Homework at the End of the World: Lockdown, Classics, and Snakes and Ladders

Turn on, tune in, drop out.  But we’re doing this through literature, not drugs.

It’s time to read the classics. We’ve got a lot of homework at the end of the world!  My copy of Don Quixote is on the night table, but I am also finishing up Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books, which are comic classics in their own right. 

And then there’s the Latin literature.  Much of it is comic, too.  

Why, you may wonder, would anyone want to read Roman comedy during lockdown?  Well, it’s fun for me, and it’s funny.  But I do love classics in other languages too,  and am thrilled that so many people are turning to the great books. According to essays  in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, people are reading War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Decameron.  And sales are up at Penguin, according to The Guardian.

In the fifth (or is it sixth?) week of lockdown, the number of coronavirus cases here has climbed from seven to 5,000.  All I can say is, it is terrifying, but thank God we live in a sparsely-populated state.  Every day we wake up and are glad we’re well, but at the same time,  What fresh hell is this?    

I have a bookish discovery.  LET ME RECOMMEND THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF,  Doris Langley Moore’s A Game of Snakes and Ladders, first published in 1938 and recently reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. This is one of the most charming novels I have read, and I will certainly read it again and again.  A great theater novel!

At the end of World War I, Lucy and Daisy, actresses in a theatrical company, have become casual friends:   Lucy, a  witty, charming vicar’s daughter,  got the job for Daisy, a lower-class woman stranded in Australia after a bad marriage.  When the company arrives in Egypt, the social gap between the two  widens: Daisy absorbs herself in an affair with the rich owner of the company, while Lucy desperately saves money to return to London.  Lucy loses her money, her looks, and job after a long illness, mainly because of a decision of Daisy’s.  You will love Lucy’s story–she never loses hope but is stranded for years in Egypt–and you will  admire Moore’s graceful, dazzling prose.  

This is the best of the three books I’ve read by Moore, who was a novelist, a Byron scholar, and founder of a fashion museum.

Diary of a Latinist: The Classics Bulletin Board

The first problem is, we were poor.  The second is, we were  women. The third  is, we were not the canny students who read the classics bulletin board and scribbled down information about summer scholarships at The American Academy in Rome.

Showing up for class after working the night shift: “Filled out your application?”

Stage direction:  Burst into giggles.

There was nothing on that bulletin board for my friends and me.  We could not afford Rome, even if we had won a scholarship. The irony is that the secretary might have found us other grants, since she was the only one who understood the system.  But we stared blankly at the professor who told us to check out the bulletin board.  He was well-meaning but clueless. 

It was never going to happen.

Once a member of the middle class, I’d dropped a class or two in the struggle for independence.  For a year, a toxic relative paid my tuition, grudging to the point that he did not reveal until my senior year that there was a college savings account for me. (He had spent most of it.)   And so I  worked part-time, as did most of my friends, to pay rent (for a tiny room in a house with a communal kitchen), tuition (eventually covered by loans and grants),  food (a lot of Ramen noodles), and necessities (soap, shampoo, etc.).

I was too exhausted to think about Rome.  Bizarrely, like the travel writer in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, I had little desire to travel.  I had already attended dinner parties with Catullus in my head (“You will dine well if you bring your own”) and pondered the words of  Horace (Epistle 1.11):  “…They change their sky, not their spirit, who hurry across the sea.”

 And I certainly would not have gone to Rome without my boyfriend.  Was that being a woman? No, I was in love. 

As I have said, I was not a bulletin board person.  But a wonderful small thing happened there.  A friend’s brilliant, charming parent showed up in front of the bulletin board and congratulated me on winning the Latin Prize.

I was so touched.  In the end, it’s these little moments that make it possible to pursue our dreams. Professors are distant, friends care. I fondly remember the socialists, hippies, anarchists, poets, and others I met along the way.  Just a word from the past to the future, now from the future to the past. 

Musing on the Classics & the Mystery of the Lapsed Subscription

My collection of copies of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

I love rereading the classics. Not occasionally, but constantly.  My shabby copies of nineteenth-century novels fall open to favorite scenes. What ho!  Is it War and Peace time? (That’s on New Year’s Day.)  And I am once again spellbound by the kindness and simplicity of my favorite character,  Marya Bolokonsky, when she forgives Mademoiselle Bourienne, her  shallow French companion, “with her ribbons and pretty face,” for making out with Marya’s imbecilic suitor.   

Every year I reread four of my best-loved books, War and Peace,  Daniel Deronda, Villette, and Bleak House.  They are brilliant, witty, intense,  and gorgeously-written.   These are the most perfect books I have ever read.

Occasionally, when I feel almost too well-acquainted with one of them,  I read another by the same author.  For example, Anna Karenina is my Tolstoy alternate.  Yet I also know this book extremely well.  Oh, yes, I love this scene, I thought, smiling, during a recent rereading of Anna Karenina.

And who could not be charmed by Levin’s comic perturbation when he is late for his wedding because of a wardrobe mix-up?  His servant forgot to provide a fresh shirt, and he can’t wear yesterday’s crumpled shirt with his new stylish waist-coat and coat.  Levin’s other shirts are packed in a trunk at his fiancee’s house.

The dialogue charms and perfectly depicts the personalities of Levin and his friend Oblonsky.

‘Was ever a man in such a terribly idiotic position?’ he demanded.

‘Yes, it is stupid,’ Oblonsky concurred with a soothing smile. ‘But don’t worry, it will be here in a minute.’

‘Oh, how can I help it?’ said Levin with suppressed fury. ‘And these idiotic open waistcoats—it’s impossible!’ He glanced at his crumpled shirt-front. ‘And suppose the things have already gone to the station!’ he exclaimed in despair. ‘

‘Then you’ll have to wear mine.’

Tolstoy weaves a web of happy and unhappy families.  The wedding of Levin and Kitty occurs in the middle of this masterpiece, which centers on three marriages, two disrupted by adultery. Anna Karenina leaves her husband Karenin for Vronsky, and virtually ruins Karenin’s career as well as her reputation;  her brother Stiva Oblonsky cheats on his wife Dolly, but Dolly forgives him, ironically because of Anna’s intervention. (Does Tolstoy think adultery runs in families?)

Tolstoy descrbes the marriage of the innocents Levin and Kitty optimistically, though no marriage is romantic or ideal.   

Tolstoy’s books are nimble, well-plotted, fast-paced, vibrant, and the characters jump off the page.  As for translations, my favorite is the Maude.

THE MYSTERY OF THE LAPSED SUBSCRIPTION.  I do not read enough of the TLS to justify a subscription, but I enjoy the N.B. column, and you can’t go wrong with Mary Beard as classics editor. Over the years I have bought way, way too many books because of the fascinating reviews.  (That aspect of a subscripiton is not good.)

A few days ago, when I was mysteriously “shut out” of the website, I wondered, What the hell…?   So I wrote to the helpline, in India or China or wherever, and was told that my subscription was canceled last March.  I know I resubscribed later;  how otherwise could I have accessed all the articles until this January?  But they say they have no record…

I’ll resubscribe after I’ve read all the books I’ve bought!

The Future of Education: Why Is It Trendy to Trash the Classics?

Although I am trying to be peaceful and positive— avoiding the crowd, steering clear of argument, making chitchat for the greater good, bicycling to save a devastated planet—I have decided to respond to an irresponsible, depressing article published at the Millennial blog, Book Riot“When You Hate the Classics, But You’re an English Teacher.” 

First, let me say I have known many splendid, well-read English teachers.  And yet I have been appalled by others who have not cracked a classic since college.

The writer Lily Dunn may well be of the latter persuasion.  She begins, “Hello, my name is Lily and I hate the Classics. Also, I am an English teacher.”

She writes,

I know what you’re thinking.…but wouldn’t it be more hypocritical if I made my students read books I pretended to love while secretly wishing I could bring the dead author back to life just to tell him (it’s usually a him) how overrated he is? 

Indeed, Dunn is an equal-opportunity enemy of the classics: she spares neither sex in her ravings.  She despises Hawthorne’s The  Scarlet Letter, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Melville’s Moby Dick,  Mark Twain (she finds the dialect too challenging), Joyce’s Ulysses, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  

One does wonder if she has finished  any of these books.  She writes of her loathing of Thomas Hardy, “I can’t expect a 17th century author to be all woke.”  Can’t you imagine her professor writing gently in the margin, “Victorian”? 

I am sure Book Riot has some talented, bright contributors who could have written a thoughtful essay about the classics.

When you click on Dunn’s bio, you will discover that she is not a high school English literature teacher, as she implies, but a literacy teacher in Hong Kong.   

Whew!

The Class in Classics

Class is fluid when you are in classics. You can rise a class or two in the world.  Without classics, I might have puttered around for years as an office clerk or at a library circulation desk (and the latter would have been a long shot). But when you are young, have a degree in classics, and invest your life savings in preppy clothes, you can get any job. Yes, you’ll have to move to Maine or Texas, but at least you’ll work.

I fell out of the middle class for a time.  Can that really happen?  When my parents got divorced, my dad got custody, and then got bored and left me to live on my own. A lesbian teacher on the prowl picked me up (I was her second high school student) and installed me in her house for a year and a half. I wonder, what class was I then? Meretrix (a prostitute)? Serva (a slave)? Later, I knew another classics student who’d been prey to whoever came along, and had a reputation as a meretrix, poor girl. She’d had sex with the sex education teacher.

Classics brought us back into the middle class.  We both found good, if not lucrative, jobs.

Classics— derived from the Latin noun classis,  meaning “a  class or division of the people (according to property),” and classicus,  an adjective meaning “of or belonging to the highest class.”

Language enthusiasts love Greek and Latin. Some enjoy the puzzle of the grammar and syntax, others the elaborate figures of speech and meters, still others the history or the philosophy.

I was always a serious reader.  I’d devoured Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Trollope on my own. I was a Victorian, or might as well have been. But unlike John Stuart Mill, who started learning Greek when he was three,  I took it up in college.  It all started when I decided Homer was ridiculous in translation. Before I knew it I was studying Greek and Latin, and reading Homer and Virgil in the original. I was an epic freak!

It wasn’t just the literature I loved, it was the all-absorbing process of translation. It required so much equipment!  I hustled into the library and spread out my Greek and Latin books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, notebooks, and flashcards.

The Greeks and Romans are with me for better or worse, through sickness and health. In the hospital, I have recited lines of Latin poetry feverishly. Once a doctor decided I was well enough to go home when he discovered me reading Lucretius in my room.  Nowadays I snuggle up on the couch with classics and a dictionary.  I’ve read classics so long I no longer need an entire table!  There’s less “equipment.”

The ancient languages are no longer spoken; you study them to read the literature. And since you are reading poetry, plays, philosophy, oratory, history, and more, the vocabulary is different for each genre. Even if the words overlap, they mean something different. That’s why you need a dictionary.   For instance, the Latin word classis, which can mean “class,” also means “fleet (of ships).”You cannot read Virgil or Livy without encountering a  classis, a fleet of ships.

Excuse me while I go read Sappho and Catullus.  (Sappho influenced Catullus, and he translated one of her poems.”

Later!