Monday, November 08, 2010

Reading the classics

On a whim, I read an early John Updike novel called The Centaur, which is partly a retelling of the myth of Chiron, the wise and gentle centaur of Greek myth, who was a a willing sacrifice to the gods to expiate the sin of Prometheus. In the novel, Chiron is high school science teacher George Caldwell, who also coaches the swim team, a lovable loser, convinced of his own inferiority, but devoted to his seventeen-year-old son, Peter. The novel covers three winter days in Pennsylvania in 1947, alternating between Peter's realistic perspective (recalled as an adult) and the third-person prose that weaves the traditional and mythic narrative of the characters and events. In this, as in all of Updike's novels, there is poetry intermixed with the gritty details of the mundane. He describes a gathering winter storm:

The town of white roofs seems a colony of deserted temples; they feather together with distance and go gray, melt. Shale Hill is invisible. A yellownes seeps upward. From the zenith a lavender luminosity hangs pulseless, as if the particular brilliance of the moon and stars had been dissolved and the solution shot through with a low electric voltage. The effect, of tenuous weight, of menace, is exhilarating....Upward countercurrents suspend snow which then with the haste of love flies downward to gravity's embrace; the alternations of density conjure an impression of striding legs stretching upward into infinity. The storm walks. The storm walks but does not move on.
Reminded of how I always loved Greek mythology, and feeling the lack of an actual classical education, in which I would have picked up at least a smattering of Greek or Latin and read some of the great philosophers, I checked out Bernard Knox's Norton Book of Classical Literature to ease my way into some of the ancient writers. I've read Homer and Virgil and some of the plays, but going back into these unfamiliar poems and essays, it's been marvelous to recognize again, how timeless the writing is -- how common the concerns are and how "modern" they sound still, these fragments and scraps from centuries before Christ and Rome's grandeur. I keep coming across little gems that I want to post here, which I'll try to do in the next few days.

1 comment:

TheBob said...

I'm with ya' on the feeling the lack of a classical education. I used to be the director of technology for a prep school in NYC, and I used to audit the Greek classes for fun. In my youth I used to have a craving to set a foundation under my learning, like if only I could learn the Greeks well, then I'd understand everything that came after with more clarity. I was never able to achieve that.

Am reading "More Die of Heartbreak" by Saul Bellow -- he's a big quoter of the Greeks as well. I just know I'd get so much more out of it if I knew the Greeks better! Ugh!