| June 14
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
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."
he died in 1972