Saturday, January 9, 2021

Italy books: his and hers

His: Poets In A Landscape

In the mid-50s Gilbert Highet, then a professor in Classics at Columbia, took a trip through Italy. He seeks out places associated with the famous Roman poets: Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal. The organizing principle is geographical, starting in the north: Catullus' birthplace is Sirmione, on the Lago di Garda; Juvenal is likely from Aquinum, the modern Aquino, southeast of Rome, also the origin of St. Thomas Aquinas. Highet and his traveling companion visit places from north to south. Some of the identifications are tenuous. Is the Villa d'Orazio Horace's actual villa? Who knows? But it doesn't really matter. Highet is a good travel writer. Italy, especially in the countryside, was still quite poor in the mid-50s, but Highet enjoys meeting people, his descriptions of the landscape are evocative, the things he sees are fun.

A second aspect of the book is the poetry. Highet gives his own translations from the poets. I think he's a sensitive and strong translator, with a real feel for the metrics. He's also an enormously civilized individual, quoting Eliot or Pound or Tennyson appropriately. For instance he cites Tennyson's witty 'Hendecasyllabics' in discussing Catullus. Highet isn't known as a translator, but based on this he could have been.

The weak link in the book is the criticism of the poetry. It's not exactly wrong, but it's terribly flat-footed. It wouldn't have been out of place in the Victorian era, but Highet was born in 1906. It's possible to read his criticism for amusement, but that's about all. Highet has the grace to quote Yeats' poem 'The Scholars' but doesn't manage to escape its mockery of 'bald heads forgetful of their sins' reading Catullus.

It would be a wonderful book to take with (or read in advance) should you be able to take a trip to Italy. ***Heavy sigh***

Highet dedicated his book to his 'Travelling Companion'. Turns out she was writing a book, too.

Hers: North From Rome

The introduction to Highet's book says if he's remembered at all, he's remembered for this, that, and the other. He was a famous enough man in his day, a great teacher, author of various books, judge at Book of the Month Club, editor at Cyril Connolly's Horizon, radio personality (you can hear him on YouTube). Still. Balderdash. If Gilbert Highet is remembered at all these days, he's remembered as Mr. Helen MacInnes.

I probably read North From Rome when I was teenager, but if so I didn't remember it, and it felt blissfully new. 

The American Bill Lammiter has written one hit play. He's there for rewrites in New York during the production; he goes to Hollywood to consult because they're going to make it into a movie. His fiancée Eleanor Halley has broken it off with him because of his unavailability and has subsequently announced she's going to marry an Italian count.

The novel starts with Bill living in a Roman hotel on the Via Vittorio Veneto, near the Pincian Gate. He's been there four months, making no progress either on his next play or in winning Eleanor back, and he's thinking about chucking it all and heading back to the U.S. 

Late that very night, smoking on his balcony, he sees a man jump out of a car and attack a pretty Italian girl. He yells, they run off, and our story is off, too. Pretty great.

It was amusing to read them together. At one point Bill visits a professor staying at the American Academy in Rome. Well, Highet in his acknowledgements gives thanks to the American Academy in Rome. I imagine Gilbert looking for signs of Propertius' farm in the countryside near Perugia, while Helen was there pacing off a possible shoot-out between Bill Lammiter and some Communist goons. 

Her dedication also reads, "To my travelling companion."

Good times.


Starting off this year's tour of Europe on a high note!





12 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this! Did not know they were married.

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  2. His and Hers...what a fun way to do a post! And so interesting to see what both ended up writing after this trip to Italy. :)

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    1. It was fun--and so obvious--when I read them together. I'll bet they had a good time.

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  3. i didn't know that either... i've enjoyed Ms. Highet's books and i think i read one by him at some point altho i can't recall which one... great post, featuring the two!

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    1. I've been rereading MacInnes over the past couple of years after not reading her for thirty (oh, make that forty...) years. I read some Highet in grad school, but he was considered out-of-date even then. I'm sure that's when I learned they were married.

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  4. Great review; I enjoyed it very much. So interesting, to learn of the tie between these two very different books (and writers). At some point, I had the Highet book but (shame, shame) never got around to reading it (a common fate for my TBR books); eventually it was discarded during a move. As for the missus, I remember reading some of her books at some far period in my life but -- that's it! It's nice to know that her books have held up for you (not always the case, on a re-read after many years).

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    1. I wasn't sure when I started rereading her books a couple of years ago they would hold up for me, but they did--I've been enjoying them.

      Oh, if I ever had to move again! The horror! There are a vast number of TBR books around here that I tell myself I'm going to read--as well as a vast number of books I've read once & am unlikely to read again--I'd absolutely hate to have to make decisions about all of them. I suppose I'll have to one day. But not now. ;-)

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  5. You are off to a good start. I have long had Helen MacInnes and Eric Ambler on my TBR because blogger Thomas at Hogglestock has sung their praises. But I've not yet tried either. Maybe once my libraries re-open (crossing fingers that it be fairly soon!).

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    1. Thomas is right about this... ;-)

      You can't get books at all from your library? Oy! There's a bunch of restrictions here, so it's challenging, but we can at least get them.

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  6. This is so neat! I didn't know about these two at all; I'd love to read the books together.

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