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Emotionally flat and disappointing
on 15 April 2009
Catullus, a poet writing in C1st Rome bce, the Rome of Cicero and Julius Caesar, is perhaps now best known for his searing poems written to `Lesbia', possibly the aristocratic married woman Clodia Metelli. Dunmore takes this scenario very literally and spins a story that fills out the gaps in Catullus' own poems. Love, death, obsessive erotic passion, poisoning, possible incest and political corruption: this ought to be a story boiling over with emotion, but somehow it feels emotionally flat, both too sensationalist and yet too mundane at the same time.
Dunmore writes in an odd kind of half-historical style: some of it is completely contemporary so that Catullus talks about his `career options', people imagine going to heaven (in pre-Christian Rome?), people talking to and about slaves as if they are social acquaintances. Yet, on the other hand, she stresses the alieness of Roman culture, particularly around a funeral scene. Sadly, for me, neither style worked, and the book ended up being un-atmospheric to an extreme.
I also found Dunmore's extremely literal reading of Catullus' poetry very limiting, as if the only source for poetry is always and unquestionably the autobiographical, with no room for creative imagination at all. Apart from being an unsophisticated reading, it made the whole book far too predictable to anyone familiar with the poetry itself.
There have been other attempts to novelise the Catullus/Lesbia story (Clodia, The Venus Throw, The Ides of March but this is the first time it has been written by a woman. However Dunmore doesn't succeed, in my view, in making Clodia any more a `real' woman than any of her male writers.
So overall I found this a disappointingly slight book that gestures towards something deeply emotional but fails to deliver.