"Why read the classics?" asks Italo Calvino in a famous essay published in The New York Review of Books. Then, true to form, instead of answering the question he just posed, the author noted for mixing irony, fable and allegory in works such as Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, devotes the rest of his allocated space to "suggested definitions" of what makes a classic. Except that in a sort of game of mirrors, when he gets to the end and throws up his hands, we realise that he had been answering the question all along.
Here is how his list starts off:
The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”
Just as you are wondering if this implies you don't make the grade if you don't read your classics multiple times, Calvino deftly unhorses any such presumption. That reiterative prefix, he says, is almost always a small hypocrisy: people are ashamed to admit they've never read the title in question, so pass it off as a rereading.
But actually, he goes on to say, they shouldn't worry, because "read" or "reread" is of little importance with classics. Because,
Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.
|Winnie Ille Pu|
|Aliciae per speculum transitus|
Winnie the Pooh and Through the Looking Glass in Latin!
May I put it out there right away that I have never studied Latin, except for a summer vacation twenty years ago with a book optimistically titled Latin made simple (ha!), and one or two encounters with bilingual editions of Latin poetry. But I have had so much fun leafing through these books. You don't need Latin - you just need to have loved the original. And enjoy words.
From Winnie Ille Pu, the scene where Pooh (sorry, Pu) tries to steal the bees' honey by floating up to their hive attached to a balloon ("folliculo" in Latin!):
'De apibus semper dubitandum est.' says Pu. Always be doubtful of bees.
Famous phrases by great Roman orators and writers are played on wherever possible:
"I don't hold with all this washing", grumbled Eeyore. "This modern Behind-the-ears nonsense."
And what does Ior say? He says "O tempora, o mos ablutionis retroauricularis!" "Oh, this modern custom of washing behind the ears", an adaptation of Cicero's famous exclamation on the shortcomings of his contemporaries, "O tempora, O mores". "Oh what times, oh what customs."
Such gems are pointed out, if you miss them, in notes in the back, which also provide many evocative instances of further information. For instance, we are told that when Pooh asks Christopher Robin if he can see which is the Queen Bee, this has been translated literally as regina apium, but the ancient Romans did not in fact use this expression. For them it was a rex apium, "the sovereign being regarded as a male".
Quite a few works of literature have been translated into Latin, from traditional 19th century classics such as Superbia et Odium (which you can read on line at ephemeris.alcuinus.net) to more modern childhood favourites such as Ursus Nomine Paddington, recently made into a imaginem subitariam.
See if you can guess what these translations correspond to:
Puteus et Pendulum
Vestes Novae Imperatoris
Quomodo invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem abrogaverit
Fabula De Petro Cuniculo
Did you get them all? Congratulatio!