Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, by Harry Eyres, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$25, 256 pages
Knowledge of classical literature can bring people together or drive them apart; it can be socially exclusive, inspire feats of one-upmanship, or turn enemies into friends. Sometimes it can do all this at once, as when the author and Special Operations Executive officer Patrick Leigh Fermor led the captured German general Heinrich Kreipe through the Cretan mountains in 1944. Looking at the snow-covered peaks, Kreipe murmured lines from Horace, in Latin: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/ Soracte … (“Do you see how Soracte stands white with deep snow?”). Leigh Fermor took up the ode where he left off, suavely reciting it to the end. United by their classical education, he and his captive shared a “moment” before going back to the business of war.
If this story is still touching, it is mainly because of the beauty and humanity of the “Soracte” ode itself. Horace gives us a mountain snowstorm, only to move immediately indoors where he and a friend are about to throw a log on the fire and uncork some simple local wine: “A mellow four-year-old riserva,” as Harry Eyres translates it here, “Just the Sabine vino, not a fancy cru.” Being both poet and wine writer, Eyres has a taste for Horace’s wine as well as an ear for the vigorous Latin with which it is evoked. In Horace and Me, he blends these with memoir to create a paean to Horace and a polemic for the wise life, and for classical literature in general.
He makes Horace very appealing: a paunchy, sociable man, who esteemed friendship more highly than lust, and honest lust more highly than love. He suffered much early turmoil, born in 65BC as the son of a freed slave in southern Italy, then studying in Rome and Athens. After Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44BC, he ran into trouble by fighting for Brutus’s army, and was punished by having his family property confiscated. He worked as a scribe, then found a powerful patron who bought him a rural haven in the Sabine hills near Rome. By his death in 8BC, Horace was secure in the certainty that his poetry would last longer than bronze.
Eyres read Horace at school but only later learnt to value his “middle-aged” wisdom: his praise of moderation, equanimity, the simple life, the joys of the passing moment, and the ability to enjoy what one has rather than always reaching for more. Eyres finds Horace’s writing “like a dip in an ice-cold stream, clarifying, not enflaming”, and recommends it as an antidote to modern bustle and a form of therapy.
It is the therapeutic memoir strand of the book that lets it down somewhat, including the passages of travelogue in Greece and Italy. Eyres promises a grand narrative arc: “This is a story of how I came back to Horace – and came back to myself at the same time.” Yet it is only vaguely fulfilled, and many episodes are bland, and tenuously connected with Horace. When, at last, something really dramatic happens, and Eyres takes an ill-fated trip to Cuba to meet a “flame-haired poetess” who does not show up, leaving him disoriented and playing Schubert “on huge white Russian pianos left stranded in obscure museums and hotel lobbies”, we are hurried past the story as if there were nothing to see. The scene dissolves in a puff of plurals. (How many huge white pianos?)
But Eyres’s take on Horace is enlightening, and best of all he provides his own witty, exuberantly updated translations of the verses. Roman carriages become SUVs, a perfumed youth becomes a boy drenched in Pour Homme, and a long-forgotten Roman uprising is transplanted to Basra. This keeps Horace surprising and fresh. It sends the reader to the original – not for a more conventional translation but for a long sip of the Latin, which Eyres makes clear we cannot do without, whether we can spout it magnificently on a Cretan mountain or not.
Sarah Bakewell is author of ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’ (Vintage)