Wednesday, October 15, 2014


picking up where we left off

In his Ancilla to Classical Reading, Moses Hadas says (pp.135-136):

"Comments or opinions here offered are in no sense authoritative, and by no means justly apportioned.... For modern and more systematic opinion on ancient writers the reader will naturally turn to more formal histories of literature; here nothing more than marginalia to such histories can be expected."

And in A Book of Voyages, Patrick O'Brian says (pp.xv-xvii):

"Most books of voyages say in their prefaces that they intend to be useful.  'Let us have no unnecessary ornamentation at the outset of a work in which we propose nothing but the weighty and the useful,' begins one; they hardly ever speak of giving entertainment.

The intention of this book is quite different; its aim is to give the reader pleasure.  It makes no claim to being a scholarly work, and it has no didactic purpose."

Praise be!  Since I revel in marginalia, and dislike didactic purpose...  I mean, bring on the unnecessary ornament!  All this is to say that since we last spoke, I have had a million and one things to do, and the only things I truly want to do are snack and read ancient poetry and Patrick O'Brian novels.  Thus I find myself reading his Aubrey-Maturin series for the fifth time (I think - it's been at least seven years since I last read them), and in fact have already finished the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain.  I cannot even begin to tell you how utterly satisfying I find them.  All I will say is, if you haven't yet sallied forth into his fictional realm, adventure awaits, alongside oceans of splendid writing.  Not convinced?  No interest in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars?  Well, do back-of-the-book blurbs ever convince you to read a book?  How about these:

"The best historical novels ever written."  - Richard Snow, New York Times

"Master and Commander raised almost dangerously high expectations; Post Captain triumphantly surpasses them... a brilliant book."  - Mary Renault

The novels are about the British Navy, certainly, but really they are about that which never gets old.  Human nature - disappointment, triumph, ambition, passion, jealousy, self-control, friendship, love.  It's not for nothing that he's considered by many to be a latter-day Jane Austen.  Sometimes I think that his writing is what would have occurred had the naval officers in Jane Austen's Persuasion been able to tell their own version of events.  Well, as I travel around the world and back with Patrick O'Brian's cast of characters this winter, I will continue to investigate classical authors too.  I don't have to look far, though.  This week, in Post Captain, I smiled to see mention of "...half-remembered instances of courage from Plutarch, Nicholas of Pisa and Boethius..." (p.109), and a translation of a fragment of Sappho (ibid p.433):

"'The moon has set, and the Pleiades; midnight is gone; the hours wear by, and here I lie alone: alone.'"    

In pursuit of more reading about Moses Hadas, I came across this wonderful essay, by his daughter Rachel Hadas, which makes me want to seek out some of his translations.  And in pursuit of more Patrick O'Brian, I found this, which I read long ago and was happy to rediscover, the Paris Review interview from 1995.  Here is a little bit, a very pleasing little bit:


What is it like to fall into the past?


The sensation of falling into the past is not unlike that of coming home for the holidays from a new, strenuous, unpleasant school, and finding oneself back in wholly familiar surroundings with kind, gentle people and dogs—inconveniences of course, such as candlelight in one’s bedroom (hard to read by), but nothing that one was not deeply used to."

That is the feeling of his fiction, and of some of the classical translations I've been reading - a homecoming.  A lovely rich emotion, and a perfect counterpoint to the spare emptiness of the approaching season. 

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