Bookshelf: A Modern Metamorphosis — WSJ

By Emily Wilson 
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Editors often use a symbol known as a “caret” — a tiny arrow pointing up between words or letters of a word, which indicates that something is missing. Ann Patty, who had a long and successful career as a book editor and founder of Poseidon Press, tells us that she used the mark a lot and always thought of it as a carrot, burrowing its pointy tip up between the earth of words. But then, after the Great Recession, she moved into semiretirement to upstate New York at age 58 and began learning Latin. In the course of her studies, she realized that the word is actually from the verb careo, to lack: It means “it [some unspecified something] is not here.” Her moving, unusual memoir is all about the various absences in her life and the ways in which the study of Latin provides unexpectedly rich insights into the shape of absence.

People who know little or no Latin will learn interesting nuggets from this book, including some pleasing trivia about Latin roots in English words, a glimmering of what terms like “gerund” and “exepegetic” and “the ablative of separation” might mean, and a brief introduction to some of the highlights of Latin poetry, described in clear terms and with infectious enthusiasm. The linguistic information is not always reliable; there are a few unacknowledged basic errors in Ms. Patty’s Latin. But the mistakes are part of the book’s essential character. She quotes an embarrassingly garbled email in which she tried to help a friend describe his insomnia in Latin, before admitting that she had created “a cat’s cradle of errors.” This is not an academic monograph but a highly personal book about one woman’s journey to a deeper understanding of her world and her history. Surprisingly and admirably, she is undaunted by her inability to be more than a mediocre Latin student. She quotes the brilliant Latin grammarian Basil Gildersleeve observing that “It is astonishing how much enjoyment one can get out of a language that one understands imperfectly.”

 
     Living With a Dead Language 
     By Ann Patty 
     Viking, 242 pages, $25 
 
 
 

Latin provides what Ms. Patty is missing in some fairly straightforward ways. It gives her an occupation after losing her job — a kind of work that she finds at least as difficult as her work as a book editor. She presents her marriage, to a taciturn, outdoorsy type named George, as a happy one but limited in certain respects. Studying Latin puts Ms. Patty in touch with people who are, like her, verbal, and it gives this city-person reasons to travel to college campuses, to her beloved New York City, and eventually to Rome. And she describes the liberation of being of an age when she can allow herself to feel an attraction to her much younger fellow students without fear of consequences or heartbreak.

This may sound a little creepy, but Ms. Patty’s excitement about the people she meets is deeply appealing. Part of the joy of Latin for Ms. Patty is the ability to enter a special social circle, characterized primarily by “adorable nerdiness.” The book is full of vivid portraits of her fellow students and teachers — from the cute and geeky graduate student who introduces her to first-year Latin to the senior ancient historian who becomes “almost giddy with excitement” as he hands out a set of stones with Roman inscriptions. Ms. Patty shows us what an enormous difference good teaching makes, not only for her intellectual development but also for her happiness. Moreover, not all the “Latinists” she encounters are privileged members of the liberal-arts colleges where she studies. She also volunteers in an inner-city after-school Latin program and conveys her own joy at being able to make a connection with these affectionate and struggling children.

Some of the benefits of Latin might have been accrued by any volunteer work or studying any new subject, and indeed Ms. Patty’s book makes a compelling case for the value of taking on challenges in later years. But Latin has a particular and personal set of associations for Ms. Patty, a lifelong lover of words. At several moments in the book, she lays out lists of words built in the form of a house, the first consisting of “acrid,” “candid,” “humid,” and other English words ending in “-id.” Latin appeals to her as a way to find more such houses, more comforting places to dwell.

Ms. Patty is particularly in need of well-populated verbal houses, not only because she lives in a remote home in the country but also because she has been forced to confront her own mortality. She describes, in frank, uncomplaining terms, her diagnosis with an aggressive form of breast cancer late in her career. She was given only a few years to live and turned to Zen Buddhism to learn to see illness “not as a battle but as an opportunity to free myself.” Studying Latin is, for Ms. Patty, likewise a form of meditation, a slow, laborious, impossible task that offers a mental space to inhabit while she learns to see the world as it is.

Ms. Patty tells the story of a Zen teacher who told her that one can never change the future; one can only change the past. Ms. Patty was prompted to begin her study of Latin by the memory of her mother, who died prematurely at 66 after 10 years of heavy drinking and depression. Ms. Patty is anxious not to turn into her mother — not to find herself so bored and aimless in early retirement as to sink into self-destruction. But she realizes that learning Latin is also a way to honor her mother and to become the person that her mother wanted to be. Her mother’s proudest achievement was a Latin prize at her Catholic high school; she was eventually worn down by years of being sidelined, a clever, lively person with no outlet for her intellectual and physical energies. The study of Latin texts — written by and for elite men, in a society with few opportunities for women to find rooms of their own — allows Ms. Patty to see with stark clarity the ways that her mother’s life was curtailed and frustrated by her social position. The tear-jerking ending of the book has Ms. Patty imagining that she can fill her mother’s emptiness with the words she writes and the words she learns. She wears her mother’s prize medal for Latin around her own neck, as a kind of portable caret. Learning a dead language has allowed Ms. Patty to change the meaning of her dead mother’s life.

Ms. Wilson, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca.”

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