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This report is taken from PN Review 101, Volume 21 Number 3, January - February 1995.

Letter from New York Rachel Hadas

Strange bedfellows - or not so strange, really, just an unexpected meeting of minds across a century and a half (and the Alps). The minds are those of the poets Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) as expressed in his Pensieri, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writing in the Spring 1994 number of Harvard Review, and both men wax hot under the collar about the same obnoxious phenomenon - to wit, in W.S. DiPiero's translation of Leopardi, 'the habit of reading or reciting one's own compositions to others'. Clearly, this practice has only become more prevalent in the years that separate the two writers, for Enzensberger has a whole list of offenders: 'symposia, presentations, introductions and implementations, conventions, reports, readings, round tables… and this is by no means all.'

Both Leopardi and Enzensberger associate the practice of reading aloud from one's writings with antiquity. 'A very ancient custom,' Leopardi calls it, and he cites amusing anecdotes from Horace and Martial to attest to the bad reputation of such readings even then. 'A philologist friend of mind,' he adds,

has noted that if Octavia really did faint when she heard Vergil read aloud from the sixth book of The Aeneid, it is likely that this was caused no more by the memory of her son Marcellus (as is often claimed) than by the boredom of hearing Vergil read….

'In past centuries,' according to Leopardi, this 'very ancient custom was a tolerable misery, since it was rare.' If only ...

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