The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: The Roman art of fortune-telling revealed in a new book; the letters of Sylvia Beach, who brought out Ulysses and other great modern literature; and Max Hastings’ memoir of family and guns.
The Art of Roman Fortune-Telling
Am I about to be caught as an adulterer? Is my wife having a baby? Am I going to see a death? Am I going to be sold? These are just a few of the 92 questions listed in a book that Mary Beard, in this week's TLS, calls one of the most intriguing works of classical literature to have survived from the past two millennia.
The Oracles of Astrampsychus is a guide for would-be fortune-tellers. It offers cleverly randomized answers to many of ancient life’s most troubling problems and uncertainties. Each question is numbered. When you have found the one that most closely matches your own dilemma, you think of a number between 1 and 10 and add it to the number of your question. You then go to a “table of correspondences,” which converts that total into yet another number, which directs you in turn to one of a series of 103 lists of possible answers, arranged in groups of 10, or “decades.” Finally, go back to the number between 1 and 10 that you first thought of, and that indicates which answer in the decade applies to you.
Confused?, asks Beard. Try a concrete example. Suppose that I want to know if I am about to be caught as an adulterer, which is question 100. I think of another number—let’s say 5, giving a total of 105. The table of correspondences converts this to the number 28. I then go to the 28th decade, and pick out the fifth answer, which brings good news: “You won’t be caught as an adulterer” (and in some versions adds the extra reassurance: “Don’t worry”). If I had chosen the number 6, the same procedure would have offered me only a temporary reprieve: “You won’t be caught as an adulterer for the time being.”
There are claims that its author was a fourth-century B.C. Egyptian magician, Astrampsychus, who used a system first invented by the famous philosopher-cum-mathematician Pythagoras. But the best guess is that it was part of the equipment of professional, or semi-professional, mumbo-jumboists—who would probably have invested the mechanical process of consultation with some impressive ad-lib mystery. However the book was actually used, it gives us a rare glimpse—as Jerry Toner stresses in his Popular Culture in Ancient Rome—into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
Modernism’s Midwife, Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Beach was midwife of modernism and her letters, according to James Campbell in this week's TLS, shed some useful light on her best-known child, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Beach was one of the first to see the light of genius in Joyce's eyes, and her decision to publish a book described by George Bernard Shaw as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization” brought her a good deal of trouble as well as fame. The attention of pirates and prosecutors were equal trials. In the letters we hear her characteristic faux-naif humor—and also something of the spirit she showed by staying put in her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, when the Nazis arrived. The collection is less revealing of her love life than the publishers claim. Another conspicuous absence is the lack of any letters to Joyce concerning the complex production history of Ulysses. The editor, Keri Walsh, explains that the 108 letters Beach wrote to Joyce, “which form part of the Jahnke Bequest at the Zurich International James Joyce Foundation... are closed to scholars indefinitely,” which to the innocent ear, says Campbell, sounds like an outrage.
A Journalist’s Enthusiasm for Bangs
Europeans can often be patronizing about American fondness for guns about the house. A new memoir by the British historian and newspaper editor Max Hastings is titled Did You Really Shoot the Television? A Family Fable and may produce some suitable thoughts in the other direction. Max Hastings really did shoot the television. It was an accident waiting to happen, says Frances Wilson in the TLS. The Hastingses, who had a collective "enthusiasm for bangs," were the kind of family to store their rifles in the umbrella stand, and young Max was playing with a pistol during an episode of Perry Mason. His father would fondle his 18th-century dueling guns as other men did their mistresses, and by the time he was 10, Max too had imbibed the beauty of the barrel. "Please please when I come out," the future war reporter and military historian wrote from school, "can Daddy get lots of lovely .22 ammunition?"
The book is about Hastings’ parents, the pioneering woman journalist Anne Scott-James and the broadcaster Macdonald "Mac" Hastings. It is subtitled a "family fable" because there is a moral attached, and because Mac was a fabulist. One of his most cherished notions was that the Hastingses, who came from Pooterish stock in South London, were descendants of "the authentic Macdonalds of Glencoe" (on trips to the Highlands, Mac’s eyes would accordingly fill with tears), and the rightful heirs to an earldom. Hastings describes his father, whom he adored, as modelling himself on figures from John Buchan or H. Rider Haggard, but in his delusions of grandeur, his idealism, and his pursuit of adventure, Mac was closer, says Wilson, to Don Quixote.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.