In one of my notebooks, I scribble down references to Ovid I chance to find in novels. There are a surprising number of novels in which characters quote Ovid, or, conversely, in which Ovid himself appears. Two of the best are about Ovid’s exile, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and the Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World. These classics seem entirely forgotten. But my book club so far has voted me down every time I suggest them.
I have been smitten with Ovid for years. Reading his epic poem Metamorphoses, a collection of myths of transformation, was transformative. And Ovid’s Amores (love poems) might well be adapted as a Netflix film about the problems of modern couples. In one of the poems, Ovid mockingly consoles his girlfriend Corinna when her hair falls out after a bad dye job; in a diptych, he fumes and fulminates about Corinna’s abortion, which he learns about only after she almost dies.
So who is my favorite Ovidian in a novel? One of my favorite characters is Christopher Tietjens, the statistician-gentleman-soldier-linguist hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a Modernist tetralogy set in England and Europe during World War I. In the first novel, which has the unpromising title Some Do Not…, he argues with Miss Wannop, a suffragette and classicist, about the wording of some lines from Ovid’s Fasti.
Tietjens is a true gentleman, of the kind we never meet in real life. Let us say that Ovid would not have believed in him. When Miss Wannop and a suffragette friend appear on a golf course to shout their slogans and the friend falls down, Tietjens courteously helps them get away. And he and Miss Wannop (Valentine), a daughter of an old friend, turn out to have much in common. Both are bookish–well, intellectuals really–and not at all snobbish. Tietjens, a genius, unfortunately irritates many people with the breadth of his knowledge.
And so he is not at all upset when Miss Wannop turns out to know more Latin than he does. “Upon my soul!” Tietjens said to himself, “that girl… is the only intelligent living soul I’ve met for years.”
Even if you don’t know Latin, you’ll feel the sexual tension.
And I admire Miss Wannop’s stubborn bluestocking style: she does not resort to flirtatious self-denigration, which is still a problem in women’s discourse. She proves her familiarity with the vocabulary of Ovid, who really does use certain words more than others, and points out alliteration and matters of the ear.
She says, “The reason why I’m unconcerned about your rudeness about my Latin is that I know I’m a much better Latinist than you. You can’t quote a few lines of Ovid without sprinkling howlers in…. It’s vastum, not longum…. “Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit“… It’s alto, not coelo… “Uvidus ex alto desilientis…” How could Ovid have written ex coelo? The “c” after the “x” sets your teeth on edge.”
Tietjens’ world is peopled by characters who know poetry. In the second novel, No More Parades, Tietjens is an officer in the army, but even when he has just been splattered by the blood of a man blown up by a bomb, he finds an opportunity to write a sonnet. While scribbling some paper work for men who are about to go to the front, he declares he will write a sonnet in under two and a half minutes if Captain Mackenzie provides him with end rhymes. Captain Mackenzie agrees to do so, and adds, “If you do I’ll turn it into Latin hexameters in three. In under three minutes.”
Just so you’ll know Tietjens has real problems, let me tell you that his wife Sylvia, a beautiful adulterous villain, hates him so much that she slanders him and ruins his reputation. And it seems she won’t stop till she kills him. You’ll never believe what she tells the colonel.
Parade’s End is one of the best books (well, quartets) I’ve ever read.