Juvenal, Satire V: Don’t Have Dinner with Virro

Frontispiece from John Dryden, “The
Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis: And of Aulus Persius Flaccus”

One of the most charming ancient genres is the Roman dinner invitation poem. “You will dine well if you bring your own,” writes the poet Catullus (13), adding humorously that “his purse is full of cobwebs.” And Horace (Epistle I.5) writes, “If you don’t mind reclining on a scruffy couch and eating a dinner of cheap greens, I will wait for you at home at sunset.”

The impoverished poets love to entertain. If only all of our dinner invitations could be metrical!  How about a poem where, as a modern poet, you offer only spaghetti and charming company because your food was spoiled in the power outage?

Juvenal spins the trope differently from his predecessors.  He is cranky, mordant, and so politically incorrect you will either laugh or slam the book shut. (I advise you to avoid Satire II and Satire VI, both of which are obscene and offensive.) His good satires are great:  in Satire I, he lists a catalogue of immoral and crass practices in Rome. Then he justifies his lampoon by saying, “It is difficult not to write satire.”

He skewers everything from bad poetry to unfaithful wives to gay marriage to the impossibility of making a living in Rome (he, for one, refuses to write good reviews of bad books) to the entire female sex (I sighed, but read it) to the myth of heredity making a difference.

In Satire V, which is my favorite, Juvenal warns Trebius, an impoverished man who lives from hand to mouth, not to dine with Virro, a sadistic boor who invites his dependents if he needs an extra guest. The rich will eat game, fish, truffles, mushrooms, and fruit while the poor gnaw on hard bread and spoiled food. Even the water is different for the rich, and the poor can’t even get the slaves to pour them a glass of murky liquid.

Begging, Juvenal says, is preferable to accepting this pointless invitation.

Is there no sidewalk to beg on? No bridge or scrap of a mat too small by half? Is the insult of this dinner of such value, is your hunger so gnawing, that a man couldn’t more honorably shudder at and eat filthy dog food?

Virro’s dinner party is the reverse of the nouveau riche Trimalchio’s feast  (Petronius’s Satyricon): instead of the guests enjoying the most extravagant entertainment, watching in horror the host shit in a gold chamber pot, and dining on dishes almost too fantastic for a modern chef to imagine, Virro and the rich enjoy watching the  poor starve while they scarf down so much food it upsets their stomachs.

The translations from the Latin are my own. Here are the Latin lines from Juvenal.

nulla crepido uacat? nusquam pons et tegetis pars
dimidia breuior? tantine iniuria cenae,
tam ieiuna fames, cum possit honestius illic               10
et tremere et sordes farris mordere canini?

And you can read my post on Horace’s poem here

What Is a Derecho? Tales of a Power Outage


We were reading our books when the derecho (a word I’d never heard) hit. First, the sirens went off. “Is that a tornado?” Then the sky turned low and pitch-black.  Later, we heard that 100-MPH winds had ripped across the sky.

“What IS that?”  I asked, looking out the window.  On TV, the meteorologist assured us this storm with high winds was not a tornado. He seemed quite cheerful and fascinated by it.  Then his image flickered on the screen and the power went out.

Trees down (one blocked our street), branches down, wires down, some roofs blown off. Interstates closed, semi-trucks toppled by winds on the highway. On the second day of the power outage, 800,000 midwesterners were still without power.

Every time there is a  power outage, almost every comfort disappears.   How can we take things for granted, I mused, as I tried to read my book in inadequate light.

The radio newscaster said the power would be back by 1 p.m. We waited…waited…waited…. Nope.  Tea time (sun tea). Dinner hour (sandwiches thrown together in a dim kitchen). Sunset (sat in the back yard and laughingly outlined a movie script that was half Serpico, half Community) .

dercho why-grain-bins-were-so-heavily-damaged-by-the-derecho

We hoped the power would return in the night.  No luck.  The next day we were still living like pioneers.  I have never enjoyed Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, or any other book about robust prairie-related survival.  I’m quite sure I would have flunked as a pioneer and hied it back to the city.

lantern aldrichhardvoverI actually felt mellower on the second day without power, beccause my expectations were lowered.  I rambled around the house in a long Miss Havisham-style sleeveless t-shirt nightgown made in China of some mysterious substance that is certainly not organic. Who can be picky when the fans don’t work?

Hurray, we got our power back this morning at 5:00. Oh. thank God! I’ve never been as courageous as Abbie in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, though I love the book! And as for surviving without fans and AC…


A Neglected Writer’s Masterpiece: “The House on Coliseum Street” by Shirley Ann Grau

The  neglected Southern writer Shirley Ann Grau died on August 3, at the age of 91.  She is best-known for The Keepers of the House, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965.

Her earlier novel The House on Coliseum Street (1961), set in New Orleans, is also a masterpiece. Secrets permeate the house, which is inhabited by a family of women:   20-year-old Joan Mitchell, her three half-sisters,  and her mother Aurelie Caillet, who has been married five times.  Aurelie’s current husband also lives there–until he is carted off to a mental hospital.

It is  also an astonishing Southern novel about abortion.   The heroine, Joan, numbed by the secrecy, goes mad in the style of  the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle Is.  She doesn’t go quite as far as Jackson’s Cordelia, but she goes pretty far.

As the novel opens,  Joan is waiting for her mother to pick her up after the abortion. She has been banished to her great-aunt’s house on the Gulf coast, so no one in New Orleans will know.  Abortion is so taboo among upper-class Southerners that her great-aunt insists that Joan go to a dance the night before the procedure so one will suspect.  Joan does what she is told, but still fantasizes about Michael, a handsome professor who dated Joan’s younger sister and then asked Joan out on a whim.  He got her pregnant.

Terrible as the situation is, Joan does not want to return to the house on Coliseum Street. Built by her great-great-great grandfather, it no longer feels like home. Funds for the house are paid according to her father’s will, on the condition that a particularly hideous fountain he designed remain in the front yard.

In her altered state after the abortion, Joan felt the house wasn’t real, wasn’t there at all.  The secrecy has unhinged her.  And, typically, her mother denies it by arriving at the great-aunt’s with Joan’s sometimes boyfriend, who knows nothing about the abortion or even her date with Michael.

When Joan returns home, she reads.  She takes college courses to get out of the house, and chooses her classes at random.  (She does not even know her schedule.)  She works in the library, in a kind of attic where she is supposed to fill orders for books that are rarely requested.  And she becomes obsessed with Michael, who obviously has no interest in her.  she thinks the abortion has made her repulsive.

It takes so long to grow back, she thought; I didn’t know they were going to have to shave there.  But I didn’t know anything about it.  And anyway, as soon as the hair grows back, there won’t be a mark to show that it ever happened.  Not a mark.  And nobody will know.

Completely solitary, speaking to almost no one, she is miserable. She had fancied herself a mother–the pregnancy might have filled her emptiness.  She was so passive that she allowed her mother to make the decision on the abortion.

No wonder she is angry–and more than a little crazy.  She stalks Michael and his young girlfriend.  And…

I love the heat, humidity, and Gothicism of Southern literature.

The House on Coliseum Street is in print by Louisiana State Press and as an e-book by Open Road Media.

The Practice of Agoraphobia: Social Distancing’s Older Sister

Agoraphobia Congress

I have bought several books lately, as a homage to our summer non-vacation life-style.   Yes, we could take a vacation, but is it socially responsible?  Fling off your mask in the living room and read a good book instead. Here is what we need:  a dose of agoraphobia to help us stay home.  Is agoraphobia the older sister of social distancing?

And that brings me, not completely off-topic, to  an agoraphobic friend who died in her forties.  (One reason Google sucks:  when you look up your friends, you have the misfortune to discover they have died. The obituary  said, “She was survived by her cat, Natasha.”)

Oh no, no, no, no. That is so sad. She wanted a husband (or live-in lover, which we thought more romantic) and a family.  Well, I’m a cat lady too, with an indulgent husband.

What do you do when a friend disappears?  We were still in school when she moved away.  We wrote letters for a few years, then lost touch.  She wrote amusing, witty missives, but went off on tangents about how she had lost a lot of weight and been voted Homecoming Queen.

I knew the latter was a fantasy, so I ignored it. She was overweight, but everyone liked her, and no one cared about her weight.  And yet her fantasy reminded me of a very sad short story by Jean Stafford, “The Echo and the Nemesis.”  It dwells on a fat young woman’s fantasies and self-hatred.

At Heidelberg University, a highly intelligent, obese young woman, Ramona Dunn, globs onto a slender fellow American student, diffident Sue Ledbetter. Ramona invites Sue to her room for huge servings of cake and cookies.  While eating, Ramona talks constantly about the accomplishments of her family, especially her slim, charming, talented twin sister, Martha. And then at the end of the story, Sue realizes that there is no twin sister–that the girl in the photo of Martha is Ramona when she was slim.  Ironcially, as we get older and fatter, people turn this premise upside down and think the slim woman in our old photos IS our twin sister!

When my friend visited, she was still fat, not the Homecoming queen–so much better than that kind of person!–and still the same warm, witty friend. But there was something new: she was unable to leave the house. She would not even step out into the back yard.  She refused to visit old friends.  She refused to receive old friends.  She refused to attend a class I was taking from a friend of her mother.

I have known some incredibly intelligent people who have snapped or had some kind of breakdown.  If they’re lucky, they get over it. The conditions can often be controlled.  But my friend seemed different. She was not the impulsive girl at the rock concert who took LSD and had to go to the medical tent for help.  She had common sense. She took no drugs.  She was normal–but she couldn’t go outside.

And I must have disappointed her–going out the door as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Now that I’m older, I view agoraphobia as a possible survival skill.  Will agoraphobics survive while more active people become infected with the virus during the pandemic?  Perhaps every human quality is for something.  Or have I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City too many times?

Peace, hope, and stay well!

Call Him Cookie: When You Can’t Pronounce a Writer’s Name

This week, I received my second NYRB Classics Book Club selection.  The book club curator sends out a new book every month.  The subscriber does not choose the book.

I loved last month’s selection, The True History of of the first Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, by Diane Johnson, a biography of George Meredith’s first wife. (My review is here.)    I have qualms about this new book,  because it is by one of the Dreaded Soviet writers. Although I love 19th-century Russian fiction, the  prose of Soviet writers often seems turgid and clunky. They wrote under ghastly conditions, hence the uneven quality of the writing–or that’s my theory.

The August selection is Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. A Kirkus Review blurb refers to the short stories in this collection as “tales.” I do hate a tale.  Unless it’s “Gogolesque.”

We shall see if I get along with Mr. KriZZZZZZhisanosssssky. I call him Krisky. Sounds like a cookie.

I do have another book by Cookie, Memories of the Future.  I read about half of the stories.  If I want to be an NYRB groupie, I must adjust to Soviet writing,

N.B.  I did admire one Soviet novel, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, written in the late 1930s. You can read my review here.

At Proust’s Salon: The Guermantes Way

Reading Proust can be ecstatic, or it can be a slog. And so I was enchanted by the following remark about Moncrieff’s translation of Proust in a letter from  Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh. “There is not one joke in all the 16 of S. Moncrieff’s volumes. In French one laughs from the stomach, as when reading you.”

I have had a mixed experience with Proust. There is not a lot of joking in the revised translations of Moncrieff by Terence Kilmarten and D. J. Enright, as I recall.  But then humor is hard to translate.

I have had better luck with the  new-ish Penguin translations of In Search of Lost Time,   where even humor comes across.   In 2013, I finally connected with Proust through Lydia Davis’s lyrical translation of Swann’s Way, the first volume in the Penguin Classics edition of In Search of Lost Time. Davis writes beautifully and also has a sense of humor.

Now here I am, many years later–reading in a pandemic.  I recently felt the urge to read Proust after weeks of light-ish reading. And so I have spent three weeks reading Mark Trehorne’s lucid translation of The Guermantes Way, the third volume in the Penguin series.

Trehorne’s style is plain but robust.  I didn’t particularly notice the style, which is often a good thing in translation. The  narrative is surprisingly fast-paced, insofar as observations of minute details of social life and musings about culture and the arts can be said to be fast.   There isn’t much of a plot, but you don’t miss it. Instead, the novel consists of thoughtful and sometimes wickedly witty meditations and analysis of events in the unnamed narrator’s life.

As the novel opens, he is melancholy because his family has moved to a new apartment in a wing of the Hotel Guermantes  for his grandmother’s health.  He misses Combray.  But soon the narrator finds a new interest:  he develops a crush on Mme Guermantes, the duchess. When he isn’t reading, writing, or sleeping (and he sleeps badly), he thinks about her.

From the 2011 TV film of “À la recherche du temps perdu”

The narrator obsessively takes walks in the neighborhood so that he happens often to pass Mme Guermantes. She barely notices him and probably does not know who he is.  At the theater, he is enraptured when he sees her in a box with friends.  And he tries to get information about her from his  friend St. Loup, her nephew, who is not particularly impressed by his aunt.  But by the time the witty Mme Guermantes notices him and invites him to her elite salon, he no longer is interested.  That’s the way of the world!

I adored the hundreds of pages at the salons, especially the “third-rate salon” of Mme de Villeparisis, which doesn’t attract an elite clientele.  There is much humor in these scenes.  Though she is related to the Guermantes, she has fallen a few classes in the world.  Her guests include timid historians, brash novelists, and minor royalty. The intense rivalry between Mme de Villeparisis and Mme Leroi for guests at their salons reminds me of  Mapp and Lucia.

Mme de Villeparisis has the advantage over Mme Leroi of being an excellent writer, which means her salon is likely to be remembered by posterity even though the guests are less important.  Proust writes,

Her salon might be different from a truly fashionable one, which would not be frequented by many of the bourgeois ladies she entertained, and in which one would have encountered instead the sort of brilliant women that Mme Leroi had finally managed to attract, but nothing of this is perceptible in her memoirs, where certain dull acquaintances of the author’s have disappeared because there is no reason for them to be included; and the visitors who did not frequent her salon leave no gap in her work, because, in the necessarily restricted space available, there is room for only a few figures, and if they happen to be royal personages, historic personages, then the utmost impression of elegance that any memoir can present to the public has been achieved.

The writer has the last word!

A Masterpiece by a Nobel Winner: Sigrid Undset’s “Olav Audunssøn”

Sigrid Undset

The Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite novelists–to the point that I tried to teach myself Norwegian after I read  Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in medieval Norway, this fascinating trilogy focuses on the struggles of willful, beautiful Kristin, who dumps her betrothed to marry Erlend Nikulaussøn, a charming but irresponsible knight with a bad reputation, whose neglected estate she must manage, along with yearly pregnancies and one handicapped child, and the consequences of Erlend’s radical politics (he goes to prison).

I am also a fan of Undset’s Olav Audunssøn, previously translated as The Master of Hestviken, a brilliant tetralogy set in medieval times. Somehow, this classic has been forgotten, while Kristin’s fans remain manifold.  And so I was delighted to learn that the first volume, Olav Audunssøn: I Vows, will be published by The University of Minnesota Press this fall.  The award-winning translator is Tina Nunnally.

I have an advance copy, and it seems appropriate to review it during Women in Translation Month. (Mark your calendars: the publication date of Olav Audunssøn is Nov. 10.)  The graceful prose had me spellbound from the beginning to the end. Like The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s Olav Audunssøn delineates a tragic love affair.

In Olav Audunssøn, Olav and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter are betrothed when they are children by their fathers–while their fathers are drunk. Is the betrothal real, or a joke? That is the question.  After Steinfinn Toresson’s death, the couple meets opposition to their match. Because they have had sex, they believe their relationship is a legal marriage. Ingunn’s relatives want her to make a better match.  Eventually the Bishop finds  witnesses to the betrothal and declares them married.  But an act of violence during a fight ends in Olav’s killing one of Ingunn’s kinsmen, and he goes into exile.

Olav has adventures abroad, while Ingunn suffers a brutally lonely ten years taking care of her grandmother on her aunt’s isolated estate. Ingunn goes nowhere, and sees no one.  She is loyal to Olav, but as an adult she suffers from his absence and wants to be married like other women. She becomes friendly with a young scribe who runs errands for a priest. And   Undset shows us without moralizing the different standards for the sexes.

Christianity is an important factor in Undset’s work, and I am fascinated by her descriptions of the lives of the monks and well-educated priests, the feast days and the church services, and the structure Catholicism gives to people who suffer unforgettable and unforgivable sins wrought by themselves and others.

Olav Audunssøn is a masterpiece, and I hope the University of Minnesota will publish the other books soon.

Quarantining “Claudius the God”

Book quarantine at Baltimore library.

I stare at a used copy of Claudius the God. I have stared at it for 24 hours. At least it feels like it. I’m waiting for a sign.

I called my cousin the librarian. “When will it be decontaminated?”

“No one dies from reading a book,” she said.

The official library book quarantine time is 72 hours here. Then patrons pick up their library books, and the most careful may quarantine them for another 72 hours. With all that quarantining, there isn’t much time for reading, is there?  We’re scared to read our own books.

“Quarantine theory” isn’t my cousin’s department, and she doesn’t have much confidence in her colleagues’ calculations. Although the ALA (American Library Association) site provides links to scientific studies of COVID-19 at the New England Journal of Medicine and the CDC, there is remarkably little information about the virus on paper. The virus lives on cardboard for 24 hours.

So I checked WebMD. It’s where I diagnose all my illnesses (usually correctly). WebMD says of paper like newspapers and mail: “The length of time varies. Some strains of coronavirus live for only a few minutes on paper, while others live for up to 5 days.”

Not very specific, is it?

“Reading Woman on a Couch,” by Isaac Israels

I’ve dutifully stayed home, washed my hands, worn masks at stores, and now I just want to read my book.  Is this COVID-fatigue?

According to UCDavis Health, COVID fatigue is born of constant stress and anxiety. And then we get careless about the precautions.

Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. says, “We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making some people careless – one reason COVID-19 is rising sharply again in California and throughout the U.S.”…

“We can help ourselves,” Hermanson said. “We’ve heard this before, but it’s true: It’s time to develop coping skills.” Those include:

  1. Exercise: “It’s the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “Any exercise – even a simple walk – helps. It releases endorphins, gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just getting out and moving can be really helpful for people.”
  2. Talking: “This really helps, too. Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. “Find the right places and times, but do it. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s like trying to hold a beachball underwater – eventually you lose control and it pops out. You can’t control where it goes or who it hits.
  3. Constructive thinking: “We may think it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation,” she said. “We can’t change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’”
  4. Mindfulness and gratitude: “The more you do this, the easier it gets,” she said. “Try being in the moment. You’re right here, in this chair, breathing and looking around. We put ourselves through a lot of unnecessary misery projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. For now, just take life day by day.”

I’ve decided I will read Claudius the God.

I hope this is as reckless as I get.

A Giveaway! Four Austens and “Mildred Pierce”

“Antiquarian Cat Reading,” by Edward Gorey

Happy Sunday! It is time for a giveaway of four Jane Austens and a Mildred Pierce. Leave your name in a comment if you’d like any (or all).

Here’s what’s up for grabs:

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard.

Austen’s Mansfield Park (Modern Library paperback).

Mine doesn’t have the book jacket.

Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Modern Library hardback, without book jacket)

Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Signet).  This small portable edition is perfect for readers on the go!

A good reading copy that has obviously gone through the hands of a few readers.

James M.  Cain’s Mildred Pierce.  Another portable paperback for readers on the go!   I bought it used, and, alas, there is some underlining.  On the other hand, this is one of the best American novels I have ever read.   So if you don’t mind a well-read book, you’ll love the content.

I do look forward to getting these out of my house!   I can only send the books within the U.S., due to astronomical rates from the U.S. to  parts of the world.  (I don’t know what they’re thinking with those rates!)

The Politics of the Trail

I hate to see July go, though August is beautiful and slightly fallish already: I’ve seen a few crumpled brown leaves, the sumac is red, and the light is softer.

And yet I’ve been on the trail less this year than ever.

This agoraphobia must end, I decided. And so I went out on my bike with a pannier full of water bottles, banana, book, sanitizer, and wipes. Most people are slightly apprehensive, but you can’t wear a mask on a bicycle, or at least I can’t, because I need to breathe deeply. I have been known to try to hold my breath when I pass someone. Now how would that help? I do have a buff, a stretchy scarf you put around your neck and  can pull up over your face if someone looks particularly germy.  (I’m psychic!)

Most trails are wide enough that you can pass people easily, but some people hog the trail, and on one narrow section I turned around and backtracked because a group was spilling all over the place and walking toward me.

The politics of the trail!

I sat down for a snack, but the banana had popped in the pannier. I drank the  water as I read  Marie-Helene Bertino’s experimental novel, Parakeet. In the first chapter, a parakeet flaps around the narrator’s hotel room. Turns out she’s the narrator’s grandmother, trying to warn her against getting married!

Intriguing, yes? But soon it was time to go back and navigate the Covid-19 crowd.

Covid-19 is political:  we knew it, but you can see it more by the behavior on the trails.