Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin

“I turned on my reading lamp and took out the Loeb Ovid from my backpack, but none of Ovid’s heroines spoke to me.  They offered warnings rather than invitations.  Why did things always go wrong for the women who were loved by the gods?”–Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin

confessions of Frances godwin Robert HellengaI am a Latin literature devotee.  I am also a former Latin teacher.

Of course I love Robert Hellenga’s new novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin.

The heroine’s frequent references to Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, and Cicero would enchant me even if she weren’t a Latin teacher.  And frankly I, too, wonder why things go wrong for women loved by the gods.

The Confessions is one of those small, well-wrought, delightfully compelling novels that are hard to classify, not because they’re obscure, but because they’re so entertaining. Is it literary fiction, or is it pop fiction?  It is both.  This intelligent, witty, realistic novel with a soul-searching heroine reminds me of the straightforward but astute fiction of Gail Godwin. Hellenga, a professor emeritus at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, has written a contemporary woman’s version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.  (Yes, she is God-win, and God talks to her sometimes.)

The narrator, Frances, a Latin teacher in Galesburg, begins with A Note to the Reader.  She explains that her confessions are “really a kind of spiritual autobiography.”  When she adds that it isn’t likely the police will come knocking at her door, we think she’s being dramatic.

In the first chapter, set in 2006, Frances retires from her job, because Galesburg High School has decided to cut its Latin program.

I’d protested, organized demonstrations, clipped articles about the Latin Renaissance in the United States and articles about the successes or our program, which had strong enrollments and which was regarded as one of the best in Illinois.  But to no avail.  The state was more than a million dollars behind in its payments to the school district and cuts would have to be made.

When Frances loads up her possessions from  her classroom of 41 years, she strains her hernia lifting the Loeb editions of Greek and Latin literature.  It is after the surgery that she begins to write her confessions, deftly jumping back and forth in time to weave a skillful narrative:  she tells us about her seduction of Paul, a married English professor, at the annual Shakespeare’s birthday party in which they play the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet; her experiences at a spoken Latin program in Rome  and her reaction when Paul shows up out of the blue; their happy marriage; their worries about their daughter, Stella, a talented poet who drops out of the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City to live with a violent felon and become a truck driver; Paul’s cancer ;  Stella’s failure to show up until the memorial service; and the crime Frances is driven to commit and God’s insistence that she confess.

There is, of course, much more to this brilliant book.

I am thrilled by Frances’s translation of the poems of Catullus, which is published by a small press.

And I especially love her (Hellenga’s) rendition of  Catullus 61, his elegy for his brother.  (And, by the way, I will be reciting this in  Latin tomorrow to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of my mother.)

I have wandered through many countries sand crossed many seas, my brother, to say good-bye at your grave. Words cannot contain my grief, and your ashes cannot speak. Death has separated us, brother from brother, but take these old-fashioned offerings, wet with my tears. O my brother. Hail and farewell.

I also love what Frances has to say about translation.

After translating “Multas per gentes“–Catullus’s farewell to his brother–a hundred different ways, the magic of the poem seemed to fade into the light of common day, but then a new appreciation, a new kind of appreciation, grew up in its place.  The poem itself, like the notes, is not a sign pointing at another reality.  It is the reality.  It is what it is.  Just as the stars are what they are, and 3C 273 is what it is.  And Rembrandt’s Side of Beef, and first love, too. Even first love.

You don’t have to know any Latin to enjoy this. You will understand Frances as a woman, a teacher, and a Midwesterner.

By the way, Hellenga is the son of a Latin teacher and the husband of a Latin teacher.  It figures, doesn’t it?