“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, Margaret Atwood, Prep School Skullduggery.
If you recognize this phrase you know it comes from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaind’s Tale. The phrase, which translate roughly from Latin into, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, becomes a central element to the novel’s tenor. And anyone who’s studied Latin will tell you—and I’m pretty sure the novel tells you, too—that it is not Latin in the sense that, say, sine qua non, is Latin. Instead it is school prep school skullduggery. The phrase does not come from a famous Roman thinker; it comes from schoolkids forced to take Latin who use their newfound skills to invent a phrase that sounds like it comes from famous Roman thinkers. My version of this, when my pals and I were forced into two years of Latin, was Marcus aripit bacculum. I’m not going to translate this for you; but; it will be clear to you we weren’t as sophisticated as the nolite crew.
The reason I write this this morning is because I was thinking about Maragaret and I was wondering what it must have felt like when it occurred to her that she use this phrase as part of the narrative. It winds so beautifully, and is so perfectly apt—especially if you subscribe to the theory that the simplicity of the first-person narrative alludes to a certain type of drugging of Offred by the Commandar which leaves her foggy, cloudy and unable to think clearly. (I’ve always subscribed to this. I further posit Hulu’s TV show alludes to the same with its hazy cinematography and awkward, oblong camera frames.)
Think about it for a moment! When the idea to use the phrase leapt into her head, she must of gone bonkers, right?
I’m a huge Atwood fan, having read several of her books—the MaddAddam series is in my orbit. I was not much of a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale as a TV show. They deviated substantially from the novel (which I read twice; once in college and once together with my wife) to the extent I struggled to enjoy it. I’m super amped the novel’s sequel comes out in September of this year, though. It’s wait-outside-the-bookstore level hype.
The thing about the novel is that I remember reading it the first time as an undergrad who snuck into a graduate class about the the Contemporary American Novel. I was stunned someone could write something like that, and that it would be presented to students as seriously literature to read. I might say, even, that the novel’s existence was transformational for me.
In an interview not long ago, when asked about the plot, Atwood said, simply, “I made nothing up.” Incredibly powerful.
So if you haven’t read it—indeed if you only watched the TV show—go hit the novel. You’re depriving yourselves. It’s mindbendingly brilliant.