Review: The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and trans. Martin Moynihan

May I tell you a cute story? It’s very cute, and I can’t proceed with this review until I tell you the cute story, so if you are not in the mood for a sweet story, you should depart precipitously. Once upon a time there was an Italian priest called Don Giovanni Calabria who read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and loved it. He wanted to write to C. S. Lewis to express his admiration for the book, but he didn’t speak English, and he suspected (rightly) that C. S. Lewis didn’t speak Italian. Knowing that Lewis was a scholar of the classics and knew Latin, he wrote to him in that language, and they carried on a correspondence! In Latin!

Lewis and Calabria corresponded periodically over the course of seven years, from Calabria’s first letter to Lewis until Calabria’s death in 1954, after which Lewis continued writing now and then to another member of Calabria’s congregation. Their relationship is touching. They always write to ask each other for prayers, and they ask each other for guidance on theological questions. It is sweet.

As sweet as this is, I don’t know that I’d have been interested in these letters if they had just been published in English. Most of the letters are from Lewis to Calabria, rather than the other way around, so you don’t have a good sense of the correspondence as a whole. The letters discuss the wars, schisms in the church, and the moral tone of the present century, but they are short and cannot explore the issues deeply.

However, I read the Latin half of the letters, and that was fun. The editor helpfully put the Latin and English text on facing pages, so when I got confused about syntax or vocabulary, I could refer to the translation to set me straight. I most pleasingly referred to the translation more rarely as I carried on reading, which made me feel great about myself and totally ready to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I am absolutely going to do one of these days because I love Ovid and Fagles didn’t translate him.

Gender bias

You know how sometimes you have really strong reactions to things that you never thought you cared that much about? Like this one time I was reading through course descriptions at various universities to see what their course-books were (I was craving nonfiction, and this is before I discovered book blogs), and I saw this course about the poetry of the Hugheses. As in, Ted and Sylvia. I’m not even that big a fan of Sylvia Plath: I love her poetry but I think she would have been maddening in real life. But I was gripped with this unbelievable visceral rage at the professor who wrote the course description and referred to her as half of “the Hugheses”.

Regarding gender-neutral language, I have always been more or less in support of it. In practice it is rather cumbersome but I approved of it on an intellectual. I think the use of “he” (“the average reader will find that he likes Fagles the best of any translator of epic poetry”) and “man” (“man has sought for centuries to invent a story as awesome as the Odyssey but cannot with any surety be said to have succeeded”) as representative of humanity more generally is (yet another) symptom of that really unpleasant thing of thinking of men as the default, and women as the other thing. On the other hand, I have never, while reading a book that employs gender-biased language, felt the sensation of being excluded. Plus I always suspected it would feel weird and affected if an author ever did the thing they sometimes recommend, of alternating the use of “his” and “her” when referring to a generic person.

Then on Thursday I was going through proof pages of this one book, and I read a sentence that said (something like) “The reader may find herself bogged down in blah blah blah very technical stuff about New Latin.” And you know those scenes you see in high school movies where the very popular girl invites the shy new girl to come hang out with her and her popular friends. You know, how the shy new girl wasn’t expecting it at all, and you can see the shock and joy all over her face? THIS WAS JUST LIKE THAT.

I don’t know how to describe how great it felt. I was suffused with this massive, exhilarating sense that I was being recognized. A lot of the books I read at this internship, they are very serious and important books. Even when they are interesting, engaging, and well-written, I feel like the authors are writing for an audience of loftier intelligence and learning than mine. The book whose proof pages I was inspecting was a translation of a Latin text, which I think had something to do with it, because Latin makes me happy like ice cream. When I read that sentence, “the reader may find herself,” I felt like the translator had written his book with me in mind. I am a her! I may find myself bogged down in technical stuff about New Latin! That may happen to me! (And indeed it did.)

It was amazing! I wanted to make a large banner that said “GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS MORE AWESOME THAN YOU MAY HAVE REALIZED” (I know, catchy, huh?) and go tromping up and down the streets alerting everyone to how great a feeling to have a book assume you as its readership. I know this sounds like a very lame and unconvincing attempt at personalizing a dull linguistic gender debate. But I can’t help it. That’s exactly how it went down. I think that I have never truly appreciated how inclusive inclusivity can be.

Have you ever had such a reaction? Do you have strong feelings one way or the other about gender-neutral language?