor from Minnesota to Ames, Omaha, and Madison, wanting to hear his radio show live.  I once absent-mindedly said A Prairie Home Companion was sentimental, and had to renege when several people bristled and claimed our city was like Lake Wobegone.  (It is not.)

I turned to books long ago.

Some of the best Midwestern writers come from Nebraska.  Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska (a fascinating place to visit), had to leave Nebraska to write her masterpieces, The Professor’s House, the story of a disenchanted middle-aged professor, and A Lost Lady, a novel about a charming, if desperate, woman stuck in a small town after her husband’s bank fails.  These two novels are well-plotted but more ambiguous than Our Antonia, a book often chosen as a school text.

lantern_in_her_hand bess streeter aldrichBess Streeter Aldrich, who lived for many years in Elmwood, Nebraska, was a very popular writer of the 1920s and ’30s. The first few chapters of her best book, A Lantern in Her Hand, ramble a bit, but this excellent novel, a historical record of pioneer women’s lives, picks up momentum as it goes on.

Margaret Wilson, who was born in Traer, Iowa, won the Pulitzer in 1924 for her forgotten novel, The Able McLaughlins, a story of a rape and its consequences.  Wilson has a uniquely philosophical point of view:  she graduated from the University of Chicago, worked as a missionary in India, and returned to Chicago and attended Divinity School before she began to write short stories and novels in the 1920s.

If Virago had an American imprint, Wilson’s books might well be revived.  Wilson’s  language, though unassuming and plain, is layered skillfully into the deft storytelling of her moving, radical novels as she reflects on social justice. Her 1937 novel, The Law and the McLaughlins, a sequel to The Able McLaughlins, is a fascinating moral consideration of capital punishment.  It is a Greek tragedy, set in Iowa.

In 1868 Willy McLaughlin, a farmer, is following wolf tracks when he finds two dead men hanging from a tree.   The woods are so far from any road that he thinks he is hallucinating. But he goes closer, and the bodies are real.

The Squire (his uncle),  the sheriff, the coroner, and his father (a Justice of the Peace) gather to  identify the corpses.  They want “justice”–to track down the killers, try them in a court, and hang them.

But no one can identify the dead.  Finally they learn the men had been horse thieves, and the three killers were the horse owners.

Law and th eMclaughlinsThe women are from the beginning appalled.  They think of the wives of the men lynched, and the wives of the criminals. Mrs. McNair, who with her husband had unwittingly fed and sheltered the killers during a rainstorm, refuses to identify them.  Like the women in a Greek tragedy, they lament, grieve, and repeat that killing more men will not bring back the dead.

The sheriff plans to catch the perpetrators at the funeral of the dying wife of  one of the men.  The men have been hidden by their community 50 miles away.

Jean, Willy’s sister, is particularly disturbed when she hears this plan.  When her brother says it’s a war between the law and evildoers,  Jean says,

Well, when we get the vote we’ll change all that!  We’ll arrange to let women die in peace, if their men do break the law….  If I thought they would do such an evil thing, I would write to the woman and warn her! ‘Plan to go away some place and die where the sheriff can’t see you,’ I’d write her.  I have a mind to do it!”

Throughout the book, women deplore the unfairness of capital punishment.  Jean takes a stand, hopes to help the men break out of jail, and learns the real story of the murder.  A  Congregationalist minister speaks out against capital punishment, pointing out that the Iowa pioneers, who came from Scotland, New England, and other places, have known civilization and justice, but the minds of the next generation will be poisoned if the law is not observed.

Graham Greene wrote in a review:   “She has an admirable gift for very simple direct narrative, and her theme has always been passionately realized in terms of human beings…. we are always aware of a writer of fine moral discrimination and a passionate awareness of individual suffering.”