Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Catullus' Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet by Daisy Dunn
Harper, 2016
Hardcover, 336 pages

An attempt to get back in the swing of posting...

Catullus' Bedspread by Daisy Dunn, released to coincide with her translation titled The Poems of Catullus (also from Harper) looks at the life and work of the poet commonly known for bawdy writing. As Dunn demonstrates, Gaius Valerius Catullus also turned out poetry that provided reflections and insight into the tumultuous times of his age, as well as influencing the poetry of Ovid, Virgil, and Horace (and other significant poets). His mini-epic, Poem 64, which Dunn nicknames the "bedspread poem," is a stunning achievement. The poem hss a maze-like structure describing artworks within artworks, comparing the mores of his modern times unfavorably to the mythical Golden Age.

Catullus' Bedspread has two distinct but intertwined goals. The first goal attempts to provide a biography of the poet. As Dunn highlights, "There are very few surviving sources for Catullus' life. Practically everything that can be known about him must be extracted from his book of poetry." But as Catullus points out in his poems, a poet's writing doesn't necessarily reflect the author's life. Dunn acknowledges that Catullus' poetry was meant for "public consumption, and not necessarily as a faithful account" of his life. So we know we're entering dangerous ground when relying on his poems for facts about his life. So how does the biography goal work out?

I'll admit I'm extremely wary when it comes to speculative biographies, especially at moments when Dunn decisively states things Catullus did or experienced. That being said, many of Dunn's key assumptions track consistently with what I've seen presented in other recent works, although I must note my background in this area is limited. The general framework of Catullus' biography, what is generally accepted, yields only a glimpse at what must have been an interesting life. Born in approximately 82 BC, he was raised in Verona while it was part of Cisalpine Gaul (people there wouldn't be granted full Roman citizenship until 49 BC). Since his family was well to do, his father would have met with many influential people of the day as they passed through the area. Catullus moved to Rome around his 21st year. We know he worked in an administrative position for a year in Bithynia, then died in his 30th year, around 53 BC. Not much for hard facts, is it? Yet we have his poetry, which hints at a lot depth in an unsettled soul during those turbulent times.

This leads to the second goal of the book, in which the turmoil of the era in addition to his tumultuous life infuses his poetry, The literary analysis of his work by Dunn shows the influences of and experimentation within his works. Or as Dunn puts it, "Catullus provides the poetry; I offer something of the world that informed it. ... If together he and I can bridge the distance that lies between us, then even the most labyrinthine of his poems sing." On this point I think Dunn does an excellent job, putting the poems in context with what is happening in Rome and its lands at the time.

And what a time it was. The decade of Catullus' birth saw the civil war between Sulla and Marius. A decade before his birth Rome experienced the Social War, where Italian allies demanded full citizenship. In his childhood, Catullus would have heard about Sulla's dictatorship and his death, the never-ending conflict between Mithridates and Rome, and the Spartacus revolt. In his teens he would have heard about Pompey's success against sea pirates and his eventual defeat of Mithridates. His move to Rome would have been around the time of Pompey the Great's third triumph and Caesar's governorship of Further Spain. He would have seen the formation of the First Triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus and the start of Caesar's Gallic War. Catullus lived long enough to see Cicero's exile and recall, hear about Caesar's attempts to invade Britain, and possibly even Crassus' death at the battle of Carrhae.

These were interesting times indeed, and Dunn does a great job of putting Catullus' writings in the context of these events. In addition, she also demonstrates the major influences on Catullus, especially that of Sappho and Callimachus. Catullus' poems include details on daily life with pointed political commentary. Dunn's analysis of Catullus' writing was the most lively and entertaining part of the book. The more I learned what was behind the subject...the "secrets and allusions in Catullus' Latin which take some teasing out" as Dunn puts it...the more appreciative I am of his poems.

I highly recommend the book for the spotlight Dunn focuses on Catullus' writing and the political and social dynamics of the time (and place) influencing his poetry. As I mentioned, there are some parts of the biography section that trouble me, but Dunn makes her approach clear and provides plenty of contemporary and historical notes and sources supporting her narrative. While her conjectures about his life based on his poetry and from these sources aren't flights of fancy, nevertheless it's difficult to discern just how well grounded they are, but she makes clear her assumptions and approach. Her presentation of the events and context of his writing helps alleviate some of my concerns, while her literary analysis makes me want to read Catullus' works again. Fortunately there are plenty of excerpts in the book as well as the complete Poem 64 (all her translations).

Note: For anyone interested in the woman that inspired some of Catullus' poetry (whether praising or excoriating her), see Clodia Metelli by Marilyn Skinner. This biography of the woman that was likely "Lesbia" in Catullus' poems provides insight into the age, not just the political turmoil, but also the societal issues for a woman of her social rank. Also, I've really enjoyed the Yale University Press' Hermes Books Series, providing academic research behind the introduction to the books' topics. For a different introductory approach to Catullus, see Charles Marin's Catullus in this series.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Netflix's Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Netflix's series Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the recent docu-series movement, mixing historians, narration, and drama over multiple episodes. It also continue the trend moving from sword-and-sandal epics to blood-and-boobs entertainment (to paraphrase a line from Adrian Goldsworthy). The story starts with the end of the emperor Marcus Aurelius' reign and focuses on his son Commodus' disastrous years on the throne.

It's an era of history that fascinates because of the twisted nature of Commodus. Many historians mark Commodus' reign as the start of the Western Empire's descent. Edward Gibbon famously remarked that history's most happy and prosperous period ended with Commodus' accession, so dramatizing his reign, if done well, is sure-fire entertainment. So does Netflix do it well? Reviews have been generally positive. My thoughts are a little more mixed on it, and while I can't whole-heartedly recommend it, I think it does several things well.

The inclusion and integration of the historians was well done. Too often in shows/series like this, the 'talking head' portion feels like an afterthought and may not mesh well with what is being dramatized or narrated. Fortunately, the list of historians they include was first rate, as was the choice of Sean Bean as the narrator (finally, a role in which he doesn't die). Now that I think about it, Bean was probably the best part of the series. Between the historians and the drama, though, Bean's role shouldn't have been the normal 'narrator' job although that was how it was written. The historians tell us what's going to happen or sum up what what just happened, the actors show us what happens, so that leaves the job narrator to do... what? Beyond providing a bridge between scenes or filling in additional information, too often Bean is telling us exactly what we're about to see or what the historians are about to tell us.

Regarding the drama portion, the actors are fine and seem to be doing their best with clunky writing, which goes on way too long for many scenes. At the end of the series I felt like it would have been much better at about half the length, with most of the cuts coming from the drama part of the show. Cutting Commodus pouring a drink or drinking from his cup would have shortened the series by one episode alone. Too often the scenes felt too drawn out, too long, and too superfluous. The acting was fine considering what they were given. I do have to mention my wife initially stopped based on Aaron Jakubenko's looks: "Ooh, what's this?" But she did stick around because of interest in the underlying story. Or so she said.

The show's rating is TV-Mature, which it needs for the violence (usually implied more than shown), language (on occasion), and gratuitous nudity. Ordinarily I'd feel like an old fart for typing that last one, but too often those scenes definitely had a feel of "we're including it because we can." I can appreciate the difficulty in writing and incorporating all three elements: narration, historians, and drama. Now that budgets have grown for the last part, where live actors are no longer background visuals for a voiceover, it's going to be a challenge to integrate all three together and make the final product work.

Again, I hesitate to fully recommend it. The historical period covered is fascinating and definitely can use the improvements in historical accuracy provided. The lack of integration between the dramatic portion with the narration and historian commentary, though, is what causes my wavering. I would have loved this to succeed better at it. I am intrigued at this being listed as Season One. There is so much to mine and use from the Roman Empire in such a format. Here's hoping they are able to improve the series.

Update: I wish I had seen this article at Decider earlier. One of the fascinating thing about Commodus' reign is his sister's involvement in the assassination plot to kill him. Just what did she hope to gain if he died? From the article:
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood portrays Lucilla as an ever-pouting, constantly-scheming, brilliant political operative fond of plunging necklines. She’s played with stone cold power by Kiwi actress Tai Berdinner-Blades.

Pardon the inclusion of advertisement...I like this picture so much better than the main poster

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Mark Twain and loyalty to country

A note from Mark Twain, to help put the animated comments of the day in perspective. Heated moments when dealing with elections are nothing new...

I've been reading books with the boys this year that tie into their history studies. We spent a day on Chapter 13 of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court since it touches on so many themes in the book.
I said to myself:

“This one’s a man. If I were backed by enough of his sort, I would make a strike for the welfare of this country, and try to prove myself its loyalest citizen by making a wholesome change in its system of government.”

You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags--that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Two recommended articles in the October 2016 Asymptote Journal

There's always plenty to enjoy in the Asymptote journal, but I wanted to recommend two articles in the October 2016 issue. The first is a scene from György Spiró's Prah. I'm a huge fan of what I've read so far by Spiró. I've posted on his play The Imposter and really need to post on his novel Captivity, which I loved. This scene, translated by Szilvia Naray-Davey, gives a nice flavor of his style. Given the limited amount I've read, I'm hoping more of his work will be translated to English.

The other article covers the two recent translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. Stephanie Boland reviews Graveyard Clay, translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, and The Dirty Dust, translated by Alan Titley. The variations with the titles hints at the differences in translation styles. Boland goes into why the original work is so difficult to translate and what each translation provides. I do want to say both are enjoyable, yielding a wonderful revelation of the original. There is something to be said for the suggestion that you need both to fully appreciate Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s creation. There is so much more I want to cover on each of these, along with Joan Trodden Keefe's 1984 translation (which was her doctoral dissertation...yeah, I can become obsessive when it comes to completeness) and the remarkable movie adaptation directed by Robert Quinn.

It looks like I'm setting myself up for some fun posts this fall.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Heal Your Child from the Inside Out by Robin Ray Green

Heal Your Child From the Inside Out: The Five-Element Way to Nurturing Healthy, Happy Kids by Robin Ray Green
Hay House: 2016

A little bit of shameless self-promotion. Or rather promoting my wife's book, which is being released tomorrow...

I can't improve on the work she's done, so please check out her page on the book. And if you're interested in the book, be sure to visit her Facebook author page for more info.

This has been a labor of love for her, and I hope it helps many parents and children!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Follow up

Once again, I apologize for the silence. I'm dealing with an intense amount of pain that just doesn't seem to lessen...it just changes forms.

Speaking of which, are there novels that deal with intense physical pain more than just in passing for a character? Not that I want to read it, now or ever. Mental/emotional/psychological problems get dealt with in novels so much easier than physical ailments. There's only so many ways you can say "It friggin' hurt a lot" for characters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Upcoming Landmark Histories

I think it's clear I'm a huge fan of the Landmark Ancient Histories edited by Robert B. Stassler. For anyone else wondering what is forthcoming in the series and the timing, I stumbled across this note posted by Mr. Stassler to a query on an Amazon.com board:
I am avery much alive, and up to my ears in the effort to publish four more Landmark Series volumes. Anticipated Publication dates are: 2017, Landmark edition of Julius Caesar, 2018, Landmark edition of Xenophon's Anabasis, 2019, a Landmark edition of the works of Polybius, and 2020, a Landmark edition of Ammianus Marcellins. These volumes require a lot of care and much time. I have no publication plans after that, thank you.

While the last comment saddens me, I'm excited to see what is planned in this superb series. I will pass on additional information as I find out more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I was going to do what?

Well, August has been anything but fun...two trips to the hospital and some surgery, for starters. Hopefully the pain levels will recede and I'll feel like reading and posting again soon. I apologize for the break but I'll get going again soon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Joy Division & Marketa Lazarová

It will be a little bit before I write on Marketa Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura, but I wanted to share something I stumbled across yesterday. Someone (I'm assuming Stefano Leone, who posted it) paired Joy Division's "Shadowplay" with scenes from Marketa Lazarová, a stunning combination. The scenes are as haunting as the song.

Speaking of the movie, I watched it again after reading the novel and was surprised the changes it made from Vančura's story. More on that later, hopefully.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Shakespeare: movies currently available online

There are some movies currently streaming online that I wanted to pass along to readers.

First up is Coriolanus available for free to Amazon Prime members. Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes while John Logan adapted the play for the screen. I was impressed by the whole production, which was as troubling on the screen as it is on the page. Set in modern times, the action can be graphic and troubling for younger viewers, so discretion is advised. Fiennes brings a simmering intensity to the Roman general who defends Rome until he is banished, a political victim. It's one of the strongest performances I've seen from him lately. It helps that the supporting cast is strong, too. James Cox's Menenius was especially good, while Vanessa Redgrave's Volumnia provided a believable stern mother to Coriolanus. I even enjoyed Gerard Butler's portrayal of Aufidius. I highly recommend catching this while it is available.

I've not seen the 1984 TV adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. I'm not sure I'm brave enough to try it, although I did want to mention that it is also available for free on Amazon Prime.

The 2013 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad was released the following year as a movie and is currently available on Hulu. There was a lot of press about the play when it debuted so I won't go into much detail here. There were some nice touches, but the truncation of the burial vault scene (at least in the screen version) dealt a strong blow against it for me. The performances that stood out to me were Brent Carver as a nervous Friar Laurence and Christian Camargo’s Mercutio. Most of the other roles were played by the book. I'd put this production in the middle of the pack of versions I've seen, still enjoyable in places despite the unevenness.

Chime in if you have seen any of the these films!