On Paper: Cards, Letters,& Horace’s Invitation to a Dinner Party

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 love the Mitfords’ 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.)

I don’t have this translation, but I love the cover.

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!

Can You Slow Down Time?

Summer goes too fast.

 Time seemed slower in, say, my twenties and thirties. After a day at work, I’d change into gym shorts, take a run, come home, make a cup of tea, and retire to the air-conditioned bedroom.  I read intensely in the evenings:  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,  Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories, the latest Updike…  The hours sometimes dragged, but there were a lot of them.

Now I feel I’ve lost control of time.  There should be more time, and yet there’s less.  We live for summer here. So why is it speeding by?  I loved the long days in an unusually cool June. But during this hot July, where DOES the time go?

Well, I know one magic trick.  If you sit very still outdoors in the shade and read your book, you can achieve what I call the Queen of the Desert effect (not actually going to the desert, just watching the movie with Nicole Kidman looking cool as Gertrude Bell.) It’s just so damned hot that you transcend the heat and disappear into the world of your book.  Of course sometimes you’re miserably hot and have to go indoors.

Here’s another way to extend time: read short books.  If you read more books, you feel you’re using your time better.  (It’s an illusion.) I’ve raced through a couple of novels by Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively, one of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, and am thinking of hunkering down with Gene Wolfe’s The Claw of the Conciliator, the second volume of The Book of the New Sun

This weekend it’s supposed to get up to 100 degrees.