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My summer reading list: Virgil and Dickens. All the best writers are long dead

Virgil is wiser than Homer; Dickens is at his best in The Pickwick Papers

By on Monday, 8 August 2011

Still on the subject of summer reading, I have been pointedly ignoring all the features in various papers that give critics’ recommendations of what to read over the summer. There was a time, in my book-reviewing past, when my opinion used to be solicited, but on the whole this “summer reading” or “Christmas reading” lark is just another way of giving a bit of free publicity to friends’ books. Besides, one was supposed to recommend something published in the last year – and everyone knows that all the good books were written by people who have been dead for decades, or in some cases, centuries, even millennia.

Anyway, my summer reading is Charles Dickens’s early work The Pickwick Papers. I always feel summer is the time when one should fill in the gaps and take up one of those books one has always meant to read and never has. I have never read anything by Dostoevsky, and probably never will, but I have read most of Dickens, and now that I am almost 200 pages into Pickwick, I keep on asking myself how I could have left it so long. Pickwick is a simply marvellous book, the best of Dickens, in that it has none of his faults (the convoluted plots, the melodrama, the emotional blackmail, the overheated rhetoric) and all of his genius – his light-hearted sense of fun.

Incidentally, before Pickwick I re-read A Tale of Two Cities: that too is a “good” Dickens, in that the plot is relatively streamlined, even if the novel is politically confused at its heart. Dickens cannot really make up his mind about the French Revolution, can he? He hates the Terror and its violence – his portrait of Madame Defarge and her sidekick the Vengeance represents his melodramatic streak at its best – but he also hates the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, treating both with scant respect and less understanding – his tendency to caricature at its worst.

But Dickens was pretty confused in many ways, wasn’t he? The great educational reformer who sent his son to Eton; the outwardly pious novelist who seems to have a real animus against organised religion; and a man whose writing gives off some pretty weird signals about matters of the heart. Yet, luckily, none of these things surface in Pickwick, or are present to distort that novel’s lively and engaging tone.

My other summer reading is of authors who died millennia ago. My many years of education do have something to show for themselves after all: I mean an appreciation of Catullus and Horace and Virgil. I have an edition of Catullus dating back to 1914 that I picked up second hand, and I have to say that there is nothing greater in my estimation than Carmen XXXI, the Sirmio poem:

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
O quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?
Hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
Salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude
gaudente; vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae,
ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

You do not have to know much Latin to appreciate this poem. There are two things I love about it, its sound, and its evocation of feeling. It is completely satisfying on both fronts. And because it is so good, no English translation ever seems to do it justice. This is what Thomas Hardy makes of it:

Sirmio, thou dearest dear of strands
That Neptune strokes in lake and sea,
With what high joy from stranger lands
Doth thy old friend set foot on thee!
Yea, barely seems it true to me
That no Bithynia holds me now,
But calmly and assuringly
Around me stretchest homely Thou.

Is there a scene more sweet than when
Our clinging cares are undercast,
And, worn by alien moils and men,
The long untrodden sill repassed,
We press the pined for couch at last,
And find a full repayment there?
Then hail, sweet Sirmio; thou that wast,
And art, mine own unrivalled Fair!

Hardy was one of our great poets, but I notice that he completely ducks the final idea in Catullus’ poem, namely that of the smiling waves of the lake expressing the
laughter of home – if indeed that is what it means, for the lines are obscure. Which leads me to conclude that Catullus is a better poet than Hardy, and that you can express more in Latin than you can in English.

I have never been to Sirmio, on Lake Garda, and I doubt I ever will; but it exists in my head as a perfect place. I have never had the Sirmio-feeling, but I instinctively recognise it, and perhaps will find it in heaven.

But I have been to Gaeta. This Italian seaside town between Rome and Naples is immortalised by Virgil, who recounts that it is named after Aeneas’s nurse who was buried there. The lines come at the beginning of the seventh book of the Aeneid:

TU quoque litoribus nostris, Aeneia nutrix,
aeternam moriens famam, Caieta, dedisti;
et nunc servat honos sedem tuus ossaque nomen
Hesperia in magna, siqua est ea gloria, signat.

I have recently discovered Dryden’s verse translation of the Aeneid, in a cheap modern edition and he renders the lines thus:

And thou, o matron of immortal fame!
Here dying, to the shore hast left thy name:
Caieta still the place is called from thee,
The nurse of great Aeneas’ infancy.
Here rest thy bones in rich Hesperia’s plains:
The name (’tis all a ghost can have) remains.

It is a good translation, and it does its best to bring out the plangent nature of an immortal name. But it can’t quite capture the many-layered nature of the original. Virgil says so much in little, often subtly undercutting the apparent meaning of what he says. The Aeneid is a poem about fame; and these lines, perhaps among its most beautiful, really tell us that fame is in the end little consolation in the face of death – the exact opposite, incidentally, of the message of the Iliad, where Achilles’s short life is compensated by an eternal fame. Virgil, in my humble opinion, was wiser than Homer. That’s why he is my perennial summer reading.

  • Anonymous

    I have to take issue with your general sentiment that all the best writers are long dead, I think it just that history has the habit of sifting out the detritus. Can I suggest two books which I think would make wonderful summer reading (as they just done that for me): Gilead and Home, both by Marylinne Robinson. I think these are amongst the best books I’ve ever read and in terms of literature with a religious core deserve mention alongside the works of Greene and Waugh in my opinion.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I have read them both and actually they did not do it for me. Though there are some contemporary American novels that that I greatly admire… I’d have to chaser though back numbers of the Tablet (in which I reviewed them) to call their titles to mind, though.

  • Anonymous

    Waugh was a genius who could reveal a universe in a single turn of phrase: Greene [for all the hype] didn’t understand human beings

    …and CB – Certainly Marylinne Robinson’s books are the best of their type – but like all too many great sweeping american novels – they’re not novels!! They’re glorified hallmark mini-series with angst-ridden self-discovery through the events of their lives and how it bounces off the ideas of great thinkers….That is NOT a novel… A novel is about the human condition and the events those humans go through – NOT the other way round.
    Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, David Copperfield, War & Peace, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Sentimental Education, The Charterhouse of Parma, Lost Illusions, Bovary, Karamazov…etc etc etc – They are novels! Where the characters are human beings – not human cypher-shells of becoming…only Henry James and Hawthorne encroach upon this understanding…But show me a list of the 20 ‘greatest’ american novels and at least three quarters will NOT be novels….they are not grands-romans

    What’s bitterly ironic is that there ARE truly great american novels – but they are dismissed by the US elitist Literati as merely populist dross – the US has wrought many, many Balzacs and Mrs Gaskells and Eliots…but they have all faded into obscurity because they don’t fulfil the criteria for that ridiculous Behemoth ‘the great american novel’ where every character is not a fish swimming in the ocean ;  but rather a stone being battered against the rocks until it becomes a pebble – which even after its arduous journey all rounded and lustrous is still dead – it will never swim! It flows along with the Hegelian tides of Geist – something only a fish does when it’s dead!
    They’re reverse fairy tales, Balzacs from the perspective of the furniture, they’re anti-Walter Scott’s; they’re the arch-nemesis of Dostoyevsky.
    At the end of Home and Gilead you’ll find a believer…
    Throughout a Karamazov or Middlemarch or even unmitigated failures like a Raquin or Monte Cristo or Fathers and Sons…you’ll find God!

  • Parasum

    Virgil isn’t a patch on Homer. There is nothing in Virgil, not even the end in the Dido episode, to match the meeting of Odysseus with the ghost of his mother in Hades, or his re-union with his dog Argus, or the return by Achilles of the corpse of Hector to Priam. Virgil just had no talent for “invention”.  Ovid, OTOH…

    “But Dickens was pretty confused in many ways, wasn’t he? The great
    educational reformer who sent his son to Eton;”

    ## If it was a good school, & he could afford it, then why not ?  One could equally well argue that to fail to use the opportunity to do that, if the opportunity were offered, would be a moral failing, negligence to do the best one could. Why should one’s children be denied a good education not given to oneself, if they could have it ? Denying others what has not been given oneself is modern Labour spitefulness masquerading as equality; a foolish 20th century confusion. 

    “the outwardly pious
    novelist who seems to have a real animus against organised religion;”

    ## That’s not really surprising – “organised religion” is often full of humbugs and shams of every kind; Dickens hd a gift for exposing them in other walks of life, so it’s unsurprising if he noticed them there. He would not have been unusual in this: the same distrust of  “organised religion” is very prominent in Evangelicalism, thanks to the 18th-century Evangelical Revival. Sincerely Christian people were (& are) often scathing about “organised religion” *because* they saw from the Bible what sort of attitude is pleasing to God, & internalised it; presumably Dickens, who seems to have been “low Church”, had been influenced by this outlook. Chesterton has discussed Dickens’ religious standpoint in his prefaces to Dickens.

  • Parasum

    “My other summer reading is of authors who died millennia ago.”

    A recommendation: the Epic of Gilgamesh. Which is about friendship, death, the search for immortality, & what came of it. Age: 3,600 years.

    There are many translations into English, such as that by N.K. Sandars, & the more recent one by Andrew George. Both have appeared in Penguin Books.

  • Anonymous


    FATHER : ARE YOU CRAZY????!!!!!!!

    Get your bahookey down that bookshop or download them on your kindle – NOW!!!!!

    You have to, have to, have to read Dostoyevsky; how can you have missed him? How can you comment on any book without reading two of the ten great novels of all time?!!!!

  • peregrinus

    People are as inventive and creative now as they ever were.  You do yourself a disservice by looking only to the past.  It is true that it is harder now to sift out the dross, and harder for genius to make itself heard, but our time will produce its own masters, who are around us now, who speak about our time, our problems, and our concerns, even if they are for the moment unrecognised.  The books with most power to touch us are the books of our own time.   Read Chestertons essay in praise of penny dreadfuls for details. I say this as a Latinist myself.   

  • Jeannine

    Give some examples of those “‘greatest’ American novels” that are not novels & great American novels that have fallen into obscurity.  I actually might agree with you. I am not enthused with the American novel of late although I did read The Road & liked it’s prose & father-son story line very much.

  • Parasum

    Does Jean Plaidy count ? She knew how tell a story, and no mistake. As did Maurice Druon. Both unforgettable, and gripping. If Jean Plaidy isn’t respectable enough – try Josephine Tey.

    Someone ought to say a word for science fiction – there are authors and books as full of invention & creativity as could be desired.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Could I just say that of the hundreds and hundreds of novels I have read, few can equal those of Jean Plaidy? The woman was a genius at story telling. I read them all as a teenager and loved them. A year or so ago I picked up one of hers that dealt with the reign of Charles II – specifically the life of Queen Anne before she came to the throne. I was instantly hooked, all the pleasure came rushing back.
    Maurice Druon I will look out for!

  • Parasum

     This may perhaps be of interest:

    “Chesterton on Dickens”, by G.K. Chesterton, with an Introduction by  Michael Slater. Published by Everyman Classics, 1992, as a paperback of 23 essays & about 270 pages (if one includes Slater’s essay). The book is a reprint of the collection of Chesterton’s Dickens criticism entitled “Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens” published by Everyman in 1911 & reprinted in 1933. The comment opn the back of the book quotes praise of Chesterton’s
    Dickens criticism by T. S. Eliot, and cites Peter Ackroyd to the same
    effect.  Chesterton writes, not only about the novels, but also about other Dickensiana, such as the “American Notes” & the “Child’s History of England”.

    My copy cost £4.99 AKA $ US 7.95. Which may or may not be useful info.

    The book is a “good read” even if one is not a ChesterBellocian.