Diary of a Latinist: The Classics Bulletin Board

The first problem is, we were poor.  The second is, we were  women. The third  is, we were not the canny students who read the classics bulletin board and scribbled down information about summer scholarships at The American Academy in Rome.

Showing up for class after working the night shift: “Filled out your application?”

Stage direction:  Burst into giggles.

There was nothing on that bulletin board for my friends and me.  We could not afford Rome, even if we had won a scholarship. The irony is that the secretary might have found us other grants, since she was the only one who understood the system.  But we stared blankly at the professor who told us to check out the bulletin board.  He was well-meaning but clueless. 

It was never going to happen.

Once a member of the middle class, I’d dropped a class or two in the struggle for independence.  For a year, a toxic relative paid my tuition, grudging to the point that he did not reveal until my senior year that there was a college savings account for me. (He had spent most of it.)   And so I  worked part-time, as did most of my friends, to pay rent (for a tiny room in a house with a communal kitchen), tuition (eventually covered by loans and grants),  food (a lot of Ramen noodles), and necessities (soap, shampoo, etc.).

I was too exhausted to think about Rome.  Bizarrely, like the travel writer in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, I had little desire to travel.  I had already attended dinner parties with Catullus in my head (“You will dine well if you bring your own”) and pondered the words of  Horace (Epistle 1.11):  “…They change their sky, not their spirit, who hurry across the sea.”

 And I certainly would not have gone to Rome without my boyfriend.  Was that being a woman? No, I was in love. 

As I have said, I was not a bulletin board person.  But a wonderful small thing happened there.  A friend’s brilliant, charming parent showed up in front of the bulletin board and congratulated me on winning the Latin Prize.

I was so touched.  In the end, it’s these little moments that make it possible to pursue our dreams. Professors are distant, friends care. I fondly remember the socialists, hippies, anarchists, poets, and others I met along the way.  Just a word from the past to the future, now from the future to the past. 

Recycling Political Flyers, 2020

Every day we get more political flyers. The politicians want us; they need us; they treasure our input.  It’s a deluge.  The flyers stay on the mail table for a couple of days, and then make it into the recycling pile.  Only Bernie, my favorite, doesn’t inundate us with paper.

Perhaps we should decoupage the photos on notebook covers and sell them as novelty items.  Who wouldn’t want one?

Here is a typical sample of flyers. We’ve got Amy!  Cory (who reccently dropped out)!  Joe Biden!  Tom Steyer!  Joe and Tom use red, white, and blue.  Feel free to pick your favorite.

Elizabeth Warren has the most creative flyers, though now her PR folks have moved beyond her personal history and are hitting harder with political messages. My favorite was a collage of photos document ing her life.  Alas, we already recycled that one.  But kudos to the PR folks!

The lesser mortals are also trying hard.  We’ve had Pete (very popular), lots more Tom Steyer (right), and yes, another pamphlet from Elizabeth Warren (below).

We loved our Christmas card from Joe and Jill Biden, but eventually it fell off the refrigerator.

Only a few from Bernie, who’s doing quite well, but perhaps has a smaller budget for flyers.  (Don’t quote me on that.)   And of course we’ve heard from the others from time to time.  Some of them are already forgotten.

The process is so drawn-out.  It has already gone on for a year.

Eleven more months!

I’ll vote for any Dem who wins the candidacy.

Meanwhile, I’m recycling flyers.

Trends and Truth: I loved Lynne Reid Banks’s “The Warning Bell”

I have read the trendy controversial novel of the moment.  

A few weeks ago I read Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a pageturner about Mexican migrants which has apparently sparked fierce controversy on the grounds of  “cultural appropriation.”  It is now an Oprah pick.  I wasn’t keen on Cummins’s issue-oriented best-seller–because of the style, not the content–but it is hardly the definitive work on the subject, so why obsess?  It’s a mediocre novel.  Move on.  (I wrote about American Dirt here.)

So what did I read this weekend?  Something great, you’ll be happy to know.  A few years ago I stumbled upon Lynne Reid Banks’s 1960 classic, The L-Shaped Room, a feminist novel about a former actress who gets pregnant in her late twenties and moves into a rooming house.  (The stigma of unwed pregnancy used to be great.)  I’ve been looking for her other books ever since.

And now Sapere Books has reissued her 1986 novel, The Warning Bell, which, I assure you, is just as good, and treats similar issues.  It is one of those novels that straddle the line between literary and pop fiction.  It takes a few chapters to get into it, but then I found it unputdownable. 

The heroine, Maggie, feels guilty much of the time.  Raised in Scotland by a strict father and a gentle, fearful mother, Maggie feels split: at home she is Margaret Robertson, her parents’ dull daughter, and outside she is bright Maggie, who takes chances.  Encouraged by an impulsive English teacher, Maggie takes a big chance.  She accepts her father’s money, pretending to take a domestic science course in London for two years, while she is actually going to drama school.

Being an actress, of course, is not easy.  And Maggie frequently hears the voice of her alter-ego Margaret telling her to slow down and be sensible.  She gets some good roles in a repertory company, but cannot find work in London.  If not for her flamboyant friend, Tanya, a more talented actress, she feels she would have gone crazy. But the two argue and split up when pregnant Maggie decides to marry the man who date-raped her and emigrate to Africa.

Being a woman seems to be all about splitting selves. Reid writes about the split between career and motherhood, the split between living in Britain and Africa.  The section in Africa reminds me of Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage–what happens when you live in a provincial town and you fail as a mother, or feel that you fail?  After her husband leaves her, Maggie and her son Matt return to London, where Maggie makes some difficult decisions about careers and motherhoos, some of which she regrets. 

As Maggie’s mother says to her, “You know, Maggie, the vainest and most futile mental exercise in the world is tracing back some accident or blunder to its origins, and letting one’s heart gnaw itself in regret that one didn’t know what was going to result….  One’s whole life can turn on some tiny thing.  It’s not fair.  there ought to be a bell, a warning bell, sounding at dangerous corners.  But there never, never is.”

So true–and we do love Maggie’s mother.

Are Fiction Readers More Empathic?

I recently read Mark Athitakis’s fascinating essay in The Washington Post,“Reading Will Supposedly Make You a Better Person.”  The twist is that Athitakis is skeptical of studies that say fiction readers have more empathy than other people.

In my gut, I agree with these studies.  I’ve thought all my life that fiction makes one a better person.   Raised on Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (her best book), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess,  Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I am intensely aware that literature shaped my values and moral philosophy.  And yet modern readers who love the new movie Little Women complain that Louisa May Alcott’s book is “moralistic.” There’s a difference between “moral philosophy” and “moralistic.”  It doesn’t take away from the novel–and I doubt they’ve read the book.

Throughout my adult life, classics have expanded my world and radicalized me.  Among them are  Frank Herbert’s environmental classic Dune,  Charlotte Bronte’s feminist novel Villette, and Doris Lessing’s bildungsroman, the Children of Violence series.

Athitakis is cynical, but he makes some good points.

… I’m irked by how readily news of these studies goes viral, the way that they’re so often taken as opportunities to run a victory lap for one’s own good habits. These studies always seem to unleash approving noises of self-congratulatory self-regard — ironically betraying a narcissism that seems to counter the argument all these studies are making….

He adds that he believe these studies are missing the point. 

Fiction’s strength, though, is that it delivers not order and clear direction, but mess and evocations of our unsteady state of being. I’m uncertain what wisdom I can take from the March family, Anna Karenina or Karl Ove Knausgaard that I can apply to my daily life. Nor do I wish to read so programmatically.

It’s an odd thing about empathy:  so few people have it.  We live in an age of hatred, climate disaster, political instability, fake news and electronic domination.  Other ages, of course, have also been bad.  Two world wars in the twentieth century, and God knows how many others. 

So what creates empathy?  Is it a natural human quality? Can experience strengthen or destroy it?  

Perhaps reading fiction strengthens empathy.  I do find that novels, even mediocre novels, can help you understand the character of different times, as well as human characters.

For instance, Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions, a fast-paced novel about Second Wave feminism, helped me understand the idealism and also the slightly crazy extremism that empowered women in the ’60s and ’70s. Marge Piercy’s beautifully-written Vida, a novel about a radical who has to go underground, answered my questions about forgotten groups like the SLA.  More recently, Susan Rebecca White’s We Are All Good People Here  illuminates the ’60s and the effect of radicalism on people’s lives.

Readers of fiction may be more empathic than other people, but I doubt that fiction writers are particularly empathetic.  (Sorry, writers!)   There is the cold-blooded competitiveness, the willingness to trawl and distort friends’ lives (I’m thinking of autofiction, though it fascinates me), or even the plagiarism that apparently goes on in creative writing programs (that’s hearsay, by the way).  I have met some charming  fiction writers, and other extremely difficult writers.  Somehow the word “empathic” doesn’t come to mind.

Are poets kinder? They are a different breed for sure.

As for nonfiction readers, they, too, feel superior, because they are reading the “facts,” or so they pitiably think.  Fiction or nonfiction, it’s best to read critically.  But we in the land of fiction imagine ourselves in another world, where we understand people as we can’t in our troubled society.

A Sweet & Whimsical Novel:  “The Once and Future King”

When I was a student, discovering world literature, I neglected my work to read books not on any syllabus.  I skipped “Rocks for Jocks” (geology) to peruse Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson (out-of- print then, but at the library), Trollope, Thomas Mann, Ovid, and, bizarrely, Le Morte d’Arthur.   I read widely…and decided eventually what to study.

During my down time, I read one of the sweetest, most whimsical of novels,  T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This luminous retelling of the King Arthur legend is unlike any other, and there are many.  It has the charm of a  buoyant fantasy,  tied together with world history, philosophy, chivalry, and Arthur’s creation of the Round Table to do away with hierarchy.  White also explores the tragedy of broken ideals.

What if it’s passé, I wondered when I decided to reread it. But never fear:  it is brilliant from beginning to end, and has much to say about the present as well as the past. The narrative seems both faraway and yet contemporary.  Yes, we are lucky to have narrative of friendship, idealism, and loss, interwoven with White’s sadness, loneliness, and experience of war.

The Once and Future King, published in 1958, was hugely popular, partly because of the 1960 Broadway musical,  Camelot, based on White’s book. In 1967 the movie version, with Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere, was released.  The film is a bit long, but the soundtrack is wonderful and the actors are splendid.  

Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave in “Camelot”

The novel is divided into four parts.  The first part, The Sword in the Stone, which was adapted as a Disney movie in the ’60s, tells the story of Arthur’s coming-of-age.  As a child he is known as the Wart, a nickname for Arthur. He lives a life devoted to sports, falconry, and learning to joust with brawny Kay, the son of Sir Ector, Wart’s guardian.  Merlyn, the magician who becomes their tutor, lives backwards in time, and can’t always remember where and when he is. In a humorous early scene, when Arthur first comes across Merlyn in the woods,  Merlyn fumes about having to draw water from a well with a crank and bucket.  “‘By this and that,’ added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, ‘why can’t they get us the electric light and company’s water?'”

“The Sword in the Stone” (movie)

Merlyn teaches Wart, a very ordinary boy, to think outside the limits of his time.  And he teaches him natural history by turning him into a fish, an ant, an owl, and a falcon, and more–charming fantastic scenes.  Later, Wart, a squire to Kay, now a knight, pulls a magical sword from a stone to replace the sword Kay lost.  Only the king of England can  pull the sword from the stone, though Wart hadn’t the faintest idea that this was that sword.  And now he is King Arthur.

The second book, “The Queen of Light and Darkness,” is much darker, though still whimsical.  We meet the witch, Queen Morgause of Orkney, and her four sons, Gawaine, etc., who kill a unicorn in a desperate bid for her love, and grow up to be hothead knights who cause a lot of trouble to Arthur.  Meanwhile, the thoroughly evil, powerful Morgause seduces Arthur, who does not realize she is his half-sister (Merlyn never told him his mother’s identity).  Their illegitimate child, Mordred,  is Arthur’s great sin and downfall.  

But there are many inspiring, joyful things in his life as a young king.  Arthur loves jousting and swordplay.  But Merlyn says that is not enough.  Arthur develops the Round Table of Knights, after  musing on Merlyn’s advice that might is not right.   Merlyn also lectures him on a powerful tyrant in the future (Hitler) who used might and almost destroyed the world.  Might is not right, and right cannot be achieved by it.

In Part Three, “The Ill-Made Knight,” White spins the tale of Lancelot, aFrench boy who wants to be the best knight in the world after falling in love with Arthur at court.  He spends all his time lifting weights and doing exercises.  He is also a sado-masochist. And when he finally grows up and comes to Camelot, he becomes the best knight of the Round Table, but unfortunately falls in love with Guenever.  Both are much younger than Arthur, and simply adore each other on sight.  But one wonders if Lancelot is really homosexual, and if the love for Gueever is displacement. But that’s old-fashioned psychology, probably not right.

There are quests.  So many quests.  So many knights. The Holy Grail.  But White keeps it light.  There is King Pellinore, who spends his life in the forest seeking the questing-beast, which in one very silly scene falls in love with two knights wearing the costume of a questing-beast.

The last book, “The Candle in the Wind,” has unbearable moments.  And yet I love the description of lifelong love, from youth to old age, from beauty to gray hair and old bones, illicitly experienced by Guenever and Lancelot, and to a certain extent shared with Arthur, who loves them both. White wistfully writes that this kind of  love has been ruined in the 20th century, by divorce and psychiatry.  No one anymore wants to be in love with someone for life, he says.

And here’s a clip from Camelot, with Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris singing “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”

A Delightful Middlebrow Novel:  Doris Langley Moore’s “Not at Home”

Doris Langley Moore

Doris Langley Moore’s books have long been out-of-print.  One wonders why:  she was a fascinating writer and even founded a fashion museum.   She was a fashion historian, a collector of costumes, a Lord Byron scholar, and a translator of ancient Greek poetry.  

She also wrote very good novels.

Her charming 1948 novel, Not at Home, has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow.  It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot.  And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life.

 The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems.  And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way.

Miss MacFarren is a complicated, independent heroine who has never had to cope with a roommate, let alone a tenant.  Although  Bankes obsequiously admires Miss MacFarren’s rare botanical prints and valuable mint-condition collectibles,  she does not take care of them.  She has wild parties, breaks valuables, hides the broken pieces in the trash, burns a beautiful satinwood table with a hot iron–and poor Miss MacFarren can neither sleep nor concentrate because of the noise.  

Moore writes of Mrs. Bankes,

For instance, when she spilt a bottle of ink on the hall carpet, she first tried to conceal the accident by placing a rug over the stain, then when it was inevitably discovered, mentioned with perfect insouciance that she was sending a message to a ‘little man’, highly recommended by a friend, who specialized in removing inkstains from carpets. No such person having turned up, Miss MacFarren asked some days later whether he was to be expected; Mrs. Bankes looked blank for a moment, and, as unconvincingly as a child whose face is sticky with the jam it denies having touched, answered that her letter must have been lost in the post. After a further delay, Miss MacFarren enquired for the carpet-cleaner’s address, so that she might save trouble by getting in touch with him herself, and the reply was so palpably evasive as to leave no room for doubt that he had been a fiction.

Moore has the psychology just right:  Miss MacFarren has such good manners that she cannot evict the horrible Mrs. Bankes outright. And Mrs. Bankes acts charming and slightly befuddled, so she always gets her way (especially with her absent husband, when he occasionally pops into London for a week).  Miss MacFarren is reluctant to confront Mrs. Bankes in front of her friends, who are always there.  Mrs. MacFarren doesn’t care to be alone.  And Miss MacFarren has a hard time believing that anyone can be as shallow as Mrs. Bankes.

Her first impression of Mrs. Bankes’s friends was that they bore as close a resemblance to one another as the chorus of a musical comedy. They were all fashionably dressed, alternately flippant and gushing in manner, and ‘rushed off their feet’, ‘in a tearing hurry’, and ‘frantically busy’ doing nothing, apparently, but meeting one another for purposes of amusement.  

Fortunately, Miss MacFarren’s nephew, Mory, a movie director, and his friend, a young actress, appreciate her. She has heard Mrs. Bankes and her friends joke about her, and has cried over it.  Such a pleasure to get out of party house and hear who you are in the real world once again.

 It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of classics and literary fiction, or a defiant reader of pop fiction.  This is definitely a treat, well-written, intelligent, and fun. 

The Solemn Reader: Cheating on Your Reading List

This weekend I cheated. It is a shocking event, and I regret it.   I CHEATED ON MY READING PLAN.

Those of you who rely on spreadsheets to tell you what to do will consider me weak-minded.  Those of you who are twenty-first-century bohemians will wonder why anyone would make a plan at all.  

Perhaps you’ve been there.  You have a new hardcover planner.  You LOVE making checklists.  You see nothing peculiar in deciding to read  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thackeray’s The Newcomes, and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:  A Journey through Yugoslavia in the same month.  I believed I could read all three.  Then my husband pointed out the project had 3,000 pages.

It was getting to be kind of a drag.  Three such serious books.  All great…and yet.  So serious (except for Thackeray, who has a great sense of humor).   I adore Anna Karenina (964 pages), which I’ve read many times.  All finished!  Soon, soon I will get back to the others.

At first I cheated on them with relatively short books. I didn’t care much for Jeanine Cummins’s new novel American Dirt, which was not as short as I wished (400 pages), but it was fast.  Then I galloped through Patrick Dennis’s 1962 comic novel, Genius, which was lots of fun and only  300 pages.  And now I’m planning something even shorter–a Barbara Pym. 

I must say, cheating on my plan has been a blast. But I cannot believe my hero, George Eliot, would have cheated on a READING plan.  Jane Austen, maybe.  Pamela Hansford Johnson, definitely.  She breezily read (or skimmed) five or six review copies in day and then hurriedly scribbled the reviews.  Shocking!  But she was such a good writer. 

I WILL get back on track. 

In this age we need so many checklists and plans. I’m always reading about plans and checklists.   Honestly, it starts to feel almost RIGHT-WING!  Now I’m back to my pragmatic self: reality.  God knows how many pages I have already read this month!   I will return to the  charming Thackeray (880 pages), but will postpone the Rebecca West (1,181 pages).  I have learned that I have little interest in the Balkans.  

DO YOU STICK TO YOUR READING PLANS?