Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about the non-linear nature of time. He meditated on this in his superb novels Slaughterhouse Five and Timequake. But Kurt, like the time-traveling hero of Slaughterhouse Five, couldn’t escape World War II. Both were imprisoned by the Germans in Dresden during the fire-bombing in 1945.
When we look back from this threatening spring, what will we remember? Many of us will recall a more distant past. A childhood spent running freely around a green neighborhood? Bicycling to the quarry for a picnic and an illicit swim? Reading Greek poetry in a studio apartment while waiting for my boyfriend? There was reading, there was bicycling, there was marriage, there were movies (sitting through the credits–how pompous!), jobs good and bad, yearning humanly for something–always.
This spring of 2020 is indecipherable, a change from what I can only call the liberal arts life. In these weeks of the pandemic, probably months, possibly a year, we are alternately calm and fearful. We stay home sensibly and revert to the quiet life, but the news is agonizing (so avoid it). Of course there is a new lightness as we walk through clean air during a beautiful spring, a Climate Change spring–but soothing nonetheless.
Paper, notebooks, books, letters, bills, junk mail, Christmas cards: paper marked our days in the 20th century. We loved the mail, if we had no responsibility to pay the bills. “Get the mail, please,” my mother said, and sighed because there was”nothing good.” Sometimes she worried about the bills, even lacked money for the grocery store. So, already anxious at age 9, I wrote an altruistic little “book” for her (we shall call it “Pennies from Heaven”). The characters found pennies around the house for their mom. I adorably pasted actual coins in my illustrations in the book. I was sure it would be enough to buy groceries.
But cards were our favorite thing. Holiday cards! My mother also taught me to write Thank You notes. How I loved the little cards! I don’t know if anyone writes them anymore. And then I wrote to my pen-pal, Pam from Australia, whose letters were curiously disappointing. My later correspondence with friends in adulthood was much more satisfying–in fact, delightful, But a few years ago, I threw out a whole drawer of letters.
I have always been fond of letters in literature–Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, the Mitford sisters-but I especially enjoy letters written in ancient times. There is a whole genre of invitations written in the form of poems. Most famous is Catullus’s simple poem (Catullus 13), which you may know. It begins with the line, “You will dine well if you bring your own.” ( I thought I wrote a translation of the poem at one of my blogs, but can’t find it.)
Horace’s dinner invitation to his friend Torquatus (Epistle I.5) is longer, more complex, and sometimes philosophical. Here are the comic opening lines:
“If you are don’t mind reclining on a scruffy couch/ and eating a dinner of herbs in a cheap dish/ I will await you at home, Torquatus, today at sunset./ You will drink unremarkable wine, which was bottled six years ago / in Petrinum between marshy Minturnae and Sassinium./ If you have something better, send for it or submit to my orders./The hearth shines brightly for you and the humble seats are spic-and-span.”
What could be better than cheap wine and greens! This is my prose translation “version,” with a few slight changes to make it readable.
I think we’ll have greens for dinner tonight…
I hope you’ll have a great social-distancing dinner of wine and greens yourself!
5 thoughts on “On Paper: Cards, Letters,& Horace’s Invitation to a Dinner Party”
Nothing could be finer than the humble social offerings of self-effacing ancient poets!
If only we could be there for the greens and wine!
My sister and I were taught to write thank you notes and we still write them. Her daughters have taught their children to do the same. I love buying thank you notes, too.
The mail isn’t as exciting as it once was. Everyone sends e-mail. I don’t look forward to most of them as I did ‘real’ mail. After I left home at 20, my mother and I wrote to each other every week. She was a great letter writer, always interesting. She would often enclose items from the local paper about people I knew or swatches of fabric for things she was sewing. I have many of her letters and she saved many of mine. I’m so glad I have this history of our lives.
I am so glad to hear the tradtion goes on! And it’s lovely to have the letters from your mother. It’s not often that correspondence is kept on both side. I need some cards to inspire me to write letters. Maybe at the grocery store…
“(sitting through the credits–how pompous!”
If you saw Les Triplettes de Belville and left before the end of the credits you missed one of the best jokes!
We went to it because of the bicycles! I loved it, but alas cannot remember the credits. I’m sure I sat through them, though. :). It is my way.