Learning Greek with Helen DeWitt

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Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai was published in 2000, loved by a small batch of devoted readers, overshadowed by the bad Tom Cruise film of the same name, and fell into print-on-demand obscurity a few years later. I only came to it when, due to that devoted batch of early readers’ commitment to spreading the word, Vintage reissued it last year. I loved it, for some of the usual reasons (it made me laugh; it made me cry), and one unusual one (it made me want to learn Classical Greek).

The Last Samurai is a wildly brilliant novel about a depressed genius mother and her precocious genius son, who spend their time re-watching The Seven Samurai and keeping warm by riding the Circle Line all day, while reading Homer in the original Greek. There’s a lot to take away from the novel, but the main thing I took from it was: if a precocious five-year-old can learn Greek, surely a somewhat lazy 33-year-old can give it a good go?

I sent a dumb tweet about it, and promptly forgot the idea, until Five Books posted their best books on learning Ancient Greek, and I thought, maybe I can do this? I mentioned it in passing to a friend who told me about an ex who, on a whim, taught herself Greek GCSE and A-level and was now doing a second degree in Classics at Cambridge, and I thought to myself, maybe I can do this!

I haven’t got that far yet, but I took the universe’s hints and am now slowly, laboriously attempting to get to grips with declensions and conjugations in Classical Greek for Absolute Beginners classes at CityLit. I don’t know if you’ve tried to learn anything new as an adult, but let me tell you, it is not easy. Of course, I never appreciated the brilliant elasticity of my adolescent brain when I had it, but now that I’m attempting to use the unoiled cogs of my creaking thirtysomething brain, I lament that I didn’t make more of it.

I’d have liked to have shown off by writing some of this post in Classical Greek, but learning Greek is weird in that you learn how to say ‘the Persian barbarians are attacking the harbour’ long before you learn to say ‘I am learning Greek. It is fun,’ so there’s very little of relevance I could add. But I feel I’m getting somewhere – maybe not back to university for another degree, but onto the Circle Line with a copy of The Odyssey would do me just fine.

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