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Latin hero of love-torn teenagers

Tibor Fischer reviews A Thousand Kisses by Frederic Raphael

Catullus is the wide boy of Latin literature: he has the range, he is the one-stop shop of Roman culture. Other poets can provide the same smut and bile (Martial and Juvenal for example), but they lack the flowery myth-play, the epyllion, the oh-so doctus elements of some of Catullus’s oeuvre.

I’d also argue that no line of Virgil, Horace or Ovid has the power of Catullus’s greatest hits, which have the instant memorability of a Chuck Berry lyric (just compare Catullus boasting about his yacht with Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”).

A Thousand Kisses
By Frederick Raphael.
Holland House,

Catullus dwells deep in the hearts of his fans because most of them encounter him at school, when his erotic poetry can cover all the experiences of love-torn teenagers, and his suck-my-dick braggadocio makes an excellent antidote to the plodding of the Aeneid.

Was his poetry really personal or a honed persona? Did his beloved Lesbia actually have a pet sparrow? Did it, in fact, croak? Like much of the poetry of the ancient world, we’ll probably never know the answer to that. But you write a phrase like “odi et amo” — I hate and I love — you can be sure you’ll be remembered.

We do have a few intriguing facts about Catullus, and he was acquainted with Julius Caesar and Cicero, which is why he is a tempting target for a novelist. A Thousand Kisses is Frederic Raphael’s attempt to link together the diary-like elements of Catullus’s poetry and the historical background of Caesar’s Rome.

Catullus’s love affair with the Lesbia of his poems forms the backbone of the book. The conventional wisdom is that Lesbia was Clodia Metelli, a high-ranking bluestocking who is equally well-known for being attacked by Cicero in one of his most famous defence speeches, in which he skilfully calls her a whore without actually calling her a whore. Top advocacy.

It’s a long time since I’ve had to repeatedly reach for the OED when reading a novel

When it comes to carving novels out of Roman history, I suppose Robert Graves will always remain the gold standard. In I, Claudius, Graves wore his learning lightly and was always prepared to toss in a sentence or two to clarify scenes for the reader, what Kingsley Amis described as those necessary “They finished their drinks and left” sentences in a novel. Raphael, as weighty a classicist as Graves, has gone in the other direction.

You have no doubt A Thousand Kisses is narrated by a very active poet. Catullus tends to be best remembered for his scatological and sexual frankness (at least in our era) and reflections that could still grace a contemporary toilet-wall like “Rufa of Bononia sucks Rufulus”.
Nevertheless, Catullus was a poet concerned with scholarship, with intricate Alexandrian Greek poetry such as that of Callimachus, with the idea of being doctus, learned (the root of our word doctor), and who translated Sappho. He could work the entire register. Even Anthony Burgess’s novels about Enderby his fictitious poet, seem restrained compared to some recherché sections of A Thousand Kisses, where Raphael unleashes all the forces of the English language, plus a torrent of Latin and Greek, French and Italian.

A detail from Catullus and Lesbia, who in his arms seeks solace for the death of her sparrow, Nicolai Abildgaard, 1809. Found in the collection of Nivaagaard Museum.

Indeed, it’s Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (or even Finnegans Wake) that comes to mind in the early pages. Banausic? Alliaceous? It’s a long time since I’ve had to repeatedly reach for the OED when reading a novel.

In part a bildungsroman of the young provincial Catullus moving from Verona to Rome to make a name as a poet, it’s also a witty comedy. Raphael won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Darling and the television series The Glittering Prizes gained many plaudits, so it’s no surprise that the dialogue in A Thousand Kisses is sharp and the repartee ferocious:

“Small drinks party.”
“Just a few people is that?”
“Lots of people,” Calvus said. “Small drinks.”

Raphael does a great Julius Caesar. His advice to the youthful Catullus? The only people in Rome you can trust are your creditors, since they’ll be the only ones with an interest in keeping you alive. Catullus is urged to join Caesar on campaign since he could “bring back a Druid to do his laundry”. There are all sorts of classical jokes. Heraclitus says you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can step twice into the same shit.

A mighty vocabulary will help enjoyment of A Thousand Kisses, but if you have no knowledge of the history of the disintegration of the Roman Republic, or who Metellus, Sulla and Crassus were, you’ll also be missing out on a lot of the barbs. Raphael has set the bar very high here.

Probably the best thing in the novel are Raphael’s translations of Catullus’s poems. You sense that Raphael had great fun joyriding with Catullus. The translations are often so loose that they rank more as re-creations rather than renderings, but they capture the tone and spirit of the original work marvellously.

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