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Martial's Epigrams: A Selection Paperback – October 27, 2009
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"This collection bespeaks a great scholar at play. Recreational classicists should feel flattered that [Wills] wants them to watch."
--The New York Times Book Review
"Funny, wicked, and fresh, these epigrams . . . will give the reader plenty of smiles."
--The Philadelphia Inquirer
About the Author
Garry Wills is a historian and the author of the New York Times bestsellers What Jesus Meant, Papal Sin, Why I Am a Catholic, and Why Priests?, among others. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other publications, Wills is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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Top Customer Reviews
Recently I ordered three books by Wills including his translation of portions of Martial's Epigrams (2008). I was disappointed in the Epigrams. I don't fault Wills's facility with language: he once taught classical languages (Greek) at Johns Hopkins. Neither do I fault his opting to go for rhyme at the expense of literal translation. But I fault him for modernizing the text when he didn't have to, inserting modern names in verses. Martial doesn't need modernizing. He isn't contemporary except in his preoccupations: Wills notes this in his introduction, which, though short, is helpful in understanding this late Roman poet of scurrility and (usually nasty) gossip. Martial was a moralist of the dirt. His poems, when they work, are like extremely short variants of the Satyricon, than which little in literature is more salacious. Is Wills's translation of Martial worth reading? Definitely yes, if only to gain insight into this most uncommon Roman and the debauched society he excoriated. Is the book completely successful? No. I'd give it a C grade.
As to Wills, I need quote only Martial himself (I.16 in English trans. by Wills): "Some good things here, and some not worth a look./ For this is that anomaly, a book." Wills's introduction is short and informative. He suggests that "epigrams should be sampled one or a few at a time. Martial thought so, too." He then quotes Martial's epigram labeled 10.1. Anyone interested in world literature, even if lacking an expertise in classical literature, may well enjoy this book of bawdy, irreverent verse.
Secondly, Martial gives an ongoing impression of a somewhat successful writer, but only somewhat. He has no kind words for his critics, and worse for his plagiarists. But, given the times, his only recourse was to publicly point out the other writers selling recycled words as their own fresh creations. (This can't help bring to mind the public, written sniping between Whistler and his critics, as seen in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.)
Finally, though, I have reservations about the translation. The modern English reads easily and comfortably, except in some very few places. And, I acknowledge the translator's right to preserve the poetic rhyme and rhythm of the original. When the English text must not only approximate the original Latin meanings, with all their cultural shadings, but also meet the constraints of poetry, I wonder whether the gains are worth the losses. I regret that Latin lies among my many lacks so I can't point to specifics, but my doubts remain.
Still, it's an amusing book. The sniping, rivalries, aspirations, and disappointments of this long-ago writer will look very familiar to today's readers, too, making the ancient Romans much more approachable. And, if it matters, the format lends itself to being picked up and opened at random for a moment's thought or amusement.
Such sexy dances does she innovate
That purity itself must masturbate.
Mr. Wills would be better sticking to what he knows best. And it isn't poetry.