The Things We Carried from Classics

Now that we’re older and smarter, wouldn’t it be fun to go back to graduate school?

Well, perhaps it would be fun to audit classes.

I had two careers as a graduate student. First, I earned a master’s in classics.  Later, I took graduate classes in English.  I loved classics, but English was more fun.

English wasn’t “real” graduate school for me.  I enjoyed my English classes thoroughly, and felt no pressure:  I took them while I was looking for a full-time  job. During my Marvell phase, I  dashed off papers on “Ovidian Influences in Marvell’s ‘The Garden,’ ‘Hortus,’ and ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn.’ ”  I compared Marvell’s “On a Drip of Dew” to “Ros,” his Latin version of the same poem.   (Marvell was an accomplished classicist.) When I dropped off my papers, the professor was enthusiastic and said (s)he looked forward all day to my papers. At first I thought (s)he was mocking me–there is a  very high sarcasm rate among classicists–but no, she was pleased to meet  a Latinist.  And the atmosphere was very different from classics–less uptight?

Back in print.

Classics was a much more arduous affair, requiring more commitment.  Over infinite cups of Oolong, with my charming cat batting at my pen and dipping her paw into yogurt, I  spent hours translating Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio), Horace’s odes (Nunc est bibendum), and Aristophanes’s The Frogs (Brekekekex koax koax).  Sometimes I had to work from grimy photocopied pages.  Our professor distributed Xeroxed copies of an out-of-print edition of  The Frogs.   An entire Survey of Greek literature class was taught off Xeroxes. Whether it violated copyright law, who cared?

Naturally, being a student was not just about books.  I  loved Bloomington:  it was like my hometown, only prettier. My boyfriend drove me to Bloomington, and we lugged my very few boxes up two flights of stairs into a one-room apartment above Howard’s Bookstore.  I settled in with my cat, dictionaries, grammars, novels, and Rolling Stones albums, and missed my boyfriend when he left.  (Could I have listened to “Miss You” more often?) Between bouts of homework, I went to Howard’s, the Runcible Spoon (a coffeehouse), and Caveat Emptor (a used bookstore).  Walking down Kirkwood towards campus, I was almost bowled over by roller skaters.   There was a kiosk where people rented roller skates.

Everybody in classics knew everybody: it was a small department.  The grad students were a genial group, but two of my friends dropped out the first year.  I was indignant that we lost them.  The culture of graduate school can be grueling:  the work load is ridiculously heavy, and you have to prioritize.  I read all the Greek and Latin literature, but was willing to gamble on skipping that learned  article on  Greek and Sanskrit  in the American Journal of Philology. And if you couldn’t skip a few steps, you’d have a nervous breakdown.  On the other hand, perhaps my friends dropped out because they didn’t like the bullshit.

Fortunately, there were some friendly survivors.  A charming Englishman was always up for a party, though I regret to say he didn’t carry a teddy bear like Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.  A Uriah Heepish character  always lit the department chair’s cigarettes and pulled out chairs for women but then inexplicably failed the Ph.D. Latin exam.   The brightest student by far was a lovely, well-dressed, unpretentious linguist who shared my love of Masterpiece Theater and lent me her copy of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories.

My boyfriend finally moved in with me.  Thank God!  Here is a description of young love:  we spent hours at the library, doing homework in a glassed-in smoking room, really a kind of porch.  We sat there mainly because there were no windows above the second floor, and the  carrels made me claustrophobic.  Things smelled different in those days:  we didn’t smoke, but everybody was used to smoke.  There were smells of smoke, beer, hamburgers everywhere.

How on earth did we live off our $2,900 stipends?  We got that and free tuition.  Well, we had very few expenses:  just housing and food.  No work wardrobe, you could walk or bicycle everywhere, and many cultural events were free.  When we found our first real jobs in a city, we seemed paradoxically to have less money.  For several years we struggled financially.

I took the literature, not the stress, from the grad school experience, and honestly, a master’s degree helps in the workplace.   But what a system!  Perhaps it is has been reformed; I don’t know anybody in that world now.

The Athens of the Midwest

Roman woman writing

It started in the Midwest.

I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town.  I wish I could live in a university town:  Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor,  it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”

In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.

The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.

I was happy growing up in Iowa City.  Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced.  My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to  live with his girlfriend.  Now that was a good call.  And so I  became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned.  She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems.  Then she got  hysterical over the phone about Sexton.  Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it.   I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.

Nonetheless, I ended up living with her.  Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.)  A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting.   But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.

All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay.   She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).

I was unhappy.  I did not see how life could go on like that.  And it didn’t.    I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends.  And what else does a person need?

But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me.   The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.

I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin.  Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original.   Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus,  the Greek lyric poets, Plato.  And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English.  And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek.  It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.

catullus-poems-51fhu8iesgl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Let me share with you a  witty,two-line Latin epigram by the Roman poet Catullus.

My literal translation:

I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Here are  the two lines of Latin”

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.

Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love?  Bet you can!

And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin.  We agreed to keep mum about our past lives.  “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.

I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!

Catalogues, Ruined by Classics, & Literary Award Burnout

Sears Catalogue 1968

Sears Catalogue 1968:

I love the summer.

Summer is the relief we feel when we shed thick coats and boots. We sit outside, walk, bicycle, go camping (ugh), rent a cabin (better), or stay in a lovely hotel (best).

Winter is cabin fever and going to the mall. We disembark from the bus with the other puffy-parka-clad stragglers, and begin to sweat. We drink a gigantic coffee and try on sweaters and wonder if anyone still eats Maid-rites and end up buying blankets and Yaktrax.

Summer is the end of mall rat season. Instead of being a mall rat, we do what little shopping we do via catalogues or online.

I have always loved mail-order catalogues, which have historically been a  lifesaver on the prairie. The first Sears catalogue was published in 1888. Catalogues provided a wider selection of goods than general stores for farmers and others in remote locations.

We loved the Sears catalogue at our house.  We circled everything we wanted for Christmas.  My mother was an ardent shopper in  department stores, but she also ordered clothes from Sears and Montgomery Ward.  It was very exciting.  Would that plaid jumper fit?  And how about those rather odd ’60s psychedelic pink and lime-green mini-dresses my mother ordered for me?

amazon_boxI am fond of catalogues and online stores.  Without leaving the house, you can order books, black-out curtains, tables, towels, pans, fine china….everything.

Ruined by Classics and Unable to Read Award Winners & Nominees.

I am ruined by classics.

Here is what has happened.

large_baileys_women_s_prizeYou cannot really go back and forth between Chekhov’s stories and, say, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which was longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize last year.

I do not know if Chekhov was nominated for any prizes, but guess which writer is better?

Semple’s novel is both enjoyable and dismaying.  Bee, the teenage narrator, arranges a mix of emails, reports. and letters  in chronological order to figure out why and where her mother Bernadette disappeared.  I like Bernadette’s voice best.  Her emails, reminded me slightly of E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  But there is a little too much here of the crazy neighbor’s emails.  And it essentially reminds me of a Y.A. book.

Now I realize that politics are involved in these prizes, though as I have said elsewhere, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT.  I intend to avoid all articles this year that are likely to spoil the charm of the literary awards.

Oddly enough, reading Semple’s novel (not many pages to go) has made it impossible for me to go on to  Ali Smith’s How to Be Both .

How to Be Both Ali Smith 9780375424106_custom-66420141237c01275ebff57053eea17dc3e26d7f-s300-c85Smith’s How to Be Both won the Baileys Women’s Prize this year.  It is divided into two stories, one set in the present and the other in the Renaissance.  Half of the books have been printed with the present narrative first, and the other half with the Renaissance narrative first.  In my e-book, you are simply given a choice.

I chose the part set in the present, because it looked easier.

Smith’s writing is elegant, but oddly I am finding echoes of Maria Semple’s books.  In both books, a teenage narrator has lost her mother.

So I am simply going to have to start over with Smith’s book later.  I just can’t read it right now.

Perhaps it is a classic, but I cannot judge at this point.

I am put off by the opening of the Renaissance section, which seems to be a poem containing such extravagant phrases  as “Fathemotherplease spread/extempore”…

I’ve read so many classics that I need to go to literary rehab so I can appreciate this.

Or perhaps Semple’s book really IS better.  I’ve read 275 pages, but am not finished yet.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?  Maria Semple 13526165

Classics We Haven’t Read & Why You Should Read Anna Karenina

Not chatting about books, are they?

These bicyclists aren’t chatting about books, are they?

Bicyclists on a long ride are usually too busy pedaling to chat about books, but during the third hour of a mind-numbing ride into a fierce Nebraska wind, we were so bored that we actually considered the question, “What classics haven’t you read?”

What haven’t I read?  Moby Dick.  I once made it as far as Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Beautiful writing, but was I just a tad bored?  A tad or two.  My husband’s laudation of Melville’s style, and even the critic Michael Dirda’s contention that Moby Dick is the Great American Novel cannot persuade me to read it.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

My husband admits he has not read Anna Karenina.   It is one of my favorite books.

Possibly the opening lines of Anna Karenina terrify men.  He denies it.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.  The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him.

Marriage, families, confusion, adultery.

In addition to exploring the consequences of men’s and women’s infidelities, Tolstoy’s novel is filled with extraordinary scenes that make this a dramatic pageturner (and, yes, I just reread it, in the wonderful award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).


1.  BEST ICE-SKATING SCENE.   Levin, a landowner, comes to Moscow to propose to Kitty.  He ice-skates with her and endearingly learns a new trick.

Just then one of the young men, the best of the new skaters, with skates on and a cigarette in his mouth, came out of the coffee room and, taking a short run, went down the steps on his skates, clattering and jumping.  He flew down and, not even changing the free position of his arms, glided away over the ice….

“Ah, that’s a new stunt!” said Levin, and immediately ran up to try it.

Although he stumbles, he skates away laughing, reminding Kitty of what a dear man he is.  Unfortunately, she thinks of him as a brother.

2.  3.  BEST ILLICIT ATTRACTION SCENE AT A BALL (OH, JANE AUSTEN, IF ONLY YOU’D KNOWN…).   Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to heal the rift between her brother Stiva and his wife, Dolly:  by chance she meets Kitty’s new boyfriend, Vronsky, at the train station. He is very attracted.  At the ball at which Kitty expects him to propose, he dances almost exclusively with Anna.

Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.  She seemed to be struggling with herself to keep these signs of joy from showing, yet they appeared on her face of themselves.  “‘But what about him?’ Kitty looked at him and was horrified.  What portrayed itself so clearly in the mirror of Anna’s face, she also saw in him.

3. SOLACE WHEN YOU’RE DUMPED.  Kitty has a nervous breakdown when Vronsky leaves Moscow to pursue Anna Karenina to Petersburg.

Her sister Dolly tries to comfort Kitty.

Come now, Kitty.   Can you really think I don’t know?  I know everything.  And believe me, it’s nothing…  We’ve all gone through it.”

But poor Kitty has not gone through it yet.

4.  MOST TRAGIC HORSE-RACING SCENE.  Before Vronsky rides in a steeplechase race, his mother and brother object to his scandalous passion for the married Anna (they would prefer him to have a chic, light affair), and Anna tells him she is pregnant.  During the race, his mistreatment of the horse, Frou-Frou, leads to her death, and foreshadows Anna’s fate.

5.  MOST AGONIZING FALLEN-WOMAN-REJECTED SCENE.  After Anna and Vronsky live together in Europe, she refuses to believe that Petersburg society will ostracize her.  She goes to the theater, and is publicly humiliated.

He knew she had gathered her last forces in order to maintain the role she had taken upon herself.  And in this role of ostensible calm she succeeded fully.  People who did not know her and her circle, and who had not heard all the expressions of commiseration, indignation and astonishment from women that she should allow herself to appear in society and to appear so conspicuously in her lace attire and in all her beauty, admired the calm and beauty of this woman and did not suspect that she was experiencing the feelings of a person in the pillory.

A brilliant book, a tragedy, but also with many joyous scenes of love and family life (which I haven’t included here).  No one wrote better than Tolstoy.

Reading Old Books, Reading New Books & Callie Wright’s Love All

jane-austen-penguin-front setOnce a year I declare that I will read more new books.

One new book a week, I say.

When I mentioned this in a comment recently, a blogger wittily said, “And how many old books do you read?”

I do read a number of old books, don’t I?

With the exception of Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics, I do not support the publishing industry.  I’d rather be reading Jane Austen.

The new books often sound good, and occasionally are good, but most are crap.  Life’s too short.

And I’m an Anglophile. I prefer Austen, Dickens, and D. H. Lawrence to most American writers.  I would be delighted to “sleep on Christopher Tietjens’ lawn,” except that he’s a fictional character, so does he have a lawn?  (For more on my doomed love affair with Christopher, the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End,  go here.)

Although I prefer English contemporary novels, too,  I have had excellent luck with new American fiction this year:  Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Patterns, Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, Steve Yarborough’s The Realm of Last Chances, and Susan Choi’s My Education.

I skip most historical novels, and read contemporary American fiction to find out what American life is like.  My life is about bike rides, books, the internet, Master Chef, cooking Mollie Katzen’s recipes, and hanging out with the cats.  But what is it like for others?  Based on fiction, it is about extra-marital affairs.  Infidelity is at the heart of three of the four aforementioned American novels.  Quite a lot of fiction IS about extramarital affairs, if you think about it.

Love All by Callie WrightTake Callie Wright’s new novel, Love All, which I must admit I read because of a blurb by Ann Beattie.

Triangular relationships dominate this charming, if uneven, first novel, set in Cooperstown, New York, in the 1990s.   Hugh, the principal of Seedlings, a pre-school, is unhappily married to Anne, a chilly, almost OCDish lawyer.  But when a Seedlings student, Graham Pennington, has an accident on the monkey bars and his mother, Caroline, cannot be reached,  Hugh nervously accompanies the boy to the hospital in loco parentis.  Hugh and Caroline, an artist, bond immediately in the hospital, almost as though he is Graham’s other parent; one thing leads to another, and they have sex.  This couple seems made for each other, and we can’t help but cross our fingers for them, though that isn’t usually our reaction to infidelity.

Hugh is not the only one who has affairs.  Although Anne’s 86-year-old father, Bob, is devastated by his wife Joanie’s recent death, he had many discreet affairs during their marriage.  When a local writer in the ’60s, Elaine Dorien, published a roman a clef, The Sex Cure, about the sex lives of the town’s inhabitants, Joanie began to notice her husband’s predilections for other women.   Even Anne, a teenager at the time, read the novel and understood what was happening.  And It had a lasting effect on Anne.

It is Wright’s unadorned writing that makes the novel so readable.  She pays attention to detail, but doesn’t attempt the poeticism that some writers try too hard to achieve.

From time to time, when Joanie noticed he was staying late at work or had made Saturday plans with Charlie, she would pull the novel off her bookshelf and read a chapter or two before bed, and Bob would break off whatever insignificant dalliance he’d been involved in and return to his wife.

Even Julia, Hugh and Anne’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is in a triangle:  her two best friends are Sam and Carl.  She has a crush on handsome Sam, but cute, curly-haired Carl “likes” her.  After she  reads The Sex Cure, found under her grandmother’s mattress, she wonders if she can write something to alienate Carl.

Thinking about The Sex Cure, I opened my journal and flipped to a clean page.  All the narrow lines–between truth and fiction, want and need, friendship and love–seemed suddenly traversable:  Elaine Dorian had done it.  By the stroke of her pen, she had roiled and rippled the town with one story, a story everyone believed, so much so that she may have made it true.

There are a couple of problems with this enjoyable novel:  Wright shifts from one point-of-view to another, and she succeeds better with some characters than others.  Julia’s is the most original voice because Wright switches from third to first person narration: it allows her to tell the story less formally and more quirkily.

Anne, the cold lawyer, and her teenage son, Teddy, a jock, are stick figures.  The sections devoted to these characters are short, but the prose is very flat here, as if Wright were just getting it done.

And the ending is unsatisfying.   During a tennis exhibition between Julia and Carl, all the important characters gather.  But what happens doesn’t even quite happen.  It is an open ending.  There’s the trajectory of the ball…and the trajectory of the future.

There is some very graceful writing in Love All, and maybe next time Wright will perfect the characterizations and the ending.

If I were going to “star” it, I’d give it three out of five.  (Well, I guess I just starred it.)