I admire Helen Dunmore’s writing, having previously been very impressed by The Siege, so I was excited, when I discovered she’d written a novel about Catullus. The book is well enough written, as one would expect and is full of allusions to Catullus’ poetry, both directly and more subtly, through echoes and hints of Catullus’ experiences and his responses. The process through which his love for Clodia – the ‘Lesbia’ of the poems, inspires the creation of some of Catullus’ most famous and passion-infused poetry is elegantly and skilfully evoked.
What spoiled this book for me however, was the portrayal of Clodia, herself. The woman who dimly emerges from this portrait seems to be constructed from misogynist tradition to the point that she is scarcely a recognisable or rational human being at all. Dunmore seems to have swallowed whole what Catullus and Cicero had to say about her, from their highly biased perspectives (spurned lover and political and legal opponent) and yet deletes from these vivid though rancorous portrayals the woman’s evident social and political influence, wit and sophistication.
This Clodia has a crazily obssessional, possibly unnatural relationship with her pet sparrow; she is a poet, but admits herself, she is not much good, that she is better suited as an ornament. She may have had some part in her husband’s death, for an unbelievably stupid reason.
For all his complaints about her alleged infidelities, the actual poet Catullus claims to have loved Lesbia as a friend, appreciated her wit – it is hard to see why he would have loved this, not only wicked, but weak and seemingly witless woman. The long episode of the visit to the poisoner Gorgo has little point to it – it leads nowhere in terms of plot. I would have hoped for a more challenging reading of tradition, it would have made for a more interesting book.