Book Review: Horace and Me
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.