The Distractions of Someone Else’s Marginalia

Someone else’s marginalia

This has been a challenging spring. Veering off sidewalks for social distancing, searching for masks suddenly recommended by the CDC,  and sacrificing civil liberties to stay home and stop the virus from spreading (as well as we can).

Terrified and saddened by the news, I have avoided reading even novels about the plague, with the exception of 150 pages of Connie Willis’s award-winning SF novel, Doomsday Book.  In this absorbing book, the heroine time-travels to a Plague year in the 14th century.  I may return to it later–much later.  

Reading ancient literature  is a distraction from the pandemic. I recently finished Cicero’s  First Philippic against Marcus Antonius, one of fourteen speeches against Mark Antony.  I adore  Cicero, but may I just say, I am not quite sure which side I am on here.   Antony is much sexier, at least in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which does make him more interesting, and though  Cicero is brilliant, and often endearing in his letters, he has no sex appeal, which shouldn’t matter at all.   I do imagine he would be  the kind of person you’d love to gossip with at parties.

And it doesn’t help that Cicero spends the first four pages of the speech making excuses for his  absence from the senate from June to January. (He had fled Rome.).  But he takes advantage of Antony’s rare absence from the senate to imply that Antony is not ill at all.  And, damn, he is effective!   

Here’s the thing.  The Fourteenth Philippic, which I read less summer,  is much more exciting. The First is far from his best work.   

 I was also distracted by faded penciled marginalia in this  1952 reprint of a 1926 Latin edition.  I spent a lot of time deciphering this student’s notes.

Most of his/her notes are elementary, but the handwriting is so beautiful I kept thinking it mght be useful. Well, no, but:  “Father-in-law” she scrawls, with a line pointing to the Latin word socero.  She circles last and first syllables of  words that belong together.  Above a perfect infinitive (influxisse) in the middle of a line, she wrote what looks like  “Laura.”  I decided she meant “dawned,” but it still looks like Laura

I don’t usually buy books with marginalia, but this one turned up at a sale, and I do think the introduction and commentary are brilliant.  In the preface, the editor J. D. Denniston expresses ambivalence about Cicero.

Some readers will think I have done less than justice to Cicero, as a man and as a statesman.  I admit that he was in many respects an attractive person, a pure liver in a licentious age, and an unusually honest provincial governor…  He has been unfortunate, not doubt, in bequeathing to posterity a correspondence which has furnished so much of the evidence against him.

I love Cicero, the most brilliant writer of his time, but he can be exasperating.  

Don’t start with the First Philippic.

Croatian Literature: Vedrana Rudan’s “Mothers and Daughters”

Family relationships are fraught as our parents age.  Relatives quarrel about eldercare:   home care, assisted living, nursing homes, and other options.

All this came back to me when I read Mothers and Daughters, a  brilliant, angry, unflinching novel by the Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan. (Will Firth is the translator.) 

Rudan interweaves vivid scenes of the narrator’s daily life with commentary on family, mother-daughter relationships, and eldercare.  The narrator, the successful owner of a shop that sells hand-carved wooden angels, wishes her mother would die.  She feels constantly guilty, though her mother is in “the best nursing home in  Croatia.”  She dreads visits to the home, an attractive building located on a hummock in a park, because her mother constantly complains about pain and says she needs pain pills.  Her mother also refuses to walk to the restaurant for meals or use the bathroom (she wears expensive diapers).  The nurses assure the narrator that her mother is perfectly fine, and say  she is play-acting.  One detail particularly struck me:  her mother complains that it hurts being bathed. 

I remember my own mother refusing one day to go with the aides to be bathed.  They gently pulled her out of the chair, which appalled me, and told me she faked sickness when it was bath time.  She had always loved baths, so I found this quite disturbing. I assured her I would wait for her while she bathed. 

I was particularly struck by the narrator’s observations after her mother’s death.

I regret that I don’t know how my mom smelled, I’ve always felt guilty because I’ve looked on her as if she was your mother, not my own.I didn’t stroke her gray hair, but I should have, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t pat her white, bony shoulder, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t look into her bleary eyes, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother…How can you talk with a mother you don’t love?

 Rudan describes the unlikable narrator’s pain over her dysfunctional parents with more rage than I’ve seen in a book in a long time.  And yet we relate to her.  “When did I first think that the only good father was a dead father?”  

A brilliant, if bleak, novel about age, memory, family, and death.