Refugees in time

As a youff, with a teacher determined to teach us Latin, we became mysteriously attracted to the late 4th-century Roman author, Ausonius. Edward Gibbon, in the Enlightenment, wrote him off (“his fame condemned the taste of his age”), & his habit of writing setpieces on time-worn topics from a provincial location (Bordeaux, once Burdigala) does not immediately commend him to our attention. But there is an atmosphere about him, compounded of nostalgia & a diffuse shading of the Plutarchian wistfulness, that still haunts. Ausonius may not fully know it, but he is writing near The End, of the Roman Empire. He is anyway conveying a Roman spirit that comes very late in the day. (“Decadence” doesn’t do this justice; but nor is it Owl of Minervish.) Perhaps we “feel” his situation today in a way that Gibbon couldn’t; for Gibbon was too smug.

News breaks in on Ausonius in later life, grim events like the seizure of the Empire of the West by Maximus in 383, which involved the slaughter of his patron & old pupil, Gratian. The province of Gaul is increasingly insecure, from incremental surrender to murderous savages. Habits & mores are invisibly breaking down. But in Burdigala all is well. Ausonius recovers from such passing shocks, & life goes on into a well-funded retirement.

His most famous work is the Mosella, which follows the course of that gorgeous tributary of the Rhine. Ausonius became acquainted with that country as a young soldier, beating off the raiding Alemanni tribes. It is a blessed work, which tells us all about the river’s fishes, significant buildings along its banks, the wine-making, the fields & mills — everything one needs to know to “be there,” bouncing along on his happy Latin hexameters. For so it all once was.

A teacher himself, of grammar & rhetoric, who rose by the luck of tutoring a future Emperor to become, first governor of Gaul, then Consul, his place in the heart of Latin tutors may be explained. But there is more, though mostly fragmentary, to make him useful as a kind of picture gallery from the end of a world, & album of its fashions & forms. He is facile, but over a considerable range. We have writers today whom everyone thinks grand, in the way his contemporaries thought Ausonius grand; & he really is, in moments.

In one moment he revives his grief for a long-dead wife; in another unsuccessfully conceals his infatuation with a pretty German slave girl; in another indulges his love of Virgil rather crassly by assembling a cento (patchwork) of Virgilian phrases into a nuptial song that is, quite frankly, obscene. That he could write all three is a bit of a scandal. The little odes on the slave girl are the most lively. She has somehow become the mistress of his villa. She is a strange, somewhat wild, exotic thing: with blue eyes, & blonde hair! He thinks she is virtuous, & can’t get enough of her.

Mrs Jessie Glynn, to remember the name of my last & most beloved Latin teacher, recommended his Ephemeris, however, as a work of the highest pedagogical value. It tells “a day in the life,” of Ausonius himself in retirement, or at least, tells it until towards noon, when the ancient manuscripts desert us; cutting back in later with some bad dreams. This is unfortunate, for by the time we’ve got through his morning the piece has become genuinely amusing, & we are pulled entirely into the diurnal world of Roman town & villa among the elect. From scene to scene, the metre re-arranges. He wakes, calling for his idle slave in plaintive sapphics, switching to breathless iambics as he hunts the wretch down. He washes, gets dressed, dropping satiric dactyls, & then prays in hexameters. (A lukewarm Christian, he has soon “prayed enough.”) And so through the morning, in which he has more slapstick trouble with “the help.” These Romans externalize too much; they don’t make enough fun of themselves. But through it all, one can see how to teach a boy his Latin verse composition.

It is because, perhaps, the Romans went before us, & some other civilizations of which we’re now aware, that our own more educated writers look forward in a way that might never have occurred to Ausonius, who, as it were, “knows without knowing.” Whereas, we are objectively acquainted with the burial mounds of history; in one of which we found him.


We had intended this post to be about Joseph Roth. From various sources, we gather he has undergone a revival, & that a certain Michael Hofman may be at least partially responsible for this, for he has been doing fine translations. This last fact we cannot yet confirm, for we haven’t read any of them; though we were rather pleased by Hofman’s translation of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Yet we are also slightly aggrieved, for Joseph Roth was a forgotten literary star, & we thought we had the monopoly on reading him. We specialize, as gentle reader may have noticed, in a certain class of the historically defunct. But suddenly Stefan Zweig, Klaus Mann, & all the other lost luminaries in the German language of the inter-War era, are likewise coming back into vogue. We thought they were all safely dead.

Mark Falcoff writes, in the Weekly Standard, of Hofman’s new translation of Joseph Roth’s letters. (A fine splash of culture in that neoconservative rag.) Roth is presented as “the last cosmopolitan,” a rather dangerous piece of flattery when we recall he was a Catholic-converted Jew. Vividly aware of the rise of Hitler, as it cost him the royalties from his German publishers, he spent his last six years in a morbid spiral, finally perishing in anno 1939, a broken alcoholic old man at age forty-four.

A creature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his most famous novel, Radetzy March, is a kind of “Gone with the Wind” on its passing. For that alone, it was dismissed by the post-War generation. But if one reads it in the original English translation one will find it is rather subtle. The whole plot is built around misperceived corruption; around the consequences to a family, over three generations, of an aristocratic lineage founded in a “harmless lie.” Joseph Roth, almost to the degree of the justly celebrated Robert Musil, sees behind the false fronts of late Viennese pomposity. But he also wanders beyond Vienna. More gently than the very urbane & caustic Musil, he sees the beauty in the sprawling territory that depended upon the preservation of that “absurd” Dual Monarchy — that Empire, weightless as the Holy Roman, in which peoples speaking seventeen official languages freely moved & had their being, enjoying long intervals of security & peace. When the Habsburgs went down, life became considerably worse for every single one of them.

Through another twenty books (only half, we think, ever translated into English) — novels & collections of essays, stories, memoirs — Roth provided a surprisingly clear-eyed view of what was happening around him. He was unpopular with the progressive intellectuals of his day, who looked fondly to the “hope & change” being brought about in Stalin’s Russia. Roth had been to Odessa; he knew what Stalin was. He could not toke on this worldly utopiate, from hard direct experience but also, from the persistent flicker of a faith that was not worldly.

He was proud of the Jewish heritage into which he had been born, & consistently bold in defending it. His Catholicism in no way rejected it; it was instead an even greater positive. In the course of dismissing him, a previous generation also insinuated that he was one of those “converts of convenience,” which entirely mistakes the man. So heavily did fall the curtain of Auschwitz, that today it is almost impossible to escape anachronism, when reading authors before the War. Even affectionate glances towards Jewish contemporaries are now condemned as dark lethal stabs of anti-Semitism (often as not by people who want Israel annihilated tomorrow).

Roth could indeed be presented as “the last cosmopolitan,” but to understand this is to see that it was more than the old ease of crossing borders. In central & near-eastern Europe, men crossed the borders the more easily, in themselves. The very way in which Roth carried his ancestral Judaism & acquired Catholicism, is indicative of this; he did it almost unselfconsciously. This could not be done today, when everywhere we turn to face either/ors.

In the Austro-Hungarian realms we had, until only a century ago, a survival of that much older conception of “personhood,” an inward pluralism from which a man’s identity could not be reduced. He could have one citizenship, & another nationality, yet be of an ancestry different again, speaking a language foreign to all three. He could practice his religion in another language still; adding layers of identity through family connexions, professional associations, cultural avocations, & artefacts of class. Nor did this make him “multicultural” in our current sense, where one must choose a single adjective & stick with it to receive benefits from the state. The multiculturalism was carried instead within each person, & was by its nature beyond the state’s purview.

The Roman society, which Ausonius depicts, was mixed & stratified in different ways, owing to the high value placed on Roman citizenship. Yet in its own way it also permitted dimensions of personhood. Ausonius himself is citizen, par excellence, & a Roman whether speaking in Latin or Greek; but he reveals himself, too, as the product of a region that is never so simple as that. The identity he evokes, along with that “nostalgia,” is a complex thing, which begins & ends in a sense of specific personal location.

Joseph Roth’s fidelity to the Habsburgs outlived their reign; rather as the fidelity of Ausonius outlived Gratian. But Roth belonged to a world that had already been crushed, better in every way than the world that had crushed it. Alas he drank his way down the memory hole. (Not to be recommended.) Though he loved Paris, he was an exile there, & often a pauper into the bargain, robbed, like so many others, of all he owned, from his country to his cash. His works wonderfully describe that quality of exile — exile even from oneself — that only moderns know. A passing revival of his literary reputation is therefore a hopeful thing. He can help us to look back. He can even remind us that barbarism, too, has a past, & a very uncertain future.