Merging With the Unchanging
A Review of Mark Prins’ Classics Thriller “The Latinist”
Mark Prins’ debut novel, The Latinist, is a creative and original work that takes a close look at the life of a Classics scholar. The story is in somewhat the same vein as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but it’s not as pessimistic and prefers Latin literature to Greek. Not only an engrossing page-turner, the novel explores the core reason someone would choose a life studying Classics: “love of poetry — the animal thing that lurked beneath all the academic posturing, the expository language, the learnedness.”
Prins’ novel follows the story of an ABD (‘all but dissertation’) Oxford grad student, Tessa Templeton, who is writing her dissertation on “the nature of power and subversion” in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After Tessa gives a brilliant paper on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo at a prominent Classics conference, the pursuit from Ovid’s narrative starts to take shape in Tessa’s life. Her grad school experience begins to reflect Ovid’s work when Tessa realizes that her advisor, Prof. Chris Echols, feels the same dangerous and unrequited affection for her as Apollo felt for Daphne. In an attempt to keep Tessa under his control at Oxford, Chris tanks Tessa’s job applications with a horrifying recommendation letter. He also keeps tabs on her by hacking into her email account and call logs, reading them daily. Struggling to break away from his reach, Tessa flees to Italy to excavate the grave of a long-forgotten silver age poet, a project Chris warned her to avoid. An incredible discovery in Italy offers Tessa the chance to save her tarnished reputation — but only if she can escape from Chris upon her return to England.
I found the premise engaging, but it is Mark Prins’ dramatization of the mundane aspects of academia that pulls this campus mystery together. Matters that can feel tedious — like conference proceedings and funding applications — are spun into points of compelling tension. At first, I caught myself rolling my eyes at the notion that something like a Latin poetic meter (limping iambs to be precise) could be an actual plot point in a thriller, but it works! I found myself hanging on every foot.
Beyond turning the minutiae of Latin literature into conflict and clues, Prins is also able to realistically convey what excites us about passages of great Latin. This is a rare gem that I’m delighted to have come across. I’m well aware that what feels dramatic and thrilling to me just looks like quiet time in the library to somebody else, and at times I have difficulty expressing to others why I am so drawn to ancient literature. Prins, however, has bottled the sensation of glee and surprise you feel when you realize what Ovid was doing with that wordplay, or that Statius was winking at Virgil a few lines back. Having captured the feeling, Prins transforms it into convincing English prose, accessible to both Latin readers and laymen alike. His protagonist describes the process of reading Latin as “merging with what is unchanging and unchangeable in life.” The book is filled with these reminders and justifications for reading Latin literature. Tessa’s own reading practices also provide an access point for the experience.
“In fact, Tessa’s phone held on it…thoughts about her own reception of Daphne and Apollo, deeply personal hypotheses about why she had been so struck, what the passage had meant to her, had done to her, when she’d first encountered it as a teenager. She’d added new readings over the years, not about the genre or any academic debate, but about how she’d personally perceived the passage at any given fulcrum in her life. Her own psychological growth could be observed like a flip-book in these snapshots, layered in time.”
Classicist or not, after reading such a passage one should not find it difficult to understand the profound effect reading great literature has on us. I expect I’ll be recommending this book often since, in it, I’ve stumbled upon a remedy for a persistent problem for the Classics grad student: those outside the world of Latin and Greek rarely seem to understand why we chose to do what we do, or why we love it. But in this book, that which excites a Latinist is finally presented as exciting to Latinless readers.
Reading the book as a grad student though, made for a strange experience since The Latinist plays out like a dark fantasy in which all the boogiemen of grad school and academia are real. While I don’t attend Oxford, many of Tessa’s worries are not unfamiliar among grad students in general: imposter syndrome, anxiety over an impossible tenure-track job market, concern that faculty are uninterested in us, or even stalling our progress, etc. For most of us, fears like this are unfounded and simply caused by stress. (Not the fear of the tenure-track job market, though: that one’s real.) For Tessa, each of these fears becomes a reality, and she finds herself caught up in a grad student’s worst nightmare. She becomes isolated from friends and family who can offer perspective from outside the walls of Oxford. Then, with her advisor trying to sabotage her and the pernicious toxicity of her department chasing at her heels, Tessa finds herself in a life-or-death situation, when only pages ago she was living a life that looked like any other grad student’s. As a setup for the novel, this was personally off-putting but very compelling.
The only aspect of the story I didn’t truly enjoy was Tessa herself. She is an engaging character, but a deeply unlikable person. You root for her because she is the victim of her advisor’s torments, but Tessa is also cold, calculating, and obsessive to the detriment of those around her. I expected her to evolve and grow as the story progressed, to realize what she was becoming. That self-aware moment never occurs, however, and Tessa’s cynical, self-interested worldview remains fixed throughout. I found this lack of growth bizarre and a little disappointing, but I think that might have been the point. The academia of Prins’ novel is presented as a sinister abyss, and Tessa, try as she might, spends too much time staring into it.
That said, the novel is still worth the read. It can be read as a serious meditation on the power dynamics of academia, but I enjoyed it more as a quick and interesting thriller that happens to be set in a world that I felt familiar with. It’s also great fun to see Latin being used so differently than I see in other novels. Fantastical fiction is no stranger to employing Latin in developing the aesthetic of things ancient and arcane, and often trying to contort Latin into something unknown or unknowable to the reader in service of that aesthetic. Latin in these books is not a language. It’s a mystery. In The Latinist, however, Latin is simply Latin, known to the protagonist (as the title might suggest) and, due to good use of translations, accessible to the reader. The mystery grows around the language, not the reverse. For anyone interested in Classics or Latin literature, whether they’ve studied the language or not, this is a compelling page-turner with a very original plot.
AnnMarie Patterson is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California. She loves active Latin, Roman architecture, and Italian food.
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