Saturday, September 26, 2009

Counting the Stars

Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars has been on my shelf for a while. This well-written, sensuous novel, published in 2008, is based on the lyric poetry of Catullus and centers on his affair with a woman he called "Lesbia" (the name is a tribute to Sappho's poems, nothing to do with lesbianism). Traditionally she is believed to be Clodia, the wife of the consul of Rome in 60 B.C. Clodia had a bad reputation: she was accused by Cicero in his speech Pro Caelio of seducing the young man Caelius and somehow plotting to involve him - or make it look as though he was involved - in a political murder. The fact that she was older made her guilty. It all sounded very sexist and improbable to me: Caelius was indulged in sowing his wild oats but she, as a woman having an affair with a younger man, was portrayed as a sexual deviant. She was also accused of having an incestuous affair with her brother, Clodius Pulcher.

Catullus is one of my favorite poets: I was very fond of him when I was young. He made Latin come alive in a way that still feels immediate and contemporary. As one of the Novi Poetae, or “New Poets,” of Rome in the first century B.C., Catullus broke from tradition and wrote lyric poetry, sometimes translating Sappho from the Greek, often writing "nugae" (small personal poems) in the tradition of the poets of the Greek Anthology. His most famous poems alternately celebrate and defame Lesbia, his passion, jealousy, and frustration. Of course, these were his poetic persona’s feelings, not necessarily Catullus' own: the biographical interpretation is a bit old-fashioned. But for Dunmore's purposes, it works very well.

As seen through Catullus’ adoring, if melancholy, eyes, Clodia is a passionate, smart, witty but unfaithful lover. The title Counting the Stars refers to the following lines in his famous poem (Poem 5):

"You ask how many of your kisses, Lesbia,
are enough and more than enough.
As great as the number of Libyan sands...
or as many as there are stars , when the night is silent,
watching the furtive loves of men....”

Curiously, the narrative is third-person limited, though Catullus’ poems are told in the first person, and seem more casual, colloquial in tone.

But Dunmore is not a humorist, and this more distant tone makes her able to write about a serious love affair, and Catullus' depression.

One of the most surprising characters is Aemilia, the slave Clodia has had since childhood, who has a very strange relationship with Clodia. She trails after Clodia to her various rendezvous with Catullus, bringing a basket of unguents and powders so she can repair Clodia’s hair and makeup after the sex. Catullus seems to imagine she is also having an affair with Clodia.

Not published in the U.S., this got mixed reviews in England - but I am enjoying it very much. Dunmore’s prose is poetic if perhaps more careful that usual - perhaps a bit inhibited by the brilliance of Catullus. Don't expect a lot of action. It is about feelings. Slow, but well-done.

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