Feature Posts

Pliny and Pompeii

From Ruth Breindel:

  • A book review:

The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Daisy Dunn, 2019

               Since not much is known about the life of Pliny the Elder, the author has concentrated on Pliny the Younger.  We, as classicists, know much of what Dunn has to say; most of the hard data comes directly from the Plinys, so there is not much new in substance or speculation.  Because the evidence in many places is scant, Dunn adds information that isn’t really germane; e.g., earlier and later eruptions of Vesuvius, later English historians and characters.  Her style is very nice and breezy, so it is fairly easy to read; borrowing it from the library is your best bet.

Book Review: The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker, 2018

Briseis, with some additions by Achilles, tells the story of the fall of Troy.  This retelling, from the female and minor character point of view, is in the fashion of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand, about Cassandra, and Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia, although the language here is much stronger and violent.  Briseis states Barker’s main point on the very last page:

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?  One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer.  A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

Indeed, this is a book that could only be written in our time, when the knowledge of what happens to the conquered, whether in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere, is brought to light.  In unflinching prose Barker makes us feel the fear and loss of “me-ness” that comes with being a slave, being seen as “it.” The casual cruelty is just part of the story.

My only objection to the book is when Achilles becomes the focus and we learn about his inner workings – his relationship with his mother, his feelings for Patroclus – too much pop-psychology here.  Briseis is a very strong character, who manages to survive Achilles, Agamemnon, the murders of her family in Lyrnessa, and at the end, reclaim herself:

Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed.  Now, my own story can begin.

I definitely recommend this books for adults – it will hold your interest and make you look at Agamemnon in a whole new light.

Reviewed by Ruth Breindel

To the Letter (A Review)

What follows is a review by Ruth Breindel of an article, “Greek to Me,” by Mary Norris, published in the January 2019 issue of The New Yorker.

The New Yorker, January 14, 2019

Mary Norris, the “nit-picking comma queen” of The New Yorker magazine, has written an article about learning Greek.  She came to Greek via a different path than most of us – in her 30s she learned modern Greek first, then ancient Greek; as she says, “I never did get around to Latin…” Entranced by the alphabet, she traveled to Greece to explore both the language and culture. As her studies in ancient Greek continued, Norris was excited by the number of words in English that relate to Greek.  

Norris begins the article by discussing Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Not Knowing Greek.”  Reassured that Woolf had studied Greek, Norris took to hear Woolf’s statement: “We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English.”  As teachers, learners and scholars, we recognize this statement as true, and it is affirming to find it as gospel in a respected magazine. As classicists, we can skip most of the rest of this page and half of the next, where there is a history of the alphabet.

Two other items of interest to us: a discussion of the use of particles and the excitement and danger of translating.  Particles in Greek are much more common than in Latin, and certainly give added nuance; the only problem is, we’re not always sure what the nuance is!  “… I was amazed at how much nuance those syllables give to Socrates’ speech – they act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions.” [Disclaimer: I would have voted to condemn Socrates, since he is the most annoying debater around, constantly changing the parameters of an argument so that he comes out on top!] Norris quotes scholars on the subject of particles, some of which is quite amusing.

On translating, Norris discusses what we all know – that epithets can be translated in many different ways; she uses polutropos – wily, many turning, ingenious, manipulative and glaukopis – grey eyed, gleaming eyed. She ends her essay with this:

On my first trip, crisscrossing the Aegean, I was nursing an ouzo in a small glass, and staring into the water, when I suddenly understood the meaning of Homer’s “wine-dark sea.”  Homer wasn’t saying that the sea was the color of wine. He was saying that the sea had the depths found in a cup of wine; that is was mysterious, hypnotic, dangerous. It drew you in, and you could lose yourself in it.