Wednesday, February 18, 2015



Books, books, and more books; snow, snow, and more snow.  I deal with avalanches of both, this time of year, when I undertake extended reading projects and attempt to keep our driveway passable.  For now there is a lull.  We are between storms.  And I have no new incoming books, so I am working with what I already possess in the way of ancient literature and commentary thereon.  Today was quiet, weatherwise, although more significant snow is coming tomorrow and possibly over the weekend.  (Trying hard not to fret about that.) After lunch I walked up the hill behind our house and back, and there were chickadees singing in the woods, and bare patches on the road.  The sun is noticeably higher in the sky and feels warm on my face, and I drink it in like a tonic, after being housebound for weeks.

Ransacking the book room produced some lovely finds - books I've always meant to read, and now here it is, finally time.  I've been carrying around Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape for ten years.  Originally published in 1957, it's an appreciative look at his favorite writers from Roman times, seen from the point of view of a traveler in their footsteps, one searching Italy for what remains of their homes, towns, and contexts.  Highet was a classicist himself (and led a fascinating life) and provides his own translations throughout, as well as evocative photographs.  There are chapters on Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal.  Spending time with this book is like going on an extended tour with a kindly yet slightly hedonistic professor.  I would have happily roamed the Italian countryside, and Rome itself, in his wake, listening.

Since finishing this and the David Ferry translations I mentioned last time, I've left Rome and doubled back to ancient Greece once again.  In the book room I found the following coffee table book - The Greek World, with color photographs by Eliot Porter and text by Peter Levi (Arch Cape Press 1980).  I've had this for over twenty years, and I'm pretty sure I bought it from the remainder table at the first bookstore that employed me, when I was just out of college.  The photographs again help with context and are quiet, monumental, and redolent.  And I'd completely forgotten that the wonderful Peter Levi wrote the text.  Here is a seasonably appropriate taste (p.137):

"Aristophanes is not only untranslatable but almost indescribable.  He is like Homer.  He is like a snowstorm.  If I had just one day of life in ancient Athens, I would spend it in the theater watching a play by Aristophanes."

Levi goes on, this time about Plato, and that issue of voice, which I mentioned in my last post (p.139):

"...thirty years after I first read The Republic I am still not able to analyze it with any assurance.  Maybe I am simply dazed by the charm of a style that sounds so close to a speaking voice."

Levi himself has a wonderful writerly voice, and I'm very excited because at one point Levi quotes himself, from his Greek memoir The Hill of Kronos, and I thought for a minute, Gee, that sounds so familiar... before it dawned on me that I have a copy!  Unread, but not for long!  His book about Afghanistan, The Light Garden of the Angel King, is one of my all-time favorite travel books, and I don't know why I've never read The Hill of Kronos, but I found a copy some years back, and tucked it aside, where it firmly stayed.  But it's finally up next, in the ever-evolving reading queue. 

Along with a slightly more daunting prospect.  After reading selections from it in The Norton Book of Classical Literature, and deciding I wanted to read more, I brought home the History of Herodotus from my book booth, translated by David Grene (University of Chicago Press 1987).  It's a lovely fat hardcover.  I'm still just in the introduction and, with nearly 700 pages to go, feel a bit apprehensive, but am buoyed up by Grene's encouragement (p.15):

"Probably no Greek writer makes so strong an impression of talking directly to us as Herodotus." 

There's that voice again.  The one speaking across centuries of time, yet sounding so present.  It's one of the main reasons I read - to listen, to come to know, and to experience the resulting sense of connection.  How wonderful it's been to discover this voice anew, both in ancient writers' works and in the works of those who love them.     

I truly enjoy your discovery and commentary on books, Sarah - and I am in awe of your reading list. I cannot seem to sit still to read the ancient works and after reading this blog entry (and the one after, I am catching up) I wonder if the quiet of your life is not perfect for such reading. This may sound silly. After all, people in Boston and LA and Paris also read the classics, but I mean how many people in comparison? In the world we live in, there is so little quiet, but is it possible that it is so much closer and available in Stockton than in most places? Perhaps I am just jealous of your good mind! Anyway, you speak of voice in these works - I am wondering, too, if voice was not something made clearer by earlier writers because of the quiet in their lives. Quiet in comparison with out own. They did not fight with all the trappings our world holds. Do writers today have less clear voices for their exposure to a very crowded world? I am curious about this.
Dear Susie, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. This issue has been on my mind very much, especially for the last year or so. How to find quiet, how to make room for it in life, right beside the overwhelming muchness and speed of everything. I really think it is a conscious choice. Horace and Virgil were, I read somewhere in one of the companions I've been reading, both coming out of roughly three decades of terrible wars, when they wrote their pastoral poetry. So for them it was a deliberate turn toward that space and subject. I feel like I do the same thing in my life and in my paintings - make that choice when I am able to. And I get so much pleasure out of my solitary pursuits... other more difficult things in life become bearable. Being in Maine does help, I think. I have a naturally quiet life here (but, again, I have deliberately built it that way), and there is still a lot of open space here, and resulting clarity.

In this same vein, I was reading a book about painting recently, and the author quoted Zola, who was himself commenting on the rise of rural landscape painting in the French salons of the 1800s, and its popularity, due to a possible reaction by the public against the many stresses of urban modern life. Zola said, "We walk in the fields, our nervous systems a wreck."

The antidote to which is...? Speaking for myself only, I know that I have a hungry anxious mind, and I do much better in life if I can keep it employed with useful tasks. So I set myself these ambitious reading projects. Sometimes I don't follow through with them, so there is no need to be jealous! Much is beyond me, and I am not as well read as I might appear (never read any Zola, for example, except his letters to Cezanne, in a book about Cezanne).

So, that clarity of voice you wonder about - it is a miracle that people *ever* have it, I think! Poor us. Humans have been stressed out for centuries.

If you want a good entry point into the classics, try picking up an anthology of shorter poems. Or ancient love poems, which will break your heart open right away. Then you are doomed.
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