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Book Review: Horace and Me

Horace and Me: Life Lessons From an Ancient Roman Poethoraceandme

by Harry Eyres

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

 

Just the other day, a scholarly colleague, contemplating her next book, remarked, “The only thing I’m 100% sure of is that I do not want to add to the “Great Author and Me” genre, which I find almost intolerably tedious. And the ‘Great Author as Self-Help’ is equally unappealing.

“Almost intolerably tedious” might be generous; such books are almost always actively harmful to both the Great Author and to the reader (and, at least in the case of Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, to the author as well) – they reduce the wisdom of the ages to self-help slogans, and by their very existence they seem to validate the culture of complete self-absorption currently crushing the West. They take as their emblem Dante resurrecting Virgil to act as his guide, but they overlook the central element of that relationship: humility on Dante’s part. Instead, the Great Authors become buddies, wingmen, yoga instructors, life coaches – and always implicitly the employee of “Me.”

All of which might seem to call for offhand dismissal of a book like Harry Eyres’ latest, Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Roman Poet, and Eyres himself – amiable poet, columnist, and wine critic – does little to change that impression. His book is a brittle piece of artifice from start to finish, full of groan-worthy fake set-ups for “contemplation” (“Wandering into the airport bookshop…”) and a near-endless lineup of straw men to be defeated. When at one point Horace famously assures his readers that his verses will live forever, Eyres jumps right in:

The extraordinary thing is that he was right: he wrote his poems into the future, for the future as much as for the present, and they remain always contemporary. The scholars who try to nail Horace, and other ancient authors who still speak to us, down to the past have got something fundamentally wrong.

The image here – of a dark cabal of classicists who want to “nail down” Horace to the past (and thereby, one supposes, prevent him from being enjoyed in the present? Who knows?) – is of old and much-discredited provenance; scholars study Horace because he speaks to them, not because they don’t want him to, and Horace himself was in large part simply employing a poetic gimmick in claiming his verses would live forever (plenty of Augustan poets did it and didn’t survive – the fact that Horace was lucky doesn’t make him prescient), but nowhere in Horace and Me will the reader find any hint that the Odes and Epodes might be speaking in poetic character; they’re treated as Horace making dictation by the poolside, and that’s that. And worse than any of these, from the poetic point of view (that old thing), is the bit about Horace writing as much for the future as for his own present; it renders all of the past as mere prelude to the present with a thoroughness you’d have to be a college freshman to appreciate fully.

But Eyres keeps at it, constantly conjuring a world in which a few brave, lonely aspiring classics students face overwhelming odds in the pursuit of their dream:

Classics, to most of us in the 1970s, was hardly the most exciting of subjects. It seemed moldy, dusty, dry … The study of classics had ossified. It was being carried on because that was the way it had always been. As always, there were vested interests; classics teachers did not want to lose their jobs. But the classicists were losing the battle.

Moldy, dusty, and dry – all at the same time! As an academic overview, Eyres’ version lacks factuality, credibility, plausibility … so the natural response is to characterize this as more of a personal impression, as the way Eyres remembers it now, looking back from a forty-year distance on his old school days. Those school days get a predictable amount of page-time in Horace and Me – Eyres does his best to interweave the story of his own life with the story of his encounters with Horace’s poetry. This interweaving is the taunt at the heart of the book, since for every flat, wooden segment on Horace and how the old boy is still relevant to a thought Eyres had just this morning, there are segments of almost Wodehousian brio about Eyres’ privileged and colorful past:

Two years running, I managed to win the individual prize in the Oxford versus Cambridge blind tasting competition, the so-called bibblers’ boat race, beating fellow contestants who included the formidable ginger-haired brother-and-sister combination of Arabella and Jasper Morris, both of whom would end up as Masters of Wine. I felt quite proud to be in a line that included the distinguished wine writers and broadcasters Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, and Charles Metcalfe.

Certainly more than a few readers will wish they could keep hearing about characters like the ginger-haired Arabella and Jasper Morris (and all the similar bits, including some absolutely enchanting passages on Eyres’ various visits to Rome), without constantly trudging back to Horace and his relevance to the Internet Age, complete with Eyres’ updated translations, which are born of affection and almost always horrifying:

You fret about the right course for our state -

How to frame the city’s governance,

What further murderous mayhem’s being planned

In Basra by Moqtada, and the Taliban.

With a little more work, with a little less easy patronization (and, needless to say, with a different title), Horace and Me could have been a quick and charming little autobiographical sketch of an always-interesting man. Instead, it’s got two such men trying to share a small bed – and you don’t need Horace to tell you how that always turns out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments »

  • Frank T McCarthy says:

    Horace was not “just lucky”. The idea of an author’s immortality might have been common among Latin writers. But it does not follow from that fact that the work of Horace survived by luck. It is just as likely, I believe, that the work of Horace survived because of its genius.

    I also think its unfair to suggest that Eyres presents the work of Horace as a self help guide. The same charge can be leveled against almost anyone who suggests that a literary work deserves the attention of the reader.

    The reviewer starts his review by admitting he detests books of the great author and me genre. De gustibus non disputandum est, so fair enough. But if you review works of a detested genre, your review will likely follow the predictable course of this review. I think most readers who enjoy Horace will enjoy Eyres’ Horace and Me.

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    It most certainly does follow! Horace himself praises the genius of some of his contemporaries, from whom we have no surviving work – does that mean Horace was wrong about them? Genius can’t control house fires, erupting volcanoes, chomping worms, and Christian book-burnings – it’s no slight to call an author lucky if his work manages to survive all those things for two thousand years.

    And I agree that most readers who enjoy Horace will enjoy Eyres’ book (except for those scarifying ‘updated’ translations) – but they’ll enjoy it for Eyres, not for the tame, boxed self-help slide-rule of Horace he presents as his life-coach.

    • Frank T McCarthy says:

      The two most widely read authors of the classical world were Homer and Vergil. The complete texts of their major works have survived. Is that a matter of luck? No. The fact that they were the most widely read authors means that there were more texts of their work created. Hence the odds that these texts survive improves. There is an element of chance at work here. But great literature has a better chance to endure over time because readers recognize quality. Great literature continues to attract readers over time while the more standard fare of the day fails to do that.

      You mention unknown geniuses to whom Horace refers in his work. I do not recognize the references. Would you provide them?

      I’m glad you concede that readers will enjoy the book for Eyres own autobiography. Eyres never intended to compete with Fraenkel or Commager as a critic of Horace. I wouldn’t rate his translations as close to those in the collection edited by McClatchy. But you might have called some of those translations “scarifying updated” too. I felt you came down like a ton of bricks on a book that didn’t deserve such a scathing review.

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    Oh, the book deserves the bricks! It was facile and self-serving at all the points where it should have been humble and insightful; readers familiar with Horace (surely not that many? Or is there hope?) will almost certainly come away from the book feeling he was trivialized by it. If Eyres had written “Me” instead of “Horace & Me,” I’d probably be singing its praises, but this gimmick – the life-lessons I learned from Jane Austen, etc. – never fails to irritate.

    On the question of the fragility of genius, and leaving out the tribute of open (but unattributed) imitation, Horace certainly characterizes both Varius and Cinna as writers of genius, right? And yet their work doesn’t survive (and – a point that always makes classicists a bit uncomfortable – works DO survive from authors who, to put it mildly, exhibit no signs of genius). If things had worked just slightly different, we might know Horace only through fugitive mentions in Cinna; the fact that random chance brought Horace to us through fire and flood is surely all the more reason to treasure him, no?

    Just as I certainly now treasure YOU, for making my day by invoking the great Eduard Fraenkel! His memory was still revered at the University of Gottingen even when I briefly taught there, long after he’d left – it puts a smile on my face to know that even in the unthinkable year 2013, it’s still virtually impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Horace without his name coming up!

    • Frank T McCarthy says:

      We found common ground. We both admire Fraenkel’s Horace. I have never tried to read this book straight through. But if I try one of the Odes, I always check to see what Fraenkel has to say about it. Unfortunately I only had two years of Greek and that was almost fifty years ago. Fraenkel cites Alcaeus or other Greek authors so often in the Greek that I have to miss much of what he has to say. I had five years of Latin and have been working on Horace and Lucretius intermittently for the last ten years or so. So I have a better handle on his comments about the Latin. Fraenkel’s erudition is astonishing. But it is his imagination and beautiful English that use his erudition to create a truly magisterial book.

      I hadn’t looked at the book for several months. I began browsing and found this passage on Page 304. “When Horace had been in his grave for many centuries the places around which the life of he ancient Romans had circled were being deserted one after another, and what was left of the dwindling population lived on different hills. There was still a pontifex, but he would reside on the Lateran or the Quirinal or the Vatican, and would care to sacrifice to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus. There was still a city of Rome, but filled with new gods, new rituals, and new ideas. And yet it remained true, and remains true to the present day, that usque ego postera crescam laude reents, Horace’s boast turns out to be an enormous understatement”. I am now resolving to go back and read more of this book. Thank you for prompting me to do that.

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