‘What I understand you to mean is, that in physical appearance I do not resemble a Hercules?’
Dr Burton’s eyes swept over Hercule Poirot, over his small neat person attired in striped trousers, correct black jacket and natty bow tie, swept up from his patent leather shoes to his egg-shaped head and the immense moustache that adorned his upper lip.
‘Frankly, Poirot,’ said Dr Burton, ‘you don’t! I gather,’ he added, ‘that you’ve never had much time to study the Classics?’
‘That is so.’
‘Pity. Pity. You’ve missed a lot. Everyone should be made to study the Classics if I had my way.’
Poirot shrugged his shoulders.
‘Eh bien, I have got on very well without them.’
‘Got on! Got on! It’s not a question of getting on. That’s the wrong view altogether. The Classics aren’t a ladder leading to quick success like a modern correspondence course! It’s not a man’s working hours that are important—it’s his leisure hours. That’s the mistake we all make. Take yourself now, you’re getting on, you’ll be wanting to get out of things, to take things easy—what are you going to do with your leisure hours?’
Poirot was ready with his reply.
‘I am going to attend—seriously—to the cultivation of vegetable marrows.’
…But seriously, Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to’—his voice sank to an appreciative purr—’an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long, low room lined with books—must be a long room—not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port—and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read:’ he quoted sonorously:
‘”Μὴτ ὃ αὐτε xυβερνὴτης ἐνὶ οὶνοπι πόντῳ
νῆα θοὴν ιθύνει ἐρεχθομένην ὰνέμοισι
‘”By skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens
The swift ship buffered by the winds.”
Of course you can never get the spirit of the original.’
For the moment, in his enthusiasm, he had forgotten Poirot. And Poirot, watching him, felt suddenly a doubt—an uncomfortable twinge. Was there, here, something that he had missed? Some richness of the spirit? Sadness crept over him. Yes, he should have become acquainted with the Classics … long ago … Now, alas, it was too late …
Hercule Poirot was plunged head first into a bewildering sea of classical lore with particular reference to ‘Hercules, a celebrated hero who, after death, was ranked among the gods, and received divine honours.’
So far, so good—but thereafter it was far from plain sailing. For two hours Poirot read diligently, making notes, frowning, consulting his slips of paper and his other books of reference. Finally he sank back in his chair and shook his head. His mood of the previous evening was dispelled. What people!
Take this Hercules—this hero! Hero, indeed! What was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies! Poirot was reminded of one Adolfe Durand, a butcher, who had been tried at Lyon in 1895—a creature of oxlike strength who had killed several children. The defense had been epilepsy—from which he undoubtedly suffered—though whether grand mal or petit mal had been an argument of several days’ discussion. This ancient Hercules probably suffered from grand mal. No, Poirot shook his head, if that was the Greeks’ idea of a hero, then measured by modern standards it certainly would not do. The whole classical pattern shocked him. These gods and goddesses—they seemed to have as many different aliases as a modern criminal. Indeed they seemed to be definitely criminal types. Drinking, debauchery, incest, rape, loot, homicide and chicanery—enough to keep a juge d’Instruction constantly busy. No decent family life. No order, no method. Even in their crimes no order or method!
‘Hercules, indeed!’ said Hercule Poirot, rising to his feet, disillusioned.
He looked round him with approval. A square room, with good square modern furniture—even a piece of good modern sculpture representing one cube place on another cube and above it a geometrical arrangement of copper wire. And in the midst of this shining and orderly room, himself. He looked at himself in the glass. Here, then, was a modern Hercules—very distinct from that unpleasant sketch of a naked figure with bulging muscles, brandishing a club. Instead, a small compact figure attired in correct urban wear with a moustache—such a moustache as Hercules never dreamed of cultivating—a moustache magnificent yet sophisticated.
Yet there was between this Hercule Poirot and the Hercules of Classical lore one point of resemblance. Both of them, undoubtedly, had been instrumental in ridding the world of certain pests … Each of them could be described as a benefactor of the Society he lived in …
—Agatha Christie, The Labours of Hercules
Why does the great and universal fame of classical authors continue? The answer is that the fame of classical authors is entirely independent of the majority. Do you suppose that if the fame of Shakespeare depended on the man in the street it would survive a fortnight? The fame of classical authors is originally made, and it is maintained, by a passionate few. Even when a first-class author has enjoyed immense success during his lifetime, the majority have never appreciated him so sincerely as they have appreciated second-rate men. He has always been reinforced by the ardour of the passionate few. And in the case of an author who has emerged into glory after his death the happy sequel has been due solely to the obstinate perseverance of the few. They could not leave him alone; they would not. They kept on savouring him, and talking about him, and buying him, and they generally behaved with such eager zeal, and they were so authoritative and sure of themselves, that at last the majority grew accustomed to the sound of his name and placidly agreed to the proposition that he was a genius; the majority really did not care very much either way. And it is by the passionate few that the renown of genius is kept alive from one generation to another….
The passionate few only have their way by reason of the fact that they are genuinely interested in literature, that literature matters to them. They conquer by their obstinacy alone, by their eternal repetition of the same statements. Do you suppose they could prove to the man in the street that Shakespeare was a great artist? The said man would not even understand the terms they employed. But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes—not by reason, but by faith. And he too repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist, and he buys the complete works of Shakespeare and puts them on his shelves, and he goes to see the marvellous stage-effects which accompany King Lear or Hamlet, and comes back religiously convinced that Shakespeare was a great artist. All because the passionate few could not keep their admiration of Shakespeare to themselves. This is not cynicism; but truth. And it is important that those who wish to form their literary taste should grasp it. What causes the passionate few to make such a fuss about literature? There can be only one reply. They find a keen and lasting pleasure in literature.
—Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It
Just as Homer and Dante and Shakespeare and the lot were getting pretty peaceful in their final resting places, Rebecca of Rebecca Reads is trying to teleport them into the blogosphere. She started with a guest post at the Book Bloggers Appreciation Week site, in which she encouraged book bloggers to read and review the classics. There is some excellent advice in that post, such as blogging about long works in sections, and just using your own style to blog about the classics. But she has really stirred things up with her proposed “Dead Authors Blog Tour.”
I’m not entirely sure what a blog tour is, but I gather it’s something like the web rings of yore, and in this case would involve linking blog posts related to a specific classic book, or perhaps a group of related works or themes in classic literature. It’s all pretty much up in the air right now, including the title. I’ve proposed it be called the “Undead Authors Blog Tour”–classic authors may have shuffled off their mortal coils long ago but they are living among us still!
Do check out Rebecca Reads and join the lively discussion. If nothing else it will convince you that the classics are by no means dead.
Don’t forget, Alberto Manguel’s Massey Lectures begin tonight. You can listen live online or download the first episode from the CBC Past Podcasting page, under “The Best of Ideas” (probably time-limited). If anyone desperately wants the mp3 file, something might be arranged…
UPDATE: Just to be clear, this is a five-part series. Part 2 featuring Gilgamesh is tonight (Tuesday). The download for part 1 may disappear so get it while it lasts!
UPDATE II: I found the podcast schedule for Alberto Manguel’s Massey Lectures. If you want to download the lectures, they will be available on the Ideas podcast page on the following dates:
Nov 5 – The 2007 Massey Lectures by Alberto Manguel, Part 1
Nov 12 – The 2007 Massey Lectures by Alberto Manguel, Part 2
Nov 19 – The 2007 Massey Lectures by Alberto Manguel, Part 3
Nov 26 – The 2007 Massey Lectures by Alberto Manguel, Part 4
Dec 3 – The 2007 Massey Lectures by Alberto Manguel, Part 5
You can subscribe to Ideas podcasts here.
My local library is publicizing the upcoming Massey Lectures with Alberto Manguel by giving away promotional bookmarks. I picked up a few extra to give away to any Manguel fans out there. Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to pop one in the mail for you.
UPDATE: To whet your appetites further, here are the descriptions of this year’s lectures:
Nov 5: The Voice of Cassandra
“In ancient Anglo-Saxon,” says Alberto Manguel in his opening lecture, “the word for poet was maker, a term that blends the meaning of weaving words with that of building the material world.” The invention of language, he suggests, was a way of drawing us together, of finding common cause in the world; the making of stories lends words to our sense of reality.
Nov 6: The Tablets of Gilgamesh
“The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of both a man and of a city, of how a man, King Gilgamesh, came to know who he was, and of how a city, Uruk, becam not only magnificent but just.” It’s also the story of the Other, of how we only find ourselves when we finda place for the stanger, the outsider.
Nov 7: The Bricks of Babel
“Can we undo the curse of Babel?,” asks Alberto Manguel. Dictatorship, war, famine, colonial oppression, racial persecution and ethnic cleansing shatter the imaginative construction of our identities, work to prevent us from building Babel while at the same time demanding that future Babels be built. But perhaps the gift of many tongues helps us to illuminate who we are.
Nov 8: The Books of Don Quixote
History, the story of a society, is slippery. And stories, as Don Quixote knew, grant society its identity, but they cannot be just any story: they must respond to a shared reality. They can’t be fictional inventions, in the sense of forgeries or misrepresentations; they must, in a deeply-rooted literary sense, ring true.
Nov 9: The Screens of Hal
Stories tell us that a better, happier world lies always just beyond our reach, in the fabulous Golden Age longed for by Don Quixote, or in the future, on a distant planet or a contented Earth. Stories can offer consolation for suffering and suggest ways of imagining a future that may offer us ways of remainign alive, togther, on this much abused Earth.