George Faludy: Notes from the Rainforest

Hounslow Press Willowdale, Ontario, Canada 1988 pp. 44-47

June 14

Jacqueline has, perhaps in error, included a copy of the Vatican periodical Latinitas in a bundle of mail, an issue containing a poem by E.*, who has earned something of a reputation in that tiny group of people around the world who still write in Latin. He is understandably a little tired of the amused incredulity with which the Latinless (most people nowadays) greet this passion of his, and once listed for me Five Good Reasons for Writing in Latin. These are:
1) You do not have to worry about the intelligence of your readers. They're bright.
2) Having gone to the trouble of learning a dead language, they are likely to be people who can think for themselves, not part of any herd.
3) Latin is at least sixteen centuries older than English and may yet outlive it.
4) Small is beautiful. Crafting a Latin poem is like engraving an intaglio. The result, if successful, is exquisite and permanent.
5) It is intellectual resistance against the general rot. Like the Hasidim and the Amish, one is saying No to all the trivial crap of modern life.
Even when not making polemical lists, E. can be a bit testy on the subject. I once asked him if it was not discouraging, writing in such a little-known language. "That's a rather odd question," he replied, "coming from a Hungarian poet." On another occasion a quite talented Canadian poetess, tipsy at the moment, made the mistake of asking him if "anyone who really had anything to say would say it in Latin." Smiling slightly and pouring the lady another drink, E. replied gently. "You're not likely to find out, are you?" For my part, I have never seriously considered writing verse in anything but my native Hungarian. On the other hand, there is something to be said for E.'s attitude. An old friend of mine, the late Alexander Lenard, quite unexpectedly hit the bestseller list some years ago with his Latin version of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. A Hungarian refugee, Lenard had found himself living in the wilds of Brazil. As a physician he treated the ailments of local settlers and was paid with chickens, sides of ham, and eggs. For seven years, to keep his sanity, he painstakingly translated that little book into what is probably the smoothest and most amusing humanistic Latin ever devised. On a lecture tour of South America I asked him what had possessed him to learn Latin to that degree of excellence, and he told me. During World War II, which he spent as a refugee hiding from the Gestapo in Rome, it became clear to him that he was not living in the best of centuries. As it was also the least literate of centuries as regards serious literature, he decided that the one place the authorities would never look for a fugitive from Fascist justice was in a first-rate library. From then on, to earn his daily bread, he illegally treated his Italian neighbors' high blood-pressure and so on, and then would slip into a large monastic library where for the rest of the day, for many hundreds of days, he read all there was to read there, Latin. "Every afternoon I entered the Middle Ages, a blessed relief after the Rome of 1944," he said, and added a remark I have always cherished: "The library is the head-office of European civilization." He be came so happy in this atmosphere in spite of hunger, danger, and privation that when the war ended he decided to continue "reading nothing written after the French Revolution, except of course medical journals." A man of many talents, Lenard won a contest on Brazilian TV playing Bach fugues on the organ. With the prize money he had his translation, Winnie ille Pu, typeset in Sao Paulo by a Hungarian on the machinery of an Italian-language daily. "A typically Hungarian business," as he said. Eventually a Swedish and then a British publisher took a chance on it, and before long Oxford students were mobbing Blackwell's to get a copy. It sold well over a hundred thousand copies and Lenard built himself a modest little house at the edge of the jungle where, until his death in 1970**, he read Petronius and listened to Bach. Robert Graves -no mean Latinist himself- wrote an introduction to Lenard's autobiography, The Valley of the Latin Bear. "Over a hundred thousand copies?" asked E., taken aback, when I first told him about Lenard. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then, more at war with the century of Massenmensch than even Lenard was, he replied: "I'd take the money, of course. .. but then start writing in Sanskrit. Very few people know Sanskrit."

*        Eric Johnson
**      actually, he died in 1972

[Index]     [about Lenard]     [Lenard Seminar Group]