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Benita Kane Jaro

Key, The
Dodd, Mead, 1994


In her "passionate novel about Catullus, ancient Rome's greatest poet" (as the dust jacket proclaims) Jaro, accepting the poems as literal autobiography, weaves Catullus' poems (especially the Lesbia cycle) adroitly into her narrative, though the relationship between Catullus and Clodia toward the end of the book is not what anyone would normally derive from the Catullan corpus. In the historical detail we expect of a historical novel, Jaro is pretty accurate. However, she puzzlingly has a leatherworkers guild campaign for Clodius as tribune with the slogan, "He will lower our taxes. "She consistently contrasts "patrician" with "knight" (rather than with "senator") and "plebeian" (referring to the Clodii/Claudii) with "aristocratic" (rather than with "patrician". She says of the traditional nine people at a party at Metellus' house "some were not patrician at all, but knights, even one or two well-dressed plebeians". The novel is entertaining, full of incident delivered with extensive imagery of sight, sound and smell, with an ending poignant and dramatically effective if you accept all that has gone before, including Catullus' return to Sirmio because he found Caelius had been Clodia's lover. And that the Clodii would let Clodia starve destitute, regardless of her disgrace after the Pro Caelio seems unlikely. Of the characters, only Clodia, Caelius and Catullus emerge clearly, but they are the crucial ones. The first person narrative by Caelius Rufus strains belief a bit when he shifts into a third-person account not of what he himself saw and heard but what he extrapolated in copious detail from Catullus' own notes on even the most intimate (and graphically told) erotic encounters. This is likely to turn up in your local public library; read it there. It might be a useful supplement for your advanced high school or college students but you probably will not need to buy your own copy. (Mench;

- Fred Mench, 12/2/2005

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