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Tacitus

In the issue of October 15, 1966, The New Yorker published a story by Edith Templeton, "Talking of Count Sternborn." I was eighteen and in my freshman year at Notre Dame. I was very taken by Ms Templeton's sly tone, and I found her use of Tacitus's deadpan equivocations - not equivocations at all - very clever. I had never read any Tacitus - avoiding Latin class was one of my proudest achievements, although teaching myself the language was not proving a success - but I remembered what the narrator of the story had to say about him.

As I listened to the cook, I thought that if Tacitus had written my mother's history he would have stated, "It has been said that during the month of June of that year she journeyed to Switzerland, be it because she wanted to savor the beauty of that country, or be it because she wanted to display her fashionable clothes." I was twelve years old that summer in the nineteen-twenties, and I did not care for history, but I was greatly taken with Tacitus - the nobility of his bitterness, his uncomfortable lucidity about people's behavior, and his shattering, wooden-faced irony. I had memorized such passages as "While a great fire devastated the town of Cremona, the temple of Diana was spared, be it because the Goddess protected her shrine, or be it because it was situated on the outskirts of the town."

I believe that this story appears in the long out-of-print collection, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I'm not sure. I've tried to get hold of it from time to time, just for the pleasure of re-reading the story, the title of which, of course, I forgot. All I remembered was a Bohemian castle, a little girl, and Tacitus. Yesterday, I also remembered (d'oh) that the story must be available in The Complete New Yorker, and of course it is.

Thanks to Google, I was able to track down that temple in, or just outside of, Cremona. Here's Tacitus (Historiarum, III, xxxiii):

Per quadriduum Cremona suffecit. Cum munis sacra profanaque in ignem considerent, solum Mefitis templus stetit ante moenis, loco seu numine defensum.

It's so marvelously different in Latin. Tacitus needs only four words what it takes twenty to say in English. That's the fun of translating top-drawer Latin, and also the reason why translations quickly date, as fashions dictate different ways of unpacking the lapidary compression.

It's interesting, don't you think, that Ms Templeton, in real life a dedicated votary of the goddess of love, misremembered Tacitus. Notes inform me that Mefitis is the goddess of malaria "whose ravages in the valley of the Po must have been serious in antiquity." (Loeb Classics, Nº 111)

Count Sternborn is a neighbor of the narrator's family who has been unlucky in love, and as the story goes along little Edith is told numerous stories about him by various elderly people. The wickedest story, characteristically - Edith Templeton would write about her family throughout her career - is told to her by her grandmother, a grande dame who's full of surprises, and so carefully does the writer anchor her tale in bygone manners that the anecdote is genuinely shocking, in a tittering sort of way. 

By the time I had reached the door in the garden wall, I had composed a good Tacitus sentence: "It is known that Count Sternborn, though he made three attempts, never succeeded inn getting married, be it because the Gods misguided him in the choice of his brides, or be it because his sense of honor made him heedless of the other duties he owed to life."

 

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Comments

Wonderful...I too remember "We have always lived in the Castle", which, as a teenager, I thought was a most romantic title. I took enough Latin to be impressed by what an "efficient " language it was, and I still think that today when I am in church singing the Latin Mass.
My favorite word in this posting is "heedless"; it is head and shoulders above synonyms and alternative expressions. When I was little, I mis-read it as "headless", and in some deep sense, that meaning has always remained with me. I visualize a person riding "hell bent for leather", hair streaming all ways and head slightly disconnected from the neck.

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