Wednesday, 11 December 2013


In the summer many people like to lie on the beach. They get bored easily, so they read trashy novels while cooking. yes, I know.

Now however it is December: time for more serious reading, so I'll tell you what I'm reading. (Well, it's my blog, dammit.)

First, a heap of recent issues of the TLS. It seems there is a new Penguin Classics Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland, who is I think a poet, which sounds promising. The TLS reviewer Edith Hall compares this new version with earlier ones. She says it is marred by trendy populist anachronistic expressions, and recommends the earlier Penguin Classics edition translated around 1920 or '30 by Aubrey de Selincourt. It will come as no surprise to either of my regular readers that I read Herodotus in a late Victorian translation.
But isn't Herodotus 'history', and therefore by definition boring? I was certainly bored by and useless at history at school, but then I hadn't been given Herodotus. He is usually entertaining and sometimes Carry-on-film hilarious, as in the passage where some ancient ruler is so proud of his wife's beauty that he gets his servant to spy on her naked (the wife, not the servant, though come to think of it...) through a chink in the bathroom door. My own favourite Pythonesque bit is the description of the way they catch Nile crocodiles: they used to tie a pig up on the bank and beat the shit out of it. Seems the indignant pig's cries of pain attracted all the crocodiles for miles around. We are not told why they wanted to catch crocodiles. They say its meat is delicious, but then so is pork: why not just eat the pig?

Four years ago in London there was a celebration of the life and works of Stephen Spender, with his poems read by various poets, including famous Seamus who has since left us. As I couldn't be there, Robina Pelham Burn of the Stephen Spender trust has generously sent me an admittedly very bad recording of the event. This has led me to get down from the shelf Spender's 1939 book 'The Still Centre'. I had always thought Spender the least interesting of the group known by the near-fascist poet Roy Campbell as 'Joint MacSpaunday', but reading him again shows that I was quite wrong.

Also: 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', which I am reading with my friend Anastasia. If you put all the Harry Potter books in a row you will notice that they get progressively thicker, in both senses. J.K. Rowling-in-money is not a good writer: the early books were heavily edited. Then she became rich and famous, so now the timorous editors have had to put away their red ballpoints.

I'm also re-reading the fragments of Sappho, in the excellent Robert Chandler translation. We never had more than fragments of Sappho's writings. These were augmented by the discovery not so long ago of the Oxyrhincus (that's almost certainly spelt wrongly) papyrus, but there's still not much of it and most translators have tentatively or boldly filled in the gaps. The second half of the Chandler edition contains versions, elaborations, and downright inventions of Sappho by English poets through the ages. Unfortunately the book has, in the paperback edition by Everyman, an off-putting cover, which looks like the local weight-watcher's tableau vivant of Botticelli's 'Primavera' painted by Matisse on acid. As Robert told me, anyone who likes the cover won't like the poems, and vice-versa.

'Enough! Or too much.' (William Blake.) I was going to tell you about another Nile bank thing, a poem by Cavafy, but it can wait.

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