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Friday, June 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams]

Parallel Lives [Plutarch]

Though his purpose was to praise and blame, Plutarch, like an old history book, is heavy with wars and politics and not so good on culture and thought. His Lives would be improved with fewer accounts of battles, but the stories never fail to engage the reader. It is fascinating to see how Athens and Rome, even in their days of power, were like small towns in that everyone knew everyone and historic changes might be initiated on a street-corner after a chance meeting.

Though the so-called Dryden edition was not exactly translated by Dryden it is accurate enough and readable. I haven’t seen Sir John North’s version of Amyot’s French translation; perhaps it is more appealing.

Agricola and Germania [Tacitus]

Tacitus’ praise of the work of his father-in-law Agricola in subduing the Britons serves as a vehicle for his expression of the old Roman values. His straightforward style is nonetheless susceptible to irony, archness, and some good set-pieces. The Agricola describes the assimilation of such “demoralizing temptations” as Roman “arcades, baths, and banquets,” saying that the “unsuspecting Britons” regarded these as “civilization” whereas they were more accurately enslavement. In the Germania he notes with approval the northerners disregard for gold and silver, their hardihood, and their strict sexual morality. “No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it ‘up-to-date’ to seduce and be seduced.”

His account of Boudica is sympathetic. The report of Calgacus’ speech rallying Rome’s enemies is eloquent, damning the imperial power for bringing “robbery, butchery, and rapine” while calling it government. His passionate cry of liberty or death must surely be a coded lament for the loss of the Roman Republic whose ineffectual Senate could only ratify the madness of one emperor after another. He goes so far as to implies that Domitian, whom he says had a “hatred of merit,” killed Agricola.

In Tacitus one sees the dilemma of a man of principle seeking to take an honorable role in a tyrannical state. He is surely offering his own apologia when he says in the Agricola that “even under bad emperors men can be great,” and, through “a decent regard for authority” may attain “distinction,” whereas opposing even a wicked monarch can bring only an unseemly and “ostentatious self-martyrdom.”

A modern reader of the Germania can hardly avoid reflecting on recent history when reading of the northern tribes passions for racial purity and for war. My old copy of the Penguin translation by Harold Mattingly from 1948 makes a number of contemporary references. Whether or not Tacitus was mistaken on the first point, the Nazis were only too glad to appropriate his words. As for the latter, Tacitus considers them a bit mad on their eagerness for battle and their scorn of farming. According to his account, when not fighting, they spend their time in idleness. The book includes solid anthropological information on governance, divination, and human sacrifice.

White Mule [Williams]

William Carlos Williams’ novel (1937) is narrated in a pure distilled straightforward American idiom that moves fatalistically from each word to the next. Much of the book is colloquial, reproducing American working class accents of African Americans, Irish, German, and Norwegian immigrants will such precision the good doctor must surely have kept a notebook handy for years, making memoranda of expressions he heard in his daily life.

The fact that the novel’s first reviewers (Alfred Kazin in the New York Times and N. L. Rothman in the Saturday Review) compared the book to Joyce only shows us what conventional narratives they expected. The stream of consciousness is mild indeed, though the figure of the infant Flossie, bearing the name of the author’s beloved wife on whose family the story is based, is original and unsentimental. The Stecher family’s further experiences are detailed in the sequels In the Money and The Build Up.

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