At age 58, Ann Patty found herself in an unexpected predicament. After years as a harried working mother whose long career as an editor included publishing V.C. Andrews’s “Flowers in the Attic,” Patty had recently retired only to realize that “an abundance of free time could become a source of dread.” What, she wondered, “was I going to do with my still driven, anxious self, ever closer to the void yawning before me?” Her answer was to fill it with something she had always loved: “words, grammar, books, language.” Only this time she was going to find the “roots of my word home.” She was going to learn Latin.
“Living With a Dead Language: My Romance With Latin,” Patty’s memoir of finding renewed passion by beginning a serious study of the language at the college level, explores not just Latin but also her personal search for meaning and purpose in her new life.
Patty had always been a collector of words, beginning with “benevolence,” which she first heard as a seventh-grader and recalls: “I don’t think I had ever heard such a sonorous four-syllable word used in speech before. I wanted that word . . .”
But there was more to her new quest, and why she wrote a memoir about it. As she explains, her reasons included “not only to fight off hebetude — “from the Latin hebetudo, from the verb hebeo, meaning ‘to be dull, sluggish, inactive’ ” — but also to avoid becoming my mother,” who never found “a pursuit more fulfilling than crossword puzzles” after her children left home, and died when too young.
From the beginning of her pursuit, Patty is clearly happy to be back in the classroom, where she “recognized the smell immediately: chalk dust and books and anticipation, the smells of learning.” She energetically dives into the Latin language initially, and literature and Roman history in later years of continuing concentrated study, giving her the equivalent of an undergraduate Latin major on the one hand and a whole new community of people and interests on the other.
She offers readers a blessedly brief but often funny overview of the complications of this now dead but still lively language — including declensions, gender, number, case, inalienable possession and the seemingly oxymoronic historical present. Although the grammatical concept of the ablative absolute “arrived like a deep freeze” in an already bleak winter semester, she comes to like the very idea of the construction (which seems next to impossible to explain). She was taken with “the way it could wrap up entire epochs in two words, then move on: It felt like a no-fault divorce from the main sentence, rather like mine from my second husband, whom I now refer to as my own Ablative Absolute.” (Aside: Does anyone who studied Latin decades ago still remember the even now tension-producing names of the cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative?) Even Patty, after years of study, still considers herself “at best a beginning Latinist.”
Her second year of study emphasizes literature and introduces her to the poet Catullus, “a man of his time, entirely sexist.” After a whole course of Catullus comes one of the “next generation of Roman poets,” Propertius, followed by Horace (“commonly considered the best of the lyric poets”), and on to the “devilishly witty” Ovid, “who makes Latin dance” and whose poetics reminded her of a song by Chubby Checker — not likely a comparison scholarly classicists might make. Eventually, she also gets to Virgil, calling him “the undisputed grand master of Latin poetry.”
Further classes include concentration in Roman epigraphy and history. “The Romans had what scholars call ‘the epigraphic habit,’ ” Patty notes, and makes the most of this pleasant habit by heading each chapter with an epigraph (in Latin, translated to English) tied to its content. Her own philosophical meanderings — touching on the transformations aging brings, the power of friendships, the value of slowing down — are peppered throughout the book.
Patty’s progressively intense involvement with Latin leads her to whole new communities of “eccentric enthusiasts enjoying each other’s company,” including a weekend — the theme of which is laughter — organized by the Paideia Institute, an educational group that “promotes the study and appreciation of the classical humanities.” Following that came another Paideia program, Living Latin in Rome, taking her memorably to the ancient home of this language and history.
For Patty, her study of Latin is “another form of meditation . . . another way of slowing down, of turning off the engine. I have to translate Latin . . . slowly, mindfully, meditatively — checking for embedded bits of meaning. Not a bad prescription for any of the many tasks of life.
“Living With a Dead Language” is a delightful mix of grammar and growth, words and wonder. Patty and her book are both full of life, epitomizing the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera — to the stars through difficulties. Those readers who never encountered Latin may overlook this book, but, to use the Roman poet Horace’s phrase, consider letting carpe diem be your catchphrase, or even carpe noctem: seize the day or seize the night and read this book.
Evelyn Small is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By Ann Patty
Viking. 242 pp. $25