Reading Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises & Literary Links

margaret-drabble-the-dark-flood-rises-51zpqxcwb2l-_sx337_bo1204203200_What am I reading?

I am halfway through Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a new novel which harkens back to her ambitious multi-character masterpieces of the ’70s and ’80s (my favorites are The  Needle’s Eye, The Realms of Gold, and The Radiant Way). She boldly balances the struggles of her ageing characters and their children with a fictional investigation of the plight of the elderly, the sick, and the dying.  Appropriate housing for the aged is at the core of the novel, and is in many ways at the core of the problems of ageing.

Drabble’s new novel is not as dark as you might expect.  It is positively cozy compared to what we found as we searched for the right assisted living facility or nursing home for my mother. (In other words, we knew nothing about eldercare until we had to know.) My favorite character in The Dark Flood Rises is Fran Stubbs, an  exuberant woman in her seventies,  who works for “a charitable trust which devotes generous research funds to examining and improving the living arrangements of the ageing.” She is not slowing down, which we find cheering, and travels all over England to conferences, driving her car.  She lives in a high-rise (not recommended for the aged), where she sometimes must walk up many flights of stairs. Her friends, many of whom are sick and dying, live in retirement communities, at home with aides, or, in one case, in the Canary Islands with a younger lover.

Brilliant writing!  and depressing, but my mother would NOT have found it depressing.


1917-ows_1481847425738301. ARE YOU A RUSSIAN LITERATURE FAN? The TLS has recently published several articles on Russian literature.

Go here to read a review of 1917:  Stories and poems of the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Go here to read a 1967 review by Edwin Morgan of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which, by the way, had its fiftieth anniversary last year.

2 RACHEL INGALLS’ FICTION.  At the Literary Hub, Daniel Handler writes on “The Best Writer You Don’t Know:  Rachel Ingalls.”  Pharos has republished three of Ingalls’ novellas in a new book, Three Masquerades.


The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.


4. IS THE TEMPEST YOUR FAVORITE SHAKESPEARE PLAY?  At the Barnes and Noble blog, Kelly Anderson writes about Jacqueline Carey’s new novel, Miranda and Caliban, a retelling of The Tempest

Enjoy your reading!

A Two-in-One Post: Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water & Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone

kenzaburo oe death by water 51sQSVkiUjL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_

Here is a two-in-one post.  Why?

Occasionally I get behind in keeping my book journal.  I read many books I admire and enjoy but do not want to devote an entire post to (says she who has written more than 800 posts).   And so here are two brief “post-ettes” about two very different books,  Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone.

Oe and his son, Hikari.

Oe and his son, Hikari.

Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe. This elegant new novel by Ōe, the Japanese Nobel Prize for literature winner in 1994, is  meditative, thematically-diverse, and not big on plot.   But if you are a theater person, I guarantee you will be fascinated by the writer-narrator’s complicated relationship with a theater group devoted to dramatizing his work.

This is the latest of Ōe’s  semi-autobiographical novels narrated by  his thinly-veiled alter ego, Kogito Choko, a famous writer who is also the father of a brain-damaged son, Akari.  (Ōe’s son Hikari was brain-damaged at birth.) The first of these novels, A Personal Matter (1964), is about Choko’s coming to terms with his son’s disability.

In Death by Water, the narrator, Choko, is now in his 70s and is a blocked writer.  He has long dreamed of writing a novel about the death of his father, a right-wing activist who,  during World War II, plotted a quixotic mission with friends at a military training camp, and  took off in a boat, packed only with a red leather trunk, on the river near their house during a storm and drowned.

But Choko’s mother, fearing a scandal about her husband’s politics, denied Choko access to the papers in the red leather trunk that was in his father’s boat.

Ironically, a joke made by Choko’s mother gave him the idea for what he calls “the drowning novel.”  When he was a student and his uncle expressed distress over his majoring in French literature,  his mother said,

“Well, if he can’t find a regular job, then he’ll most likely become a novelist!” This pronouncement was greeted with stunned silence, but the tension was quickly dispelled by my mother’s next remark. “In fact,” she went on, “there’s more than enough raw material for a novel in the red leather trunk alone!” That made everybody laugh.

Ten years after his mother’s death, his sister Asa calls to say the will specified that he would now be allowed to see the contents of the trunk.

After he inspects the trunk (which turns out to be a bust), he explores the history of his father’s drowning through dreams, memory, and conversations with his father’s friends.  But it is the theater group, the Caveman Group, that inspires him most.  He becomes especially close to Unaiko, a young woman who is both manipulative (she stages their meeting by showing up on the trail where he takes his daily walk) and creative.  And she has her own interactive theater project, which is based on rape and war crimes.

Choko also has problems with his son, now middle-aged and a composer, and some of the mediation between the two men is done by women in the Caveman Group.

I admired but didn’t love this brilliant book, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm.  It is a very great book and some of you will love it.

drabble the millstoneMargaret Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone (1965), won the  John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize.  It has been highly praised by the writer, Tessa Hadley, , who last year wrote an essay for The Guardian, saying “For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be.”

And so I decided to reread it.

This charming comedy is what I call “Drabble-lite,” though it is a perfect book, a ’60s classic.  The narrator, Rosamund Stacey, a brilliant scholar,  has the bad luck to get pregnant the first time and only time she has sex, with a  fey BBC announcer who mutters something afterwards about the act’s being “pointless.”  She does not want the baby, and tries the gin and hot bath folk remedy, but friends interrupt her and drink most of the gin, and in short it doesn’t work.  Fortunately for Rosamund, there is a fairy tale aspect to the novel: she doesn’t have to deal much with the unwed mother stigma. Her  professor parents are in Africa for a year and she is living in their desirable flat, so the address impresses the NHS doctors and then the hospital nurse.  Her friend, Lydia, a writer, moves in and helps with the babysitting.  Rosamund loves her baby, and the baby has some serious health problems, but this is basically a ’60s fairy tale, with an optimistic, confident, lucky heroine we love to spend time with .

Drabble is one of my favorite writers. We Drabble fans all have our  favorites.  Mine is The Realms of Gold.

D. J. Taylor’s Books Reissued As E-Books & Musings on Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage

Back in print as an e-book.

Back in print !

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, and critic, is one of my favorite writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003, and his elegant counterfactual novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.

Orwell by d. J. taylor {8EFA7CA0-FADC-4538-A57A-2DE04BA35866}Img400But you all know that. I have written about it before.   Anyway, here is an announcement:  several of his books have  been  reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  The three aforementioned are available, as are  several of his earlier books, including the novels Real Life, English Settlement, Great Eastern Land, The Comedy Man,  and Trespass; a biography of Thackeray; and a collection of stories, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

I have yet to read his early books, but I did like his 1999 novel, Trespass, which pays homage to H. G. Wells’s delightful satire, Tono-Bungay.  Tono-Bungay, invented by the hero’s uncle, is a harmless concoction sold as a  pep drink through brilliant advertising.  (I wrote about Wells’ book at my old blog.)  Taylor nods to the brilliance of Wells in his comical story of the rise and fall of George Chell, whose life has been nomadic since his eccentric entrepreneur uncle was ruined by a financial crash six years ago. As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.”

And, by the way, Taylor’s new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck,  was  published last winter by Beggar Galley Press, a small press in the UK.  It is not available in the U.S., but you can find  used copies on the internet.

Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.  Years ago an archaeologist friend recommended Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, a novel whose heroine, Frances Wingate, is an archaeologist. This became one of my favorite books, and when I reread it nowadays, Frances reminds me slightly of the classicist  Mary Beard.

I have read  Drabble’s books multiple times.  Not, however, her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which was published in 1962. summer bird-cage margaret drabble db977f612f2e6c4597777305751444341587343When I went back to it recently, I had mixed feelings.  Much of it is delightful, but it is also a bit dated.

It is a strange little comedy.  Sarah, the witty, thoughtful narrator, has been teaching English conversation in Paris. She is going home for her older sister Louise’s wedding. She doesn’t like Louise, who is beautiful, snobbish, moody, and often unkind.  Yet Sarah, who has recently graduated from Oxford,  has had enough of Paris, and doesn’t know what to do next.

Sarah’s voice is charming and comical.

I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris.  I had gone there immediately after coming home from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time.  To fill in time till what?  What indeed?  It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me.  It didn’t get me anywhere.

I read this in graduate school, and we all chortled over it.  Would we ever have jobs? We found Drabble hilarious.  But one of my friends, who was going on for a Ph.D., thought A Summer Bird-Cage was anti-feminist.

I wouldn’t go that far, but today Sarah’s scorn of “academic women” seems a little jarring.

When her roommate says parties are tiresome, Sarah thinks,

As she said that, I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic.  I didn’t like what I saw…

Oh, dear.  I do know what she means.  I used to think my women professors were hired because of their eccentricities and lack of style. I long ago repented of that view, but perhaps this is simply how the young think.

A Summer Bird-Cage Margaret Drabble 41xhpFHPI0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I still find Sarah’s lack of direction vaguely charming, because women’s personal lives are often more important than their  jobs.  But the novel is not just about Sarah’s youthful squandering of time.  It is also about  her love-hate relationship with her doppelganger, Louise, who is fashionable, brilliant, and beautiful, but really quite disagreeable.  Louise snubs her guests, and when Sarah points out that Louise is wearing a dirty bra under her wedding gown, she doesn’t care. She goes off joylessly to Italy with her unlikable, but very rich, writer husband.  Her reasons for marrying him?  You’ll find out.  She is blatantly having an affair with his best friend, an actor.

Meanwhile, Sarah moves to London with Gill, an artist friend, and gets a job at the BBC.  The job means nothing to her:  she is more interested in parties.  She is observant and witty and vaguely looks forward to marrying her old boyfriend, who is at Harvard.  She doesn’t know quite else what to do.

But we finally learn that Sarah isn’t without direction:  she hopes one day to write a novel as funny as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.  And we know Drabble succeeds.

In general I prefer Drabble’s later novels, but if you want to read a great ’60s comedy, try Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The  scholarly heroine, Rosamund, approves of the sexual revolution, but she hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her academic research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant.  She decides to raise the baby on her ow,.  This slight book is comical, moving, and beautifully written.

Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby & My In-Between Non-Motherhood Gen

Drabble The Pure Gold BAbyI am a member of the In-Between Leftist Non-Motherhood Gen.

For a few, very few, years in the ’70s it  was acceptable for women not to have children.  By the mid-1980s  women were barraged with cruel greeting cards with the slogan, “I forgot to have children.” By the time I even considered having children, I was peri-menopausal and said, No, thank you, to infertility pills.

I ordinarily run miles from a novel about motherhood, but Margaret Drabble’s new novel, The Pure Gold Baby, intelligently, if obliquely, portrays a group of mothers in North London from the ’60s to the present.

The novel revolves around Jess Speight, an unmarried anthropologist whose child, Anna, has developmental problems. After Anna’s birth, Jess switches her focus in anthropology from Africa to England and embarks on a career of freelance journalism so she can care for Anna at home.

The novel is narrated by Nellie, a friend of Jess’s who is not an altogether reliable narrator, as we learn when she admits that parts of the narrative are constructed from her own imagination.

Who is the heroine?  Is the novel about Jess or Nellie?

Nellie is fascinated by Jess’s refusal to tell her married lover, an anthropology professor, about Anna, if indeed he is her lover, because Nellie is not sure whether he exists or whether Jess made him up.  Anna is an easy baby, always happy.  But when her developmental difficulties become evident and Jess must take counsel from a doctor, we are reminded of Drabble’s early novel, The Millstone, in which the unmarried narrator, a scholar, has a baby who needs surgery, and she must navigate the health system, eventually playing the upper-class card so her baby will get good care.

Drabble beautifully captures Jess’s sadness on her trip to the doctor’s office, but Nellie deviously confuses us about the point-of-view of the narration, beginning in the first-person plural and then switching to first person singular:

When we look back, we simplify, we forget the sloughs and doubts and backward motions, and see only the shining curve of the story we told ourselves in order to keep ourselves alive and hopeful, that bright curve that led us on to the future.  The radiant way.  But Jess, that cold morning, was near despair.  She did not tell us about this then, but of course it must have been so.  I picture her now, walking along the patched and pockmarked London pavement, with its manhole covers and broken paving stones, its runic symbols of water and electricity and gas, its thunderbolts and fag ends and sweet wrappings and patters of chewed and hardened gum, and I know that she faltered.

We see so much here:  the shining curve, the bright curve, the radiant way, contrasted with Jess’ despair, the pockmarked pavement, the broken stones, the trash.

And Drabble chooses to follow the radiant way, alluding to her 1987 novel,  The Radiant Way, which was the first in Drabble’s brilliant trilogy, including A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory.  There is darkness but much hope.

Jess has a normal life, despite her responsibility for Anna.  She marries Bob, an anthropologist-photographer, and later has relationships with three men who, not uncoincidentally, have mental health problems: first Steve, a poet, then Zain, a gorgeous man coveted by many, and finally she has a serious friendship with Raoul, who recovers and becomes a famous neurologist. All three of these men live briefly in an exclusive progressive mental health community.   Drabble charts the changes in the mental health system over the decades, ranging from Laing to homelessness.  Steve was unable to thrive after the demise of the community.

Shimmering throughout the novel are Jess’s memories of a group of children in Africa, who had a rare condition, lobster-claw syndrome, their fingers or toes fused.  These children were indifferent to their deformity, and Jess loved watching them.  Her feeling toward Anna is similar; she loves her child’s good nature: her inability to read or write does not matter to her, as it might to some intellectual parents.  At the end of the novel, Jess, now old,  and Anna, middle-aged, go to Africa, and the novel comes back full-circle.

Rodin's The Helmet-Maker's Once Beautiful Wife

Rodin’s The Helmet-Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife

Drabble is particularly good on portraying aging as the decades fly by.  Nellie, the narrator, is fascinated by art depicting aging women.  She describes Rodin’s “The Helmet Maker’s Once Beautiful Wife,” which has fascinated her since a school trip to Paris.

I was unprepared for the shock of the woman’s naked body.  The old woman of Rodin lacks all dignity.  Her image wounds, insults, reduces.  I stood, transfixed, appalled and undefended….

She is old, and scraggy, and ugly.  She is a memento mori.  She is worse than a memento mori, for in comparison with this condition, death were welcome.   She is, I suppose, witch-like, but she lacks the malevolence and the energy of the three weird sisters from Macbeth…  She is passive.  She is a passive recipient of the battery, the assault of time, and of the contempt of men.  Her breasts are dry and dangle, her ribs stand out, her skin hands in folds from her withering frame her back is bowed in submission.

This stunning novel is both dense and disturbing, and those of you who, like me, particularly like Drabble’s complicated novels of the ’70s and ’80s, will admire this dark exploration of family, heredity, and women’s lives in the late 20th century and the third millennium.

This book bears rereading, and I will reread it soon.

Women of Margaret Drabble’s generation had children.  Most women of mine did, too, but there was that small window of opportunity for women of my age to be childless without guilt.

Drabble thinks these disabled children contribute to the culture, and we will be worse off when we have no Downs Syndrome children.

Although I personally could not have cared for a child like Anna, because my energy is limited and my freelancing certainly didn’t pay as well as Jess’s, I find Drabble’s ideas interesting.  On the other hand, I am very much in favor of abortion rights.

Your choice.

Proust, Not Competitively but Companionably

Proust In Search of Lost TimeFor the next year I plan to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. (Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust isn’t enough.)  I’ve read the first two volumes of In Search twice, and then I start over again, since narrative isn’t a big part of it.

I’d like to read it with a group.  Starting with Swann’s Way again, of course.

I decided to check for a group at Goodreads.

First, I couldn’t sign in. I thought I was signed in for life.

“Sorry, we didn’t recognize that email/password combination,” it told me.

Well, even I didn’t quite recognize that password.

“Do you want to sign in with Facebook or Twitter?” it asks.

No, I do not.

I have a Twitter account (@MsMirabileDictu), but I don’t tweet.  It is, however, great for “cyber-stalking”:  NYRB, Gary Shteyngart, Mollie Katzen, my blogger friends, TLS, Ron Charles at the Washington Post, Maud Newton, and who is Andrew Holleran? I follow him, too.

By the way, leave me your Twitter address, and I’ll follow you.  Perhaps I’ll tweet someday.  I have sent four tweets, three by accident.

Anyway I finally signed in at Goodreads with a compromise password. The Proust groups are  moribund.

Same thing at LibraryThing. They have no Proust groups.

Drabble The Pure Gold BAbyHere is why I want to read Proust with a group.  I am in the middle of Margaret Drabble’s new novel, The Pure Gold Baby. and am inspired by her heroine, Jess, who is reading Proust with a friend.

Jess was reading Proust with an incentive.  She was reading him not competitively but companionably, in concert with an old schoolfriend from Broghborough with whom she had kept in touch.  They met rarely, for her friend Vivien lived in Edinburgh, where she was the assistant curator of a gallery, but they had preserved their intimacy through Viven’s occasional London visits and through sending one another postcards and letters….. (The reading group had not yet become a nationwide phenomenon.)  Jess and Vivien had already read their way through Ulysses, encouraging one another onwards by exchanging comments and moments of bewilderment and enlightenment, and now they were doing Proust.  Would they reach the end?  They were not sure.  it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t; nobody was watching them, nobody was marking them, there were no exams to sit, no teachers to impress.

Doesn’t this make you want to read Proust?

I need a Proust pen pal.

Seriously, I love Drabble’s heroines.  In her novel, The Seven Sisters, Candida, the narrator, studies Virgil with an adult ed teacher.  I  thought, I’m a Latinist: why not teach an adult ed class?  And so I taught an adult ed Latin class for two years.  Then we ran out of people.

I teaching Latin, in schoolmarm garb.

Teaching Latin, in schoolmarm garb.

Here is a rather sweet, if blurry, picture of me teaching Latin in the ’90s, in schoolmarm clothes (important for discipline) and big glasses.  Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of my adult ed days.

So who’s going to read Proust with me?  Come on!  One person.

No one wants to?????!!!!!?????Maybe someone who reads French?

Oh, well.

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.

Sleeping with Knightley, Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, & Howard Jacobson on Jane Austen

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong), not looking too sexy together.

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong)  in 1996 film.

Jane Austen’s Emma is the funniest book I have ever read.

Emma may be too clever for her own good, she may flirt too heedlessly with Frank Churchill, she may almost ruin her friend Harriet’s life by advising her badly on marriage, but I prefer her company to that of the more subtly bitchy Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, the decorous Fanny in Mansfield Park, or the weak Anne in Persuasion (I love Anne, but she’s too passive, however hard Austen tries to explain it).  Emma is smart.  Emma says what she thinks.  She doesn’t want to marry, and she prefers the lively Harriet to the rigid Jane Fairfax.  Emma would destroy society in a moment, if Knightley weren’t there to criticize.

Knightley corrects all Emma’s mistakes, but he’s more like a father than a lover. I’ve always suspected he would be as tyrannical as Lucy Snowe’s unattractive fiance, M. Paul (her second choice when the man she loves chooses someone else), in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey,  in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen.  How deeply I deplore her desperate wit.  Her moral tone dismays me:  my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts.  Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley.  What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley.  Sorrow awaited that woman:  she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

the Waterfall Margaret Drabble penguinThe Waterfall is a remarkable novel, has some Austenish overtones, and Drabble knows it.  Her heroine Jane is a kind of anti-Jane Austen.  In the last weeks of pregnancy, Jane lives alone, her husband having left her and her son having been sent to stay with her mother.  She wanders around the house drinking coffee, shops only where no one will recognize her so she can be solitary, and reads an article about a woman who gave birth alone in a hut in Alaska.

Although Jane loves to be alone, she does call the midwife when she goes into labor.  Then her cousin Lucy and husband James take turns staying with her.  Handsome, sexy James, who owns a garage and fast cars, climbs into bed with her and sleeps with her chastely until she can have sex again.  Then they have a steamy affair.

It is Jane’s first real love affair.  She had married Malcolm, a musician, because she felt sorry for him, and they hadn’t suited one another in bed.  James is an ideal lover, and loves to sit around the house with her:  he doesn’t really work, he explains.  He takes her and her children on outings and to the racetrack.  The racetrack is too nerve-racking for her, though.

Jane doesn’t want much human contact except with James, and it is the fault of her neurotic family.  She very much dislikes the rigidity of anything that resembles Austen’s social code.  She hates the dissimulation and pretenses of her family:  her father, a sarcastic headmaster, bullied boys and was deemed a success; her mother was a hypocrite and social climber who pretended not to care about material things but spent all her time sucking up to the rich; and her aunt browbeat her inferior “husband in trade” until he became capable of  middle-class malice.

Drabble’s portrait of her parents does remind us of Austen’s world, and Jane inhabits a post-Austen world of the ’60s.

Some people conspire to deceive the world and find in their conspiracy a bond, but they did it, I think, with a sense of profound mutual dislike.  They presented a united front to the world, because their survival demanded that they should, because they could not afford to betray each other in public; but their dissension found other devious forms, secret forms, underhand attacks and reprisals, covered malice, discreet inverted insults, painful praise.

Margaret Drabble, the '70s

Margaret Drabble, the ’70s

Jane looks like Lucy, and does feel some guilt about her cousin.  And when there’s an accident…

The fascinating narrative is sometimes in the third person, other times first-person, with Jane trying in the first-person sections to explain how she has lied or exaggerated in the third person.

She even cites Jane Eyre, and muses how she could have rendered James impotent/crippled like Rochester had she felt like Charlotte Bronte (which she doesn’t).

This is possibly Drabble’s most difficult book:  it is beautifully written, but a humorless predecessor of The Needle’s Eye, one of her masterpieces.

By the way, I love Jane Austen, I read her books again and again, but I do understand Drabble’s Jane’s doubts.

For Jane fans, here is a link to Howard Jacobson’s fascinating speech on love and sex in Austen:  he gave it at the Telegraph Hay Festival last weekend.