The Real Pliny: Critical Distortion

I love dilettantes.  I am not stuffy.   In theory, I love the idea of gentlemen and gentlewomen picking up their fountain pens to scrawl book reviews.  

And I don’t expect critics to be infallible.

Still, there are limits.  My heart sank while reading two reviews of Daisy Dunn’s literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny, the first by Charles McGrath in The New York Times, the second by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. 

Mind you, they enjoyed Dunn’s biography, as did I. The Shadow of Vesuvius is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.  (You can read my review  here.)  I have read Pliny’s letters many times in Latin, and Dunn’s book is charming.  But McGrath and Acocella, who are dilettantes rather than classicists, didn’t quite have the background.

Before I go on, let me tell you there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History); and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of elegant literary letters, which are still popular today.  Pliny the Younger–known simply as Pliny–is the subject of the biography. He chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, his interest in poetry and Stoic philosophy, and included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Disconcertingly, the brilliant Joan Acocella and the witty Charles McGrath assert that Pliny the Elder was the more interesting writer of the two .  I realize they read the Plinys in English translation rather than Latin,  but where on earth does this come from?  It has the ring of a footnote by a Victorian classicist.  (Possibly Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch.)

As my husband said,  “Who the hell reads Pliny the Elder?”  (We are both Latinists.)  Pliny the Elder was a crank, a bore, a prig, and a fount of arcame misinformation, much admired by  monks and scholars in the Middle Ages.  A few  scholars  enjoy his quaint encylopedia, but it is not must-reading.    A writer for the Oxford Classical Dictionary gently praises Pliny the Elder and the context of his findings, but he states that the Elder “valued quantity over quality.”

Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, entertains us with a vivid account of her tourism in Italy, and records her impressions of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Pliny wrote two letters to Tacitus about his family’s experience.  His uncle decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain. (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends, while   Pliny and his mother survived after a harrowing flight from their home through a panicky crowd in ashy darkness. When it became light again, the ground was pillowed with ashes.

Acocella writes,

Of the two Plinys, Dunn focusses on the younger. Clearly, she would rather have done otherwise. The Elder was more famous, rightfully so. As his nephew said, the older man did things that deserved to be written about and wrote things that deserved to be read. His “Natural History”—Penguin Classics has a good abridged translation by John F. Healy—is not merely huge but piquant and readable.

.Unfortunately I cannot agree.  Actually, I know no who who would agree.

Charles McGrath takes a slightly different slant.  He humorously apologizes for ignorance in the first paragraph, while smugly trying to establish his credentials– unsuccessfully.. He  writes,

If only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano?

The focus of Dunn’s book is Pliny (the real Pliny!), but you’d never know it to read these two reviews.  

Fortunately, Steve Donoghue in the Christian Science Monitor “got” it. 

As his delightfully involving letters make clear, the nephew was made of far more mortal stuff, fond of good food and comfortable living, very intelligent but given to obsequiousness. In particular his letters to Trajan show a winningly human combination of fussy officiousness and genuine public service, and Dunn is right to note that although the emperor’s secretaries doubtless wrote many of his responses, some of those responses came from the emperor himself and  “resound with the voice of authority.

Sometimes you have to leave  New York  to find an enlightened review.

A Rerun from the Past: My Grandmother’s Tea Set & “I Capture the Castle”

My grandmother’s tea set and my old copy of “I Capture the Castle.”

This is a rerun of a post from a VERY old blog (now defunct) I wrote in 2012.

September 24, 2012

I am having a very English experience today.

Yes, I am rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and drinking tea out of my grandmother’s tea set.  My idea of England is to drink tea and read mid-twentieth-century English novels.  Apparently my fantasy is not quite accurate.

In case you’re not sure whether tea is ever mentioned in Dodie Smith’s charming, humorous 1947 classic novel, I Capture the Castle, let me tell you it is.  In the first chapter, Cassandra is very excited when Topaz boils some eggs:  she hadn’t known the hens had laid any eggs, and had expected bread and margarine.  Cassandra writes in her diary:  “How odd it is to remember that ‘tea’ once meant afternoon tea to us–little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room.  Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.  We have it after Thomas gets back from school.”

I reread I Capture the Castle every year and never am bored by it.  Usually I read it on Midsummer Night’s Eve, because there is a very funny scene in which Cassandra celebrates with a bonfire and some witchery. But this year I’m reading it two days after the Fall Equinox–do you think that counts?  Should I have a bonfire and witchery?

The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old aspiring writer, “captures” her life in a journal:  she and her family live in a mouldering castle, which her father, James, bought with the money from his  Joycean experimental novel.  But he has inexplicably stopped writing, sits in the gatehouse all day reading mysteries, and thus the Mortmains have no income.  In an amusing scene early in the book, the librarian, Miss Marcie, tries to help them figure out their earning power, and they are an unpromising lot:  Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model who loves to commune with nature in the nude; Cassandra’s beautiful 21-year-old sister, Rose, wants to marry but knows no men; and their younger brother Thomas is normal but still at school.  Only their servant, Stephen, has real earning power:  he can do manual labor.

Fortunately their interactions with  new American neighbors provide both free food and romance.  I am very happy to read Cassandra’s offbeat ruminations on her family, but I knew I needed tea and homemade muffins to make the experience perfect.

So what’s the story on the tea?

The Bavarian tea set in the photo was my grandmother’s.  Pink flower patterns aren’t really to my taste, but it was given to me because I am the only one in the family who drinks tea. I vaguely thought Grandma had bought it at Woolworth’s;  I got the Woolworth’s idea in my head because of all the stories she had told about being a farmer’s wife during the Depression and dressing my aunts in burlap feed bag dresses.

No, no, the tea set wasn’t that old!  It wasn’t a Depression tea set, my aunt said.  My uncle brought it home from Germany after the war.

Hmm, a guy’s taste:  no wonder the pink flowers.  Because we Frisbee women aren’t very flowery.  We’re practical.

Occasionally I it out and look at it, but we have broken a couple of the tea cups, so I usually leave it in the cupboard.   Today I enjoyed drinking lapsang souchang (not chosen to pair with the muffins, but because it is the only tea I had in the house) out of the delicate cup, though  I prefer drinking out of mugs, because they are durable. 

Now what’s with the muffins?  I know that’s what you really want to know.

I made them.  They’re banana muffins.  Does Cassandra eat banana muffins?  No.  I don’t believe bananas were on the menu.

But I bake what I have, and we had bananas.  These are not super coffeehouse muffins, just the kind of stuff your mom used to make.  If you use three bananas, they’re very moist, but I only had two, so, oh well.

They were good, though.

And you can get the recipe here at allrecipes.com

Nancy Hale Redux: Where the Light Falls & The Pattern of Perfection

After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in a 1930s volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  It was 2010, and  her work was out-of-print.  I loved The Prodigal Women, a complex novel about friendships gone awry which I once described as “my favorite pop wallow.”  

Although I prefer Hale’s novels to her short stories, I am thrilled that Library of America recently published Where the Light Falls, a selection of Hale’s short stories edited by Lauren Groff.

And it reminded me that in 2016 I reviewed Hale’s 1960 collection of short stories, The Pattern of Perfection, at Mirabile Dictu.  And so I’m re-posting it here.

Nancy Hale’s work is out-of-print, but she is a great American writer.

Some of her books are masterpieces.   A descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was a journalist, novelist, and memoirist. Eighty of her stories were published in The New Yorker.  I am a fan of her comical novel, Dear Beast, the story of a Southern woman who writes an anonymous novel about her small town, and her stunning memoirs, A New England Girlhood and A Life in the Studio.  

I recently read The Pattern of Perfection, a collection of 13 stories.  I have 10 sticky notes marking the pages of my copy, not for criticism but because the passages are delightful.

In my favorite story, “The King of Fancy’s Daughter,” the heroine, Isabel Congdon, takes out the trash and catches her husband in the driveway embracing the “bosomy, perfumed Mrs. Clarity, the baby sitter.”  She puts the two children in the car and drives hundreds of miles to her parents’ house.  On the way, she keeps going over and over her conversation with her husband.   When she said, “I suppose you’ve been having affairs with everyone in the neighborhood while I’ve been totally unaware of anything,” he denid it.  But he asks coldly if they always have to talk baby talk.  She is shattered, because she had felt their little family was united against the world.

Her well-bred parents behave as though there’s nothing unusual about Isabel’s visit.  They talk about their collections of antiques and books.  Mr. Hooper has begun collecting science fiction.

“Space travel,” Mr. Hooper repeated, laying down his knife with a gratified air.  “Those chaps are doing extraordinary things.  Bradbury.  Asimov. Leinster.  I’ve made rather a study of science fiction in recent months.  I fancy I own everything in the field worth reading–a very sound investment in firsts,” he added modestly.

Isabel discovers that her parents’ marriage is imperfect, too: they have separate bedrooms.  But she cannot get rid of the image of her husband and Mrs. Clarity.  Nothing is decided.

In the brilliant story, “In a Penthouse,” Bernadine has a vague undiagnosed illness that prevents her leaving their New York penthouse to follow her husband to Michigan.  The dialogue in this story is priceless.  “’Oh, hon,’ she cried.  ‘Don’t I just wish I could?  But I just don’t dare go that far.  Doctor Lewis says I should continue to play it cautious and conservative.’”  Doctor Lewis does not believe her husband loves her, but Bernadine is rightfully secure.  By the time Doctor Lewis asks her out, Bernadine has figured out she wants to fly away.

In “A Summer’s Long Dream,” Penelope and her mother and aunt spend a month in the late Miss Carrie Lennox’s summer cottage, The Ledges.  Penelope spends most of her time cooking and administering medication to the old people. At a garden party, the old people bloom, but poor Penelope becomes involved in an impossibly complicated explanation of how they come to be staying in the house when Miss Carrie Lennox is dead.

These stories are great fun, and the best are great.

A Little-Known Colette Novel and a Famous Ode of Horace

I like to read eclectically.  This weekend I read Colette’s short novel, The Other One, and Horace’s Ode I.Xl,  which urges us to live in the present and carpe diem (seize the day).  

I know perfectly well that you will all prefer reading about Colette, so I’ll start with that.  But I also tacked on my  prose translation of the ode at the bottom of the post.  

The Other One, one of Colette’s lesser-known books, is included in a 1951 omnibus, Short Novels of Colette, which has a 57-page introduction by the novelist Glenway Westcott.  Westcott’s introduction is the liveliest essay I’ve read on Colette,  just as wonderful as Judith Thurman’s biography.

Westcott declares Colette “the greatest living” French writer. (She died in 1954.)  He writes, “I know that in critical prose, as a rule, the effect of the superlative, greatest, is just emotional…. Greater than Mauriac?  Greater than Martin du Gard, Jules Romain, Montherlant, Sartre?  Yes, of course.  But I have not had the zeal to read or re-read that entire bookshelf for the present purpose; nor do I imagine that the reader wants any such thorough and fanatic work.  Let me not pretend to be able to prove anything.  Let me peaceably point to… Colette’s merits, here and there in her work.”

The heroine of The Other One is the intelligent, sensual, lazy Fanny, who has been married for 12 years to Farou, a well-known playwright.  The novel appropriately unfolds rather like a play, characterized by pitch-perfect dialogue, vivid women’s chit-chat, and reactions to a letter.  The letter triggers the subsequent events.

During the unbearable heat of a  summer in the country, Fanny spends her days reading novels, napping, and eating gooseberries.  She is teased about her overeating by her friend Jane, who helps manage the household and is Farou’s secretary.  Meanwhile, Fanny’s stepson, Jean, has spent the summer quietly stalking Jane, on whom he has a crush.

The women are waiting for a letter from Farou, who is in Paris working with the director.   Fanny reads the letter aloud and is amused by his references to an actress:  she gathers he is having an affair, one of many.  A sophisticated woman still loved by her husband, she  dismisses the dalliance as insignificant, but Jane is tense and brittle: her reaction seems over-the-top. Later, Jean confirms Fanny’s  fear that Jane and Farou have had an affair.  It is a nightmare for Fanny.

The most important aspect of a Colette novel is never the plot:  it is the lyrical style, the details of women’s lives, the little things one never knows one has noticed. It resonates when Fanny feels stung seeing Jane lounge in a chair reading a novel.  (“It’s my novel,” and she proceeds to list the other things Jane has stolen:  her husband, her stepson. etc.) In The Other One, there are also pages and pages of good-humored dialogue, delineating the women’s friendship.

This may seem a trivial situation, and Colette has written better about this elsewhere, but the emotional pain is universal. Nothing Colette writes is ever cliched. And the 1931 translation is by Viola Gerard Garvom is smooth, if not great English.

Horace, Ode I.11.  The first time I encountered the phrase carpe diem (seize the day) was in this ode by Horace.   Horace, or the persona of the poem, urges Leuconoë to stop worrying about about the future and seize the day.  I’d  remembered this poem as upbeat, and was disconcerted by the gloom.  Horace wrote several more cheerful poems about seizing the moment, but this is the first in which he uses the phrase Carpe diem.  

And here is my literal prose translation.

Do not seek–it is impious to know–what end the gods have given me, what end to you, Leuconoe.  Don’t try Babylonian astrology, either.  How much better to bear whatever will be!  Whether Jupiter allots more winters, or whether this is the last, which now weakens the Tyrrhene sea crashing against opposite cliffs, be wise, strain clear the wine, and cut back the hope of a long life in a short time span.  While we speak, envious time has fled.  Seize the day, trusting in the future as little as possible.

Weekend Reading:  “The Women in Black” by Madeleine St. John

I am enthralled by The Women in Black.

You may or may not have heard of Madeleine St. John, an Australian writer whose novel The Essence of Things was shortlisted for  the Booker Prize in 1997.  I loved it, but never heard of St. John again.

Simon & Schuster has recently reissued St. John’s charming first novel, The Women in Black.  I gobbled up this brilliant comedy about four employees in the Ladies’ Frocks Department of Goode’s, a department store in Sydney in the 1950s.  They are required to wear unattractive black uniforms. 

St. Madeleine writes:

These black frocks were worn through the week and dry-cleaned by Goode’s over the weekend ready to start another week’s work on Monday morning, and smelt peculiar. Not nasty, but different—simply the result of the smell of frequent dry-cleaning, mingled with the scent of cheap talcum powder and sweat. Every Goode’s assistant had this smell while she was wearing her black frock.

Set during the busy Christmas season, when they are run off their feet, a chain of events transforms them. First there is lonely Patty Williams, “a little, thin, straw-colored woman with a worn-out face and a stiff-looking permanent wave,” whose cruel  husband Frank  is usually drunk, criticizes her cooking, and rarely has sex with her. She buys a sexy nightgown at Goode’s (with her employee discount, of course), and accidentally entices Frank into bed. Then he disappears  She grieves, becomes angry, and finally takes charge of her life.

In contrast, Fay Baines, in her late twenties, is buxom, beautiful, and single.  At Goodes, they assume she is free and happy, and they jealously speculate about her wild life.  In reality, Fay spends a lot of time crying because she is tired of parties, and never meets men who consider marriage.   St. John explains:

The men she saw these days were a rag tag and bobtail collection of faces from her livelier past, blind dates organised by her friend Myra Parker (comrade and mentor since Fay’s nightclub days), and men whom she met at the parties to which she was taken by Myra, or by the rag tag and bobtail.

And when Fay refuses to have sex with them, they insult her and call her a bitch, which leads to more crying.

Magda, a sophisticated Slovenian immigrant who met her husband in a refugee camp, is the most generous and well-adjusted of the group.  Her colleagues are intimidated, because Magda manages the Model Gowns department, which sells one-of-a-kind designer gowns. And they are annoyed when they learn they must share the new temp with Magda: “…they were going to have Magda slithering out of her pink cave and sliding over to Ladies’ Cocktail and pinching that temp away from them…”  

The temp worker, Lesley Miles, who tells them her name is Lisa, which seems more romantic to her, is just out of school and hopes to go to the university. She reads Anna Karenina on her break.  Through Magda’s kindness, she learns about clothes and makeup and is transformed from an ugly duckling into a swan. Lisa lends Anna Karenina to Fay, who is surprised that reading novels makes the time go faster  And Magda invites Fay to a party where charming immigrants don’t stereotype her as a slut.  

Yes, it’s all about happy endings–thank God!  We all love light books, especially when they’re as well-written as this  Happy Weekend!  And enjoy The Women in Black.

Losing It!  A Bibliophile and Her Coffee

I took a brisk walk in the slush.  My motto in winter is:  Worse is on the way, so get out while you can. 

I happened, by accident, of course, with no intention of reading, skimming, buying, perusing, and did I say buying?, to walk to a bookstore.

The bookstore coffee is awful, though, so I stopped at a coffee shop.  And here’s the first sign I was losing it: I PICKED UP THE WRONG COFFEE DRINK.  

It was so bad, I almost spat it out.  Who, I wondered, would order coffee sickeningly sweetened with artificial syrup?  I drink mine black. I take it seriously.  That’s how it’s done. Halfway down the street, I threw it in the trash. 

Fortunately, the atmosphere at the bookstore made me mellow. If you’re a bibliophile, it is a bit like going to an opium den, or perhaps that’s the wrong simile, since I was in my right mind–sort of–but I’m also a biblio-addict.  The issue in a bookstore, as always, is:  Should I buy a book? Well,  I have resolved to buy no books at all in 2020.  But who takes that seriously?

My goodness, there are so many books I’d love to read.  There’s the  new Isabel Allende.  There is The Colours by Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, which I loved.  Then there is Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, the selection for a New York Times Text Book Club.  I also flipped through Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project, because the cover told me it is very light, but it looked a little, well, sentimental.  

 My husband is so enthralled by my resolution he actually thinks I’ll use the library!  But of course I did buy something.  And I was so absorbed in it on the bus that I got off at the wrong stop.

And on the long(er) walk home, I slipped on an unshoveled sidewalk, and I caught myself talking to myself.  Whining about the weather OUT LOUD in public.

Yes, I am definitely losing it.

Do You Enjoy Rereading?  And If So, What?

I am a devoted rereader.  Give me a Brontë or an Austen for the nth time and I am intoxicated.  My most extreme rereading phase was the decade when I began War and Peace every New Year’s Day and finished by the next New Year’s Eve.  

Occasionally I reread a book  I dislike.  What did I miss, I wonder, when everyone else is crazy about it?   I recently failed to finish a rereading of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, which I have been assured is a masterpiece. Beautiful prose, but perhaps better-employed in her stunning essays. 

In Play It As It Lays, the wilted heroine, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-uh),  is so limp she can barely get off the patio where she sleeps under towels.  She spends her days speeding along the freeway and having a nervous breakdown.   If she isn’t on the freeway by ten,  she loses her rhythm, she informs us.  As a non-driver, I was annoyed when she kicked off her sandals to feel her bare feet on the pedal as she zooms at 100 miles an hour.

“Just give her a ticket,” I muttered.

The novel is not Didion’s forte.

I recently reread some of Didion’s essays, and found them extremely conservative, though I’d admired them on a first reading.  Her essays on the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and Doris Lessing are so venomous they made my hair stand on end.  And I no longer consider her stylized essay, “Slouching towards Bethlehem,’ a masterpiece.  Somehow, I no longer share her point-of-view.

A rereading gone wrong.

Back to rereading:  there are avid rereaders, and other readers who fiercely disapprove of rereading.   Tom Lamont at The Observer is in my camp, though he is something of an apologist.  He says “Rereading is therapy, despite the accompanying dash of guilt, and I find it strange that not everybody does it. Why wouldn’t you go back to something good? I return to these novels for the same reason I return to beer, or blankets or best friends.” 

Peter Damien at Book Riot shares my philosophy that a reader can appreciate a book more on a second or third or whatever reading. 

I re-read endlessly, and I think of it as nothing different than reading a book for the first time. I maintain a reading journal of books I’ve read and how long it’s taken me, and there are many titles repeated throughout the journal. I don’t differentiate them. I think it’s as completely integral to the reading process as the first time through a book.”

The  Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda at The Washington Post is not a fan of rereading. The only time he rereads is when he is teaching a book or writing an introduction for a book.  He writes, I loved Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but could the analogous Chinese classic, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone, be just as good? Like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I want to run and find out.”

Tom Thurston at The Guardian believes rereading is pretentious.  In fact, he doesn’t believe people really reread. He thinks they say it to show off. 

… nothing will make you more insecure than the person who casually drops it into conversation that this summer, as well as a couple of weighty war histories, Julian Barnes’s latest and a fascinating new translation of the Qur’an, he’ll be re-reading Anna Karenina. While it doesn’t leave much time for snorkelling or hammock snoozing after a good lunch, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t choose to bury themselves under a pile of books on holiday. But there is one little verb that’s inexcusable, wherever you are, whatever you’re reading this summer. “Re-read”. Now hear this: anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim.

Wow, he is fierce!

Do you enjoy rereading?  If so, what?   If not, why not?