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Peer Review: Arms and the Pan

In this feature we review the reviews that review new books.

One critic writes:

[he] seems to treat his readers as horses at a certain stage of their decline are treated by experienced drivers, who keep them going from fear that if they let them stop or slacken they will be unable to get up their pace again. He never unbends his bow. But a table-land may be as flat, and even wearisome, as a plain; and the ornaments in [his] Aeneid frequently are not, and indeed cannot be, more ornamental than the passages which they purport to embellish.

This would seem to bode poorly for Robert Fagles, the latest person to undertake a full-scale translation of the Aeneid. Except for the fact that the review quoted is from the London Quarterly Review of 1857, and the bracketed [he] isn’t Robert Fagles but Virgil himself, being taken to task by the Review’s (anonymous) reviewer for the shortcoming of his epic poem.

Ah, those were the days.

In 1857, every well-prepared schoolboy in the Western world was armed with an at least functional Latin by the time he was eight years old; successful conjugation invariably preceded successful masturbation. Translating classical authors was a widespread hobby among the better educated set, and even the most private, unpublished examples of this could often be quite good.

  Education in the West has declined so steadily and so rapidly in the last century that a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, appearing in 2007, poses problems never dreamt of by the editors of the Quarterly Review. Namely, who do you get to review the thing? Your reviewer will need, ideally, not only a working knowledge of classical Latin but a detailed familiarity with at least a few of the scores of translations of the work that have appeared prior to this one (an ability to cobble together coherent English prose might also be added here, although anyone steeped in the reading of book reviews will be ruefully aware of the fact that it no longer seems to be an ironclad requirement). Reviewers possessing these qualifications aren’t exactly thick on the ground.

Review organs, in this predicament, turn naturally to writers old enough to dust off their Wheelock’s Latin and tackle at least a stanza or two. Alternately, there are the facile freelancers who can talk a good game as long as they’ve got their right hand on the Cliffs notes and their left hand poised at Wikipedia. And there are always the earnest in-betweens who’ll give the thing their best shot. In other words, call in the duffers, the bluffers, and the good-enoughers.

The book itself doesn’t exactly help any. This Viking edition is physically gorgeous, with maps and indexes and an exquisite introduction by (pace Peter Green) the age’s greatest classicist, Bernard Knox. Robert Fagles himself is an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton, and this translation comes at the end of a career (more than one critic comments on this being a ‘captstone’ of one kind or another) that saw the author’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey rapturously praised and surprisingly successful commercially. This combination of factors puts potential reviewers in a position analogous to the courtiers of Queen Victoria whenever Her Majesty decided to tell a joke: you can’t exactly not laugh. Only a Disraeli could advise Her Majesty not to quit her day job.

Academies and newsrooms in the age of Sudoku produce very few Disraelis, but if you’re a major critical organ, you can’t exactly not review Robert Fagles’ new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, and you’re extremely unlikely to say it’s not very good.

Fortunately, when all else fails, you can always bloviate. The Aeneid makes this exceedingly easy: it’s got everything! Augustus, Imperial destiny, comparisons with Homer, the whole author-wanted-to-destroy-the-manuscript-but-emperor-intervened myth, the helpful loomingness of John Dryden, and, if you’re still pinched for 150 words or so, the potential for arch political allegories with the current state of affairs in Iraq.

In fact, there’s so much of what Hollywood calls ‘back story’ that a large number of critics accidentally gorge themselves on it all. More than a few reviews, having gone on for column after column about Virgil, only belatedly (embarrassedly, one almost feels) remember that they’re supposed to be writing about Fagles. ‘Oh yes – this poem I’ve been stem-winding about for the last 1300 words? It’s got a new translation by Bobby Fagles that’s pretty good, incidentally.’

A caricature, yes, but reflective of the deeply ambivalent undertone running through almost all the major reviews of this work. (A notable exception would be Thomas Cahill’s hysterical encomium in the Los Angeles Times, in which he mentions the work’s “inexplicable greatness,” calls it “magnificent,” and says “all I can do is point, like a child watching his first parade, at some of the delights he [Fagles] has bestowed upon us.” Lost in this childlike – more accurately childish? – wonder, Cahill seems unaware of the fact that when he says of Fagles’ Aeneid “classicists may fail to recognize it” he’s not, in fact, paying the book a compliment).

Nowhere is this lukewarm ambivalence more adroitly phrased than in Richard Jenkyns review in the Times Literary Supplement. Jenkyns’ take on the work is a marvel of qualified praise, as when he’s comparing Fagles to Dryden:

“Fagles cannot match Dryden’s grandeur or the powerful sense of closure that the earlier poet gives to the end of his period, but he has his own virtues.”

The tone of doubt in that last line is so palpable throughout that the reader is left wondering if the unspecified virtues Jenkyns is writing about rise much beyond the level of not spilling food on oneself. When writing about a passage in which Virgil’s Latin is scalpel-sharp and Fagles’ English decidedly less so, Jenkyns expertly clothes disapproval in the guise of slight mystification:

“One misses the directness of that in Fagles’s version, but perhaps he has another purpose.”

Jenkyns’ summary would be enough to make a sensitive soul give up the art of translating altogether (if they hadn’t already been capstoned into doing that anyway, mind you):

Robert Fagles too finds a good blend of the objective and the personal: he wants to serve Virgil, not to draw attention to himself, but his translation is unmistakably, though unobtrusively, of its time and of its maker. It is likely to be the Aeneid for our new century.

O tempora! O mores! O ‘good’!

Dick Davis, who teaches at Ohio State and has recently published a magnificent translation of the Persian epic The Shahnameh, takes this ambivalence further than most reviewers, calling Fagles’ version ‘hit or miss’ and saving his saving his harshest words for the degeneracy of modern verse:

The last 60 years or so have not produced a verse rhetoric that will sustain a long poem, except as a series of jolting fits and starts, so jolting fits and starts are what we get.

(The reader’s mind fairly teems with examples of long poems written in the last 60 years that completely give the lie to this assertion, but it’s the duffer’s perquisite to be cranky, so the reader passes on in silence).

The dodge of giving Fagles a pass by condemning something bigger surely finds its apotheosis in Rafil Kroll-Zaidi’s review for Harper’s, in which he gamely kicks Virgil (whose name he alone of all the critics rightly spells Vergil) around for dozens of paragraphs before he even mentions Fagles by name. “Vergil’s hero invites the choicest scorn because he is so noticeably a boob,” we’re told, and the epic as a whole comes in for a summary drubbing:

Once Aeneas returns from the Kingdom of the Dead, he is suddenly and ever after free of the craven protests and the yearnings that identified him as human; he has become consubstantial with the shades, with all his unborn immaterial descendants, and the Aeneid’s austere balancing act lists hopelessly to one side. To whatever extent Fagles’s translation may come up short, the blame should be laid on the grave that St. Paul once tripped over.

The inquiring reader, curious to know how Fagles’ translation comes up short, will seek in vain; the above passage happens half-way through the Kroll-Zaidi review, and Fagles isn’t mentioned again.

Hayden Pelliccia, writing in the New York Review of Books, chooses to review the Fagles translation alongside the roughly contemporaneous translation by Stanley Lombardo – presumably so that a little damning with faint praise will go twice as far. Pelliccia’s review is exactingly intelligent … about the Aeneid, that is. Fagles and Lombardo are treated with an identical tone of slightly irritated preoccupation:

Both of these translations are good, and both might be recommended to a friend or assigned to a class with confidence that they will deliver a good sense of Virgil’s poem and even genuine pleasure in reading it. But the contest to come up with an ideal twenty-first century English Aeneid is not over.

Oh dear: there’s that word again.

Likewise in the New York Times, where Brad Leithauser spares a few of his piece’s 1600 words on their ostensible subject – mainly by sitting on the fence about the whole thing. Leithauser ends his review by calling Fagles “a new and noble standard-bearer” among Aeneid-translators, but whenever he actually talks about Fagles’ translation in the body of his piece he compares it unflatteringly to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1983 version.

A searcher for measured, intelligent praise of Fagles might think they’ve found it in Denis Feeney’s review in the London Review of Books. Feeney calls the work “a fitting cap to a distinguished career” (if I were Fagles, I’d be a little dismayed by the obituary tone of so many of these reviews) and goes on to say it’s “powerful,” “moving,” and “strikingly successful.” But the reader would then go on to read that Feeney is mentioned in Fagles’ acknowledgments with, as Feeney says, “characteristic over-generosity.” At which point the entire review goes to the bottom of the birdcage, and the reader continues the quest.

The end of that road is also the single best review so far to see print, Emily Wilson’s piece in The New Republic. She strikes a confident, measuring tone throughout, so when she writes: “Robert Fagles’s Aeneid is, I think, the best translation of our age,” the reader takes it seriously (although that ‘I think’ is telling in its little way).

Wilson praises Fagles for his sensitivity to characterization and his poetic flexibility, but she also takes him to task for the occasional blunder, sometimes hilariously:

Fagles’ tone is not entirely consistent. Every so often I was bothered by modern proverbs bordering on cliche – as when Aeneas is struck ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea.’ Sometimes the diction is not quite appropriate to the situation, and there are a few unfortunate comic lapses: Aeneas at his most brutal, triumphing over one of his slaughtered enemies, is made to sound like a hoity-toity Mitford sister: ‘Now lie there, you great, frightful man!’

But Wilson’s voice is virtually alone (apart from Cahill’s wide-eyed shrieking, that is); the tone prevailing in the rest of the press is that of mildly clubbish disappointment – in Fagles or in Virgil himself, in direct proportion to how much the modern-day reviewer in question knows what the Hell he’s talking about.

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Steve Donoghue’s writing has appeared in numerous journals and broadsheets including Punch, The Tatler, The Boston Gazette, Encyclopédie, The London Quarterly Review, McClure’s, L’Aurore, and The American Mercury. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads, at stevereads.blogspot.com