Well, hello again, dear readers! After many months of silence, or near silence, I’m finally taking a stab at inserting (or, should I say “inflicting”) a new post on my almost moribund blog. It’s requiring a bit more of an effort than usual, given the enormous and frightening changes in the world since my last post in January. Then I had two major preoccupations, one being the very pleasant task of choosing my books for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, the other the not-very-enjoyable labor of planning and executing a long-distance move (a task that proved almost, but not quite, too much for Janakay!). In those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, Covid-19 was barely a shadow on the horizon. Now it appears to dominate my life. When I’m not washing my hands or sanitizing hard surfaces with whatever disinfectant’s at hand, or enjoying those very entertaining bird videos with the cats (Birds of Australia is a particular favorite at our house), I spend far too much time reading news accounts and statistics relating to this terrible disease. Covid-19, dear readers, has given Janakay some (very) minor and unwelcome insights into life during those medieval plague years that were the subject of several of her college history courses. Except, of course, medieval plague sufferers lacked both Purell and the internet (how would we all survive without both?)
And yet, however imperfectly, life goes on in this year of the plague. Because it is “insufficient,” however, merely to survive (if, like me, you adore Emily St. John Mandel’s work, you’ll recognize that I’m lifting this line from her great Station Eleven, which in turn borrowed the idea from a Star Trek episode!) literature and art accrue even more value amidst the horrors of our chaotic times. To survive in any meaningful sense of the word in these difficult days one must read! Although I’ve not been sharing my thoughts online, I have been reading steadily, in the time between packing boxes and moving furniture; my reward has been discovering a number of remarkable classic and contemporary novels. Hopefully I’ll be giving you at least some general reactions shortly but only after I finish unpacking the dishes!
If you’ve visited my blog in the past, you are aware that I love novels, which are almost always the subject when I write about bookish things. As I’ve posted before, I’m a little ambivalent about poetry (short stories, too, but for different reasons). Although poetry was very important to me at one time in my life, it’s a difficult and demanding art form that requires time, attention and insight, which for many years were in short supply for anything other than Janakay’s job (kitty kibble is expensive and hungry cats can be positively savage!). Although I don’t focus on poetry these days, I honor the art and do still attempt to save a little time for reading it. I also attempt, in a mild sort of way, to venture beyond my youthful favorites, which included lots of poems about Corinnas and Lucastas gathering rosebuds and knights riding to many-towered Camelot and so on (Janakay obviously adored Cavalier Poets and the Victorians. How could you not? Their stuff all rhymed and was usually easy to understand. “Ah, youth,” as one of my old fav poets might have sighed). My efforts these days don’t amount to much; I read a poem now and then, usually something in a traditional mode and, occasionally, check out The Guardian’s weekly poetry column (for me it’s a great resource for finding unfamiliar work. A bonus feature is Carol Rumens’ commentary, which always accompanies her weekly selection).
My biggest gesture of support for my former love usually comes in April, designated “National Poetry Month” by these squabbling, competing and currently very disunited States of America. Every April I make a point of actually buying a book of poetry; while I don’t have any rules about what I select, I do try to make it a work of a contemporary poet, or at least a poet who’s unfamiliar to me (this includes almost everyone writing poetry after 1900 or so). My choice this year was Nina Maclaughlin’s Wake, Siren
in which Maclaughlin reimagines the stories of several mythical heroines taken from
Metamorphoses, the great narrative poem written by the Latin poet Ovid in the first century CE. Any lovers of Ovid out there, or just anyone who likes good stories? As the name indicates, Ovid describes an unstable universe in which the world and its creatures constantly shift and transform from one shape or substance into another. Chaos morphs into an orderly universe of form and matter; a golden age transforms into one of silver or bronze; male shifts to female and vice versa; humans transform into animals or plants or constellations — well, you get the drift. Many of Ovid’s stories involve human women or nymphs (lesser female divinities associated with nature) who happen to catch a god’s attention, almost always with disasterous results. The women in Ovid don’t get many happy endings, unless you count being changed into a bear, a spider or a laurel tree as such.
In a very clever metamorphosis of her own, Nina Maclaughlin transforms the traditional stories recounted by Ovid by taking thirty of Ovid’s female characters and transposing them to a modern setting. Maclaughlin’s women wear jeans, do yoga, go to music festivals and talk to their therapists using language familiar to Janakay from her days as a seaman apprentice (the narrator in “Agave,” for instances, tells her visitor that “there’s some beer in the fridge” and describes — sanitized version — King Pentheus of Thebes as “this asshole jock, this clean-cut rapey beef-brained” guy). Most importantly, they tell their own stories in a series of monologues of varying length, speaking not in verse but in a type of flowing prose-poetry. Maclaughlin’s approach adds depth and richness to Ovid’s tales and while you may not always agree with her take on the characters (who knows? Maybe Pentheus has some fans out there!) it frequently makes you rethink what’s going on in the stories. Considering that these tales have been retold in verse, prose and music for over two millenia, this is a considerable accomplishment.
Maclaughlin’s format (like Ovid’s) is very conducive to reading in small dips and nibbles, which is very congenial to my currently fractured span of attention (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). It also has the advantage of letting you skip around, from short monologue (Nyctimene, two pages) to long (Tiresias, twelve pages), from happy (Pomona) to sad (Callisto). My favorite piece so far (I’ve been dipping in and out for several days now) is Maclaughlin’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, the ancient and popular story of a divine musician who descends to Hades, charms the very dead with his song and almost, but not quite, retrieves his beloved wife, killed by a serpent’s bite on their wedding day. In Maclaughlin’s version, Eurydice is the neglected daughter of a rock legend with music in her blood and a great deal of talent of her own. After several unsuccessful and demeaning relationships that reinforce her low self-esteem, she hooks up with “O.,” a world famous singer who adds physical to psychological abuse in his attempts to silence her own song. Realizing on her wedding day that she can’t go through with it, Eurydice flees to the Cobra Club, a raunchy honky-tonk located in a basement and run by HayDaze and his relunctant wife Penny, who goes away every summer on tour (the club’s sign features a red snake, naturally, and Eurydice and her friends joke when they go there that they’ve been “bitten by the serpent.”) O. follows and, using his music to charm and bewitch, almost leads Eurydice to the top of the stairs and out of the club. One final act of cruelty, however, gives Eurydice the impetus to free herself from his spell and, with relief, return to her refuge, the club where everyone goes eventually and which always has room for one more (even at the sold-out shows). Rather than being gimmicky, Maclaughlin’s clever inversion of the myth’s plot and visual elements makes the ancient story as relevant to us as it was to Ovid’s original readers. It also makes for a lively, amusing and horrifying piece of work. (For another great take on the Orpheus myth, try Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” from her wonderful poetry collection The World’s Wife.)
So, do I recommend Wake, Siren? Oh yes but . . . with a few teeny caveats. Although Janakay adores giving a new spin to old material and is very fond of a feminist slant, she is aware that not every reader shares her taste for this sort of thing. If, unlike her, you prefer your mythology straight, Maclaughlin’s book is obviously not for you (in that case, you might check out the edition of Ovid pictured above. Stanley Lombardo’s translation is great, there’s a wonderful introductory essay discussing the themes underlying Ovid’s work and some helpful additional features, such as a glossary of names and a table grouping the myths into various categories). There’s also the question of language, which is very uninhibited. Again, this is fine with Janakay (any naughty word she didn’t hear in the navy turned up when her college Latin class translated Petronius’ Satyricon) but if it’s an issue for you, well, there are plenty of other sources to choose from. Oh — before I forget — it isn’t necessary to know the traditional form of the myth to enjoy Maclaughlin’s version, but it’s fun if you have the time and energy to read the two in tandem.
Well, that’s it for tonight, dear readers. Stay healthy, keep washing those hands and if you’ve time to honor the muse in her special month by reading a poem or two, share any particular treasures you may find!
Have I mentioned that I have a big research paper to write on Renaissance child portraiture? Oh, I have!!! Since making that communique I’ve actually managed to complete a few pages at an astonishingly slow rate of production, so slow it would have gotten me promptly fired from my old brief-writing job, pleading (with utter sincerity) for truth, justice and the American way of life, not to mention the government’s right to collect its trust fund taxes or to impose appropriate market designs on various energy exchanges. (If you’re unfamiliar with trust fund taxes, market design or energy exchanges consider yourself very, very fortunate. I thought I had mercifully blanked it out, but I do believe the pressure of writing my portraiture paper is giving me stress induced flashbacks. I suppose it’s the equivalent of PTSD for a Vietnam vet). Anyways . . . . since I’ve just completed a paragraph or two on Renaissance family life (nutshell summary: father knew best) I felt totally justified in taking a teensy, weensy little break this morning involving breakfast out (i.e., someone else cooked), a farmer’s market and new (to me anyway) books. And, since it’s Monday, I have a perfect recipe (so to speak) for a Miscellany!
In a truly rare work break (smiley face here) from my Renaissance research this morning, I decided to catch up with my blog reading. My very first (and, as it happened, last) click of the day landed me here, where “Stuck in a Book” described in voluptuous detail a very recent and quite major book haul. Well, dear reader, Janakay has been a very good (and fiscally responsible) girl this summer vis à vis book purchases (interlibrary loan works quite well thank you) but . . . it’s just never safe, dangling temptation in front of an addict! And the combined omens were just so overwhelming — my very first blog stop discussing a book binge; the absolute necessity for a reward after all my hard work; the fact that my favorite breakfast spot is practically on the way to:
Well, it just all came together!
When I first drove up I thought the yellow “50% Off” sign was hyperbole but no! These guys were really discounting everything in the store by FIFTY PERCENT!!! What did I tell you about those omens? I mean — it was so obviously MEANT to be! I headed for the fiction section straightaway, but (another intervention by Divine Fortuna. If you follow my post to the end, you’ll see I’m in a Roman mood) I first had to pass through “Art History.” This section was pretty tightly packed (I had to move a few piles to get to stuff) and space was a bit limited, requiring me to sit on the floor to examine the treasures. The effort, however, was more than worth it, as I scored some major finds. (A tip for the temperate — you know it’s a binge when the cashier gives you a box and offers to help you carry your books to your car!).
My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!
Miscellany third: Ancient Rome
At this point, I bet you thought I’d never get around to ancient Rome but ha! fooled you. I was headed that way all the time!
Last week I was very excited to have my first class in Roman art and archaeology. Back in the day, i.e., when I was a “real” student (trying very hard not to think about getting a job) I was very interested in classical subjects. Although my interest has waned over the years I still love classical culture and was thrilled when I was finally able to enroll in this course;
As I long ago discovered, however, one can love a subject and still find one’s mind wandering down wayward paths, particularly when one is trying to distinguish between two early Roman temples that look distressingly similar! During one such detour from required learning I found myself thinking about what a presence, still, ancient Rome holds in popular culture; from there I began mentally listing movies and books with a Roman theme (perhaps the equivalent of counting sheep?) Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of these, I established the following parameters to keep my list manageable: (1) I allowed only 30-40 minutes to come up with titles (and a little longer to research a few); (2) I listed only items about which I had personal knowledge (i.e., I’ve either read it, read a review of it or have it on a TBR list) and (3) I attempted not to annotate (that part wasn’t very realistic, as you can see below). Since I may actually get around to making this into a real bibliography one day, I’d love to have additional recommendations or reactions to the titles. Also, as you’ll see, most of the listed books are pretty dated, so if you know more recent titles, please share!
Historical novels about ancient Rome (alphabetical by author):
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. Perhaps the best known novel by an unfortunately prolific Victorian novelist. You may not know that Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal opening lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.” His greatest claim to contemporary fame is that lines such as this inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel. If all this doesn’t scare you off from reading Pompeii, I say — go for it! (You’ll be sorry.)
Caldwell, Taylor. A Pillar of Iron. The novel gives star treatment to Cicero; Caesar is a vaguely sinister character. I can’t believe it’s still in print, but life is full of such mysteries. Since my assessment may be inaccurate (it’s certainly biased. I spent a miserable semester trying to translate one of Cicero’s speeches) I feel compelled to note that one reviewer on Amazon refers to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.” Don’t you think that it’s differences in taste such as this that make our big beautiful planet so very interesting?
Dolan, Mary. Hannibal: Scourge of Imperial Rome (also published as Hannibal of Carthage). The Romans are the bad guys in this fictionalized recreation of the lost account of Sosylos, a real-life Greek historian (probably a freedman) who accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and into Italy in the Second Punic War. I read this novel several times as a kid and loved it. Tragically out of print.
Douglas, Lloyd. The Robe. A 1940s? 1950s? best seller with a religious theme (Roman soldier is present at the crucifixion); the stuff many movies are made of. Watch them and skip the book.
Duggan, Alfred. Family Favorites (not the warm and fuzzy kind! Set in the reign of an emperor who made Nero look like Santa Claus) & Three’s Company (the second Triumvirate of Mark Anthony, Octavian & Marcus Lepidus; told, in a typically Duggan touch, from the point of view of the non-entity Lepidus). I don’t think Duggan is much read these days; a pity as his wit is dry and his historical research impeccable. I prefer his novels set in Medieval times (Count Bohemund is great) but these are definitely worth checking out (Favorites at least is available on Kindle).
Fast, Howard. Spartacus. A best-seller from the 1950s; the movie, I suspect, is better known. Haven’t read it in years, so I’m not sure how it’s aged.
Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbo. I was so intrigued to learn that Flaubert wrote an historical novel set in the time of the first Punic War I bought a copy. What are TBR lists for?
Graves, Robert. I, Claudius & Claudius the God. Fabulous books, thankfully well known and readily available. Less well known but worth checking out if you like late empire (I do) is Graves’ Count Belisarius.
Harris, Robert. Pompeii. The title rather explains what’s going on, doesn’t it? My reaction was “meh” although Harris has a lot of fans out there. Are you one? If so, speak up! Janakay is open-minded (about books, that is!)
Shakespeare, William. Anthony & Cleopatra. O.K., I know it’s a play (I could have also listed Julius Caesar, but I like this one better). Worth it just to read Anthony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.” If the story didn’t happen this way, it should have!
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis? Did you know that Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature? Neither did I, until I did this list! I do know that this novel has been the basis for a couple of movies. And — one of the novel’s great characters, Petronius the Arbiter, was “real;” Tacitus wrote all about him! (spoiler alert: Petronius comes to a tragic end when he falls out of favor with Nero). Petronius turns up again (below) as the author of the Satyricon.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. A wonderful English novelist who specialized in writing about Roman Britain (her Sword at Sunset is a wonderful, very realistic re-telling of the Arthurian legend). She did several novels classified as YA that, depending on your mood, are well worth reading regardless of your age (hey! I’m ancient and I just finished re-reading one); the best, IMO being The Silver Branch,The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth. I loved these books so much I’m seriously considering a nostalgia purchase of the reprints (with original illustrations) offered by the folks at Slightly Foxed (a wonderful quarterly publication for those who read BTW).
Waltari, Mika. The Etruscan & The Roman. Waltari was a Finnish writer who did several of these single title thingeys; perhaps the best known is The Egyptian. I’m not sure I’d like them now, several thousand books after I first encountered them, but I do recall particularly enjoying The Etruscan, perhaps because that pre-Roman culture is just so very mysterious.
Vidal, Gore. Julian. The life of this last pagan emperor of Rome (and enemy of the emerging Christian faith) was grist for Vidal’s pen. If you like Vidal, you’ll probably like this. If not, stay away, life is short.
Wallace, Lew. Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Did you know that Wallace was a general (Union variety) in the U.S. Civil War? Mr. Janakay, who knows quite a bit about the subject, informs me that Wallace was “not bad” as a military commander and that he rather unfairly took the fall for the Union’s first-day losses at the battle of Shiloh. As for his literary ability — well, I’d probably just watch the movie (particularly if you like mega-Hollywood, old-timey Charlton Heston things).
Warner, Rex. The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar. Warner was an English classicist; these two books are fictionalized first person accounts of Julius Caesar’s life. Although they’re stand alones, you’ll need to read both to get Caesar’s entire life. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they’re available on kindle for a modest price; they’re now on my “will one day re-read them” list. When I do so, I’ll let you know if they’ve held up well!
White, Edward Lucas. The Unwilling Vestal (a Tale of Rome Under the Caesars). A former professor of mine (“The Classical Epic in Translation”) spent much class time raving about this old novel’s whimsical charm. Being an impressionable child, I wasted a couple of days discovering the guy had lousy taste for novels originally written in English. Learn from my example, grasshopper!
Wilder, Thorton. Ides of March. Set in the last days of the Roman Republic & a very popular read in the 1950s, when (I believe) it reached best seller status. Not sure how it would date; if you’ve read it — let me know!
Williams, John. Augustus. Re-issued fairly recently in one of those nice NYRB classics editions. This is one that’s been on my TBR list for some time. Williams BTW is also the author of Stoner, the newly re-discovered lost classic du jour.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. Another permanent resident on my TBR list.
Contemporary (and popular) mystery series set in ancient Rome:
Davis, Lindsey. Marcus Didius Falco mysteries. I started reading these as they were being published and lasted through the first four or five. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully funny, well-plotted and entertaining series but . . . we all have to say good-bye sometimes.
Saylor, Steven. His Sub-Rosa series is set in the time of the late Republic and centers on the exploits of a detective known as Gordianus the Finder. There are a lot of books in this series (twelve? fourteen? difficult to count, as I believe there’s also a novella or two); the few I read back when were quite good but — three was enough!
Science Fiction directly inspired by Roman history:
Asimove, Isaac. The Foundation Series. An incredibly influential sci-fi classic (Elon Musk & Paul Krugman cite it as inspiration); the ancient Galactic empire is dying and humanity faces centuries of barbarism. Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, anyone? I read this work repeatedly in my teens; my attempted re-read about twenty years ago was a tragic failure. Like much of early sci-fi, brilliant ideas combine with a clunky style, which I can no longer handle (after a similar experience with another Asimov novel, I’ve decided my love affair is over!). Others, however, have had different reactions, so check it out for yourself.
Contemporary essays about the classics (includes Greek classics):
Mendelsohn, Daniel. How Beautiful It is and How Easily It is Broken. Mendelsohn is a scholar steeped in the classics; he has the rare and wonderful ability to link classical themes to current pop culture. I’m not a big reader of essays, but I loved this collection.
Beard, Mary. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Your very own tour of the ancient world, with one of the greatest classical scholars on the planet as your guide. And — she can write! If you’re at all interested in the classics, this is a necessity.
Hamilton, Edith. The Roman Way. An oldy, but a goody; very readable essays on the major Roman authors. Hamilton gives non-Latinist a wonderful sense of the various authors’ styles, as well as lots of substantive information about the works’ contents. Hamilton’s The Greek Way is even better, but that’s off topic!
Writings by actual, real life ancient Romans that are worth checking out:
Please keep in mind that I’ve only read a smidgen of the vast amount of available material, and did that years and years ago. (In other words, additional suggestions are welcome.) But since I’m nothing if not foolhardy, here’s my very selective, highly idiosyncratic and very limited list. Do you have any Latin favorites? If so, share, share!
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. The only Latin novel to survive in complete form; adventures of a would-be sorcerer who mistakenly turns himself into a jackass (if memory serves, I think he wanted to change into a bird but got the spell wrong). Aside from its considerable literary merits, I have a soft spot for this one. Back in the day, I loaned my copy to a friend who was driving home for Christmas. When she was pulled over for speeding (hey! we all want to get home quickly for the holidays!), my loaner was clearly visible in the empty passenger seat. The cop who flagged her down not only found the title hilarious, he also thought it perfectly described his patrol partner. The cop was so amused, in fact, that my friend got off with a warning rather than a ticket! Never say reading great literature doesn’t pay off!
Petronius. Satyricon. The author was a favorite courtier of Nero’s until he criticized the imperial poet’s rhymes (not to mention his musical skills) once too often (see Henryk Sienkiewicz, above). Only fragments survive, but as one of them is Trimalchio’s Feast, it’s a must-read. Warning: not for the squeamish or puritanical (I learned lots of interesting Latin verbs the semester we read this). The translation you choose is everything for this particular classic; look for the liveliest, most irreverent possible. You could always watch the Fellini movie of the same name if you don’t feel like reading (it’s filled with arresting images) but the book is better.
Virgil. Aeneid. If you like epics, only the Iliad is better (well, maybe Beowulf, but that’s a different culture). Read the poem and you’ll discover why Dante made Virgil his guide through the afterlife, the poetry is that good (particularly the chapters about Dido, one of the best female characters in all of classical lit).
Catullus. If lyric poetry’s your thing, it doesn’t get much better. Catullus was probably the only guy of his day and time who didn’t realize his beloved Clodia was the most sexually promiscuous woman in Rome and a husband-poisoner to boot; but it’s that kind of blindness that makes great love poetry. Although the Clodia poems (he calls her “Lesbia” but no one was fooled) are probably his best known work, Catullus’ poetry covers much more ground. His poem on Attis, who joins the priesthood of the savage goddess Cybele, is incredible (not, not, not for the faint at heart) and there’s the wonderful poem written when Catullus visited his brother’s grave (“now and forever, brother, hail and farewell”). Many, many translations are available.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. A prime source for every myth you ever wanted, or needed, to read. Trust me, reading Ovid will make it much easier for you to enjoy the artwork the next time you visit the museum (when in doubt European artists have always turned to Ovid for a subject).
Histories: if you’re into the (technically) non-fiction, there’s lots and lots to chose from. A “you were there” account from the front: Caesar’s Gallic Wars, perhaps the oldest surviving piece of cleverly disguised political propaganda (Caesar wrote it to convince the folks back home that he was a serious military commander). Juicy, filthy, wonderful gossip (in the 21st century, this guy would be working for the tabloids): Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Stern, republican, “this is what made us great” virtue: Livy (in our day, he’d probably be writing political speeches).
Well, that’s it for tonight folks! I’d love to hear comments, or additions to my list, but for now it’s back to those two very similar, early Roman temples . . . I think one of them has a few more columns on the left side . . . .