Friday, July 13, 2007

Gibbon on the A Train

Parking occupies me for only a few minutes a week these days, though last Sunday, when a whole lot of DFDs (that’s people Down For the Day) drove out to Rockaway, I had to go around the block twice before a van pulled out and left a space big enough for two of me. I’d have parked farther away, but I’d just done a big grocery shopping and bought a lot of beer substitutes (fake beer, root beer, lemonade, diet Dr Pepper—oh, all right, one six-pack of Carlsberg), and besides, in this case “farther away” meant “closer to the beach,” where I was even less likely to find a spot.

So I’m back on the A train again, commuting to midtown, and this year it doesn’t seem as charming as it has in the past. I aim for a window seat in the morning, and gaze out over the bay and the houses on stilts. I’ve seen egrets, swans, geese, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, and gulls gulls gulls, including some baby seagulls—puffy gray chicks about the size of softballs—on the island the train goes over, which is basically a seagull hatchery. Some days Jamaica Bay has the aspect of a mirage, with an airport instead of palm trees. When the train goes underground, about a third of the way into the hour-and-a-quarter trip, I open a book.

The three-volume Modern Library edition of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has been sitting on my shelf for something like twenty years. I don’t know what I was waiting for—a period of convalescence following a bunionectomy, I suppose—but I finally decided to crack it. Volume I has 956 pages, and I’d need a baby scale to weigh it. I’m on page 78 (Commodus, in 180 A.D.—the beginning of the end). Already the cover flap has split along the folds—it’s a rugged commute—so I removed it and left it at home.

For years I have been hearing about Gibbon’s prose style, his mastery of the periodic sentence. Yes, the sentences are clear and balanced—I find myself reading them twice—but the punctuation is killing me. It must have been the fashion in Gibbon’s day (he was a contemporary of Samuel Johnson, writing in the second half of the eighteenth century) to poke in a comma whenever one ran short of breath, even if it separated the subject from the verb. For instance: “The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizens, had checked the fortune, and hastened the ruin, of Athens and Sparta.” And: “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors.” And just one more (among thousands), also about Augustus: “A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him, at the age of nineteen, to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside.”

I am also frustrated by the footnotes. Chapter I has ninety-six of them, waving like seaweed at the bottom of the page. I tried skimming them in advance to determine whether there was anything down there worth interrupting myself for. Many of them are simply Gibbon crediting his sources, but others add sly little notes in a voice reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock (M. de Voltaire, "unsupported by either fact or probability, has generously bestowed the Canary Islands on the Roman empire”; “Mr. Pope, without perceiving it, has improved the theology of Homer”). Others, in brackets and signed O.S., take issue with the author (“Gibbon’s account of the military system of the Romans contains several errors that must be corrected”; “Gibbon’s remark here is wholly incorrect”). At first, these uppity editorial comments made me grit my teeth, but I softened when I found out, from a modest note on the copyright page, that the initials O.S. stand for Oliphant Smeaton. Yet other footnotes are entirely in Latin, a language in which I am, unfortunately, illiterate. I find myself wishing these footnotes had footnotes.

I am not sure if I'm going to persist with Gibbon, but I'm already superstitious about lugging him around: the day I give up and leave him at home, my train will get stuck between stations and I'll need something interminable. Yesterday on the train I was disturbed by murmuring behind me: a woman was reading aloud, in Spanish, from a prayer book with oversize type ("del Señor ... oramos ... Ave Maria"). Another woman was holding up a volume about the same size as mine, labelled “Holy Bible.” On the way home, I squeezed into a window seat next to a guy who was playing a handheld video boxing game. I opened my Gibbon; he changed seats.


lucette said...

I'd say the 3rd sentence you quoted is technically correct, although so enthusiastically comma'd as to be ungraceful. He should have had SJohnson proof him--SJ is a master of all things prose, including the comma.

erieblue said...

Some of those overcommadys read like students notions of where to put commas. Ick. When I first read your title I thought you meant there was an ape on your train!

MJN/NYC said...

By my lights, the comma between "disposition" and "prompted" is egregious. But I, am going to resist, the urge to be pedantic.

MJN/NYC said...

There have been pigeons on the A train, and a guy in a donkey suit, but no gibbons.

I like commady. A commady of errors.

Susan T. said...

Great piece, MJN--and a wonderful blog, too.

Your old pal,
(blogging at Chicken Spaghetti)

MJN/NYC said...

Susan T.! How great to hear from you. I checked out Chicken Spaghetti and find it wonderfully wide-ranging. I should have known you would be up to something special. Thanks also for the link. E-mail me at the salt mine!