Too Fond of Bibliomemoirs:  “Horace and Me,” “Once Upon a Tome,” “Diary of a Bookseller,” etc.

The quote  “She is too fond of books” describes my affliction.  When I am not browsing at a bookstore, I am reading books and magazines,  trying to stuff all my library books into a Villette totebag, chatting at book group with a friend who reads historical bodice-rippers (Georgette Heyer, Diana Gabaldon), or rejecting a decorative scheme to move all my Penguins to one bookcase, alternating the black and orange indiscriminately.

My husband is an avid reader who says it is pointless to talk about books – sports is more acceptable – and yet he gives paperback dictionaries to his students and once offered a Library of America volume of Mark Twain to the plumber. I  wave all visitors to the giveaway box, where duplicate copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a paperback set of Sue Grafton’s mysteries take a rest before traveling to their destination: the library donation box.   

And I do agree that talking about books can be overdone. When I was a very young woman, I astonished a CEO, or perhaps an owner of a football team, at a party by asserting that all ancient Roman poets were winos. For some reason, I believed I was talking to an English professor. I pray that I didn’t rattle off the names of ancient wines.

Years later I read  Horace and Me, a stunning bibliomemoir by Harry Eyres, a Latinist and oenophile who is especially interested in wine in Horace’s poetry. And his translations of Horace’s odes are brilliant – the best I’ve read.

I am a great fan of bibliomemoirs, and read them almost indiscriminately. You probably have read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch and Me. But did you know there are several bibliomemoirs by booksellers? That it is, in fact, a genre?  I got hooked on Shaun Bythell’s charming series of Diary of a Bookseller books.   As  the owner of the largest used bookstore in Scotland, he meets many odd customers and is tolerant of the shortcomings of his eccentric staff.  Once, when he was away appraising the books at an estate, his staff spent the day reading old magazines and did not pack up  the Amazon books in time for the post That is what it’s like to own a used bookstore. So it goes.

Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade is my favorite of the bookshop memoirs.  Kociejowski is a poet, travel writer, former bookseller, and a historian of the moribund bookstore culture.  This is a fierce, lively, comical, and at times lyrical memoir of his decades in the antiquarian book trade.  He begins at the end of an era, i.e., the present, after his employer of 10 years,  Peter Ellis, decides to close the antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court in London and  sell books online.  (You can read the rest of my review here.)

At the moment I am  reading Oliver Darkshire’s Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller.   This crisp, witty book is a memoir of his career at Sotheran’s in Lond0n, an exclusive bookshop that specializes in rare books. This book, which grew out of a Twitter account,  ticks many boxes for me: humor, bookstore anecdotes, descriptions of mad customers, impossibly eccentric but endearing colleagues, the peculiar language of cataloguing at Sotheran’s, and (literally) poisoned books.    

The authors of these bibliomemoirs slip into the bookstore business without a plan, rather than viewing it as a career. When 20-year-old Oliver moved to London, he was desperately seeking a job, but, as he later explains, he had a bad attitude and often fell asleep at the office (undiagnosed narcolepsy).  He writes,

In a particularly dark moment, when I’d drifted into some far corner of the internet on my search, I saw an advertisement for a bookshop seeking an apprentice.  It wasn’t a particularly good advertisement.  The pay was Victorian, the expected duties nebulous, and the whole thing had an air of desperation about it.  More comfortingly, however, no prior experience was necessary…

Readers like me who don’t know much about the antiquarian book trade will be fascinated.  He writes about the  book runners, independent agents who search for valuable old books in remote districts or second=hand bookshop. Then they try to sell them for a profit at bookstores in the city.  Not everything is right for Sotehran’s.

Sotheran’s specializes in rare books, and they are quite picky about what they peddle.  The collectors want rare books, one of a kind if possible, and something as trivial as missing the second plate in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (“which should show Fanny fainting at some bad news”) can render a book worthless, though it would otherwise be worth thousands of pounds.

On one occasion they acquired a signed edition of a rare James Bond book. Unfortunately, rival booksellers spread a rumor that Fleming’s signature was forged. Sotheran’s had had it authenticated by an expert. Nevertheless, they never found a buyer.

It’s not a cozy business! A fascinating place to work, though.

Disdain for an Aging Woman: A Translation of Horace’s Ode 1.XXV

Horace is one of my favorite Latin lyric poets, and he is certainly eclectic. His oeuvre includes love poems, satires, eulogies of Augustus, mythological retellings, criticism of poetry, praise of wine, and Epicurean philosophy. His odes, epodes, satires and epistles are puzzle pieces of an alien Roman culture that blends and mirrors the influence of the Greeks.

Horace is a brilliant and charming poet, but has flaws from a modern feminist perspective.He is a misogynist, and  never more so than in hostile poems about aging women.    

I have written a prose translation of Ode I.XXV as a glimpse of Horace’s attitude toward an aging, once irresistible woman. The editor of my very old Latin edition of Horace gives Ode I.XXV an English title, “Lydia, Thy Charms Are Past.”

Here is my prose translation.

The bold young men rap less often on your shutters with repeated knocks, and they do not take away your sleep. The door that easily moved the hinges now loves the threshold, and now you hear less and less:  “While I spend long nights desperate for your love, Lydia, are you sleeping?”

In turn, you as an old woman will cry for your arrogant lovers, in your lonely alley, neglected while the north wind dances like a bacchante under the new moon. Your love and libido, of the kind that maddens the mothers of horses, rages around your impassioned heart, not without complaint:  the happy young men rejoice more in green ivy and dusky myrtle than dry leaves, which they dedicate to the east wind, the comrade of winter.

Horace’s Latin poem is gorgeous and looks like this.


Parcius iunctas quatiunt fenestras
iactibus crebris iuvenes proterui
nec tibi somnos adimunt amatque
     ianua limen,

quae prius multum facilis movebat               5
cardines. Audis minus et minus iam:
‘Me tuo longas perevnte noctes,
     Lydia, dormis?’

Invicem moechos anus arrogantis
flebis in solo levis angiportu               10
Thracio bacchante magis sub
     interlunia vento,

cum tibi flagrans amor et libido,
quae solet matres furiare equorum,
saeviet circa iecur ulcerosum               15
     non sine questu,

laeta quod pubes hedera virenti
gaudeat pulla magis atque myrto,
aridas frondes hiemis sodali
     dedicet Euro.               20

We Could All Use Horace’s Letter of Recommendation!

Have you ever spent a day reading Jane Austen and Horace?  It is a strange conjunction.

If you are more like Emma (Emma) than the modest Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), you will enjoy Horace’s witty letter of recommendation written in the form of a poem. If Emma had known Horace, she would have pasted it in her album.  She also would have persuaded herself it was  a love letter to her friend Harriet, for whom she was shamelessly trying to find a husband.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if Horace was heterosexual.

Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton (or do I mean Horace?)

Fanny would have found something improper about Horace’s letter.  God knows what, but that’s the way Fanny is.

You may know Horace for his famous odes, but he also wrote two books of Epistulae (Letters).  Epistula I.lX is a charming letter of recommendation for Septimius, who shamelessly bullied him until he wrote it.  Sometimes I love Horace, sometimes he is smarmy, but here  he is very smooth and funny-I can only imagine that Septimius got the job.

 Nobody reads Horace in English, because the Latin is concise and the English, alas, requires many, many, many more words. Here is my wordy English translation.

Dear Tiberius,  Septimius is the only one who understands

how much you think of me.  When he urges me

to praise and introduce him as a man worthy

of your intellect and honorable family,

he discerns and knows what I can do better for him

by the enjoyment of the  gift of being a closer friend.

Indeed, I have said many things to excuse myself

but I feared I would be thought to have pretended

 less power than I have, hiding the favorable assistance

I could give.

And so, to flee the reproaches of a greater fault,

I have stooped to the networking of bold men.

If you approve of the modesty set aside because of a friend’s request,

enroll this man in your company and trust that he is good and brave.

Carpe Diem! The Politics of Reading Horace

Horace and a Latin dictionary held together by duct tape.

“What do you make of it?” a thoughtful but nervous professor asked during a graduate Horace seminar.

This was, in my view, an odd question.  Did he know Horace’s odes?  Or was this a new approach to teaching?  Later, when I read his criticism, I was moved by his elegant prose and the depth of his knowledge of Roman poets. I truly think this kind-hearted professor was trying to create an atmosphere conducive to an experimental age. 

It was a time that had flipped everyone upside down. The anti-war protests were over and buildings were no longer seized by students demanding the cessation of funding from the military-industrial complex, but fulminations against “irrelevance” continued to hit enrollment in the liberal arts.  Students fulfilled their two-year language requirement with Latin, then disappeared.  When I was a T.A., some protested that the Latin sentences in Wheelock (the first-year textbook) were hawkish and sexist.  I countered by bringing in love poems by Catullus and Ovid.  And in my upper-level classes, both at the university and later when I taught high school, I taught poetry instead of prose. But Horace was too complex for all but the best students.

odes horace modern libraryHorace is perhaps the most challenging of Latin poets.  In retrospect, it is easiest to cozy up to Horace for coining phrases like carpe diem (seize the day) and aurea mediocitas (the golden mean). We prefer the love and nature poems to the political odes.  Certainly Horace’s political odes, which often celebrate the achievements of Augustus, are so steeped in history and politics that they may exasperate, even seem alien, on a first reading. After years of reading widely in Latin literature, we understand the trauma of the civil wars that tore Rome apart for most of the first century B.C., until Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeated Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and  became Princeps (“Chief Citizen,” though he was actually emperor). Some readers accuse Horace of brown-nosing to Augustus, but I believe he genuinely admired him.   Of course flattery was necessary and writers learned to tread lightly. The poet Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error (a poem and an error). Horace made no such error.

It was the “personal” poems of Horace that most appealed on a first reading. And we were delighted by Horace’s advice to relax with wine rather than worry about the future.  (We worried about the future all the time.) Alas, the cheap Chablis we bought at the grocery store was barely potable. Still, we understood the symbolism of wine. And here is my translation of two charming stanzas about wine from Horace’s Ode II.X. (You can read the whole translation at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

Why do we not loll carelessly
and drink under the tall plane or pine tree,
our white hair fragrant with roses,
and anointed with Syrian

balsam oil, while we may? Bacchus
drives away our gnawing cares. What boy will
more quickly quench the cups of burning Falernian
with flowing water?

Horace’s references to wine have fascinated generations of critics.  Harry Eyres, author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, the son of a wine merchant, ponders these allusions at length.  Though he does not agree with Boris Johnson that Horace was “a wine snob,” he admires Horace’s knowledge of wine.  Eyres writes,

I think Horace was more than a wine snob; he was a true connoisseur, who knew and cared about wine’s intimate secrets, the different crus and vintages, which mattered as much to the Romans as they do to us….  He was a wine lover, who saw beyond wine as a status symbol to the divine power of wine as a consoler and inspirer of humanity.

ship of state horaceHorace was a master of adapting Greek meters to Latin poetry, translations and adaptations of Greek lyric poetry into Latin verse, and creating an elegant web of syntax that must be unraveled with a spider-architect’s care.  Rex Warner, a classicist and translator, wrote that Horace inspired “enduring affection” in readers but he added,  “This is not to say, however, that he is an easy poet for everyone.  I should suggest too that he, or rather his readers, have often suffered from a too ready acceptance of one or more rather prevalent misconceptions of his aims, his character, and his methods.” 

Carpe diem, open a bottle of cheap wine, and enjoy the odes.

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.

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