Friday, November 12, 2010

The Influence of Latin on Margaret Drabble, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Zuckerberg, & Tom Holland

My favorite novel:  a Virgil class plays a starring role.
I'm rereading Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters, easily my favorite novel.  There are a few slight eerie similarities between the narrator Candida and myself.  Candida takes an evening adult class on Virgil, mostly in translation but with access to the Latin, and becomes fascinated by Aeneas' visit to the underworld (Aeneid, Book VI). She learned her Latin at a girls' school, where she had an excellent teacher,  and very much respects her elderly arty teacher at the Further Education college, Mrs. Jerrold.

I didn't learn my Latin at a girls' school.  I studied Latin at the university and I taught Virgil's Aeneid in Latin eight or nine times in my early career.  I also snuck it into an adult education class (in English).  I feel a strong affection for the unconventional Mrs. Jerrold, a teacher and a poet, with her dyed black hair, bandeaux, "red lipstick, green eyeshadow, and magenta earrings."

"She was a parrot, a macaw.  She was a sprightly old thing, and she knew her Virgil.  I wonder how she is now.  I wonder if she needed the money.  Those classes pay terribly, I know, but they do pay something."

Candida affirms herself and grows through her experiences reading Virgil.  A superannuated housewife, she leaves her husband, a headmaster who has an affair with the mother of a child who committed suicide at the school. He manages somehow to get everyone's sympathy, or so Candida thinks.  Candida exiles herself from Suffolk to a neighborhood in London that is neither quite going up or going down.  She has never worked, except as a substitute at her husband's school (which sounds like very hard work, by the way) and does not have a job now or feel that she has the capacity to take a job.  She writes her diary on the computer and sees herself as gray and aging, though she is only in her 50s, unnoticeable.  The Aeneid fascinates her as she feels on the edge of the underworld herself--"Book VI is an invitation," she says at one point.  She is also like Dido (Book IV, the other book that fascinates her), jilted by the leader Aeneas, her use over now that her "husband" has left the marriage.

"Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again.  But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it.  I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness.  It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me.  This nothingness is significant.  If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself int o something else.  Into something terrible, into something transformed....I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore."

Candida is completely alone in her bleak flat in London.  She is not unhappy, though.  She plays solitaire on the computer.  In her early days in London, she looks forward to her weekly Virgil class as an anchor.  They do only a few lines a time, comparing translations and looking at the Latin closely.  I'd love to take this class.

"We were a nice class.  We were nice even to our own mad member, an old man called Mr. Wormald, who had a fixation on poor Mrs. Jerrold.  He tormented her.  We were all very tolerant with him....  He was a terrible man.  He was the only man in the class.  But we were kind to him, we made a space for him amongst us.  I can't imagine why he was interested in Virgil.  I don't think he was, really."

There is sometimes a "mad" member in these Latin classes.  I very much like some mad people, but there's something about ancient languages that attracts them--and then the classes turn out not to be like Dungeons and Dragons, as they'd hoped, and they want to digress all the time, or turn on the teacher, or secretly think they could teach the class themselves, but there's one problem:  they don't know the Latin. 

The majority of students are charming, though, and come from all walks of life to learn the Latin. 

After the Further Education College is turned into a health club, Candida eventually manages to reunite the Latin class.  She plans a group trip to Carthage and to Naples, following the route of Aeneas, and liberates herself. This is so exciting for me.  How I'd love to go on Candida's tour.  Latin is liberating.  Virgil is the key to so much...  As I always point out, T. S. Eliot says he's the best poet in any language.

And every time I read The Seven Sisters I see more in this novel, though I have written only a little here. There is more than Virgil, by the way.  But without Virgil, there'd be no novel.

More about this later.  For the moment, I want to point out that Everybody's Talking about Latin These Days.   

Marilynne Robinson recently gave a speech at Skidmore College  and discussed "the great influence that Latin has had on her writing. Robinson said that she considers Latin to be an important subject that is increasingly overlooked. 'If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you,' she said."

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been recommending the Aeneid lately. Columnist Alex Beam commented in The Boston Globe:

"Of course you have noticed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s uncontrollable tic — quoting from Virgil’s Aeneid.’ He did it twice during a long New Yorker interview and more recently in Wired magazine, where he popped — in Latin — what might be the epic’s most famous line: 'A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this’' (trans. Robert Fagles). Those are Aeneas’s consoling words to his battered, shipwrecked comrades. In the poem, various gods assure the Trojan hero that he will found 'an empire without bound,’' i.e. Rome, which is more or less what Zuckerberg has done. Facebook has more than 500 million active users and counting."

Tom Holland, author of Rubicon, Persian Fire, and Millennium, writes about the rise and fall of the  Roman Empire in  The Guardian.

And he mentions Virgil.  "Virgil, the great laureate of his people's achievement, saw in it the fulfilment of a mission entrusted to them by the gods. "Your task, O Roman," he wrote in celebrated lines, "is to rule and bring to men the arts of government, to impose upon them the arts of peace, to spare those who submit, to subdue the arrogant."


Carolyn said...

The Seven Sisters sounds good (certainly better than The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, which I didn't get very far with), I'll have to check it out sometime.

SFP said...

I read Seven Sisters several years back and I'm not sure, but I think I bought my mother-in-law a copy at some point. I'll need to scan her shelves at Thanksgiving and ask her it I can borrow it back for awhile.

I'm getting very excited about reading the Aeneid next year. I translated a bit of Virgil in high school, but that was more than 30 years ago. . .

Frisbee said...

I love The Seven Sisters.

You can't go wrong with The Aeneid. I love it so much that I read it all the time. I'll be looking forward to your comments.

Anonymous said...

I love The Seven Sisters too. It's not my favorite novel, but I remembered it ever after reading it, and think it might be among my favorite modern novels by women. I don't alway like Drabble; like Atwood she has different personas, and some I don't warm to at all. I loved her Memoir with Jigsaws two summers ago and a while back her book on Landscape in Britain, and novels Waterfall and Through a Needle's Eye. I thought you wrote eloquently on Seven Sisters. I admit for me the allusions did not leap out; I thought of Mary Poppins and a substory about the Pleiade.

The one bright spot for Izzy nowadays is she'll be taking Latin in the spring. It's a beautifully disinterested thing to do. Fine thought beautiful images solace strength. Wit. What more can one want?


Frisbee said...

I haven't finished the jigsaw book yet. It is very good, but I don't do jigsaws myself. :) And crazily things about class kept striking me as I read it. Wasn't her aunt who ran the inn really middle-class? I didn't think Drabble could claim those working-class origins.

Drabble is one of my favorite authors. I love her novels from the '70s and '80s. Someone told me about her years ago and I read all her books very quickly, and then bought each new one. I wonder why she hasn't won awards. Her books are so superior to most of what is published and some of them are real classics. Her newer ones are lighter