Monday, December 26, 2016

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski


Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski
Translation from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft
Paul Dry Books, 2016
Paperback, 733 pages

One may shake the Ten Commandments in helpless anger, but no one is exempt from them. They are always with us, etched on our consciences; they weigh every action, affixing their sign of approval or condemnation so as to crush us in the last hour and accuse us for eternity. (page 587)

Many thanks to Will Schofield at Paul Dry Books for sending me a review copy of this book earlier this year. I hate that it took so long to post on it, but that's been the fate of many things this year. I hope this serves as a partial offset for the delay.

Wojciech Żukrowski (1916 - 2000) was a new name for me, but his biography made me want to explore some of his work. Stone Tablets, published in 1966, was banned by the Polish authorities because of its comments on Stalinism. Set in India in 1956, Stone Tablets tells of a love affair between the Hungarian cultural attaché stationed in New Delhi and an Australian ophthalmologist. The diplomat, Istvan Terey, proves to be an unusual diplomat. He's not a particularly dedicated Communist party member, preferring to write poetry instead. While married and with two sons, his family remains in Budapest instead of joining him in India. Margit Ward, the Australian, works with Unesco to stop the prevalent spread of trachoma in the country. From a rich family, Margit throws herself into her work from the grief of losing her fiancé during World War II and from the guilt of her privileged status. We are introduced to her as looking for another cause, and she seems to view Istvan as just that. She wants Istvan to return with her to Australia so he can work on his poetry in a free country. For his part, Istvan seems torn between his concern for his family's safety and his desire to be free of them.

The affair between Istvan and Margit is central to the novel, and sadly it's the weakest part. Fortunately, other areas are extremely robust and well done. 1956 turned out to be a tumultuous political year. Nikita Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin and his protégés caused many ripples in the Communist world that year. The promise of change led to demonstrations in Poland and Hungary, where initial concessions emboldened further revolts. Istvan, thousands of miles away from home, is at the mercy of infrequent and incomplete information about events in Hungary. The brutal crackdowns in Poland and Hungary are swept away from the world's focus as the Suez Crisis begins.

While all these events unfold, Istvan searches for news from Hungary. He finds occasional updates through other diplomatic channels, but the most insightful comments come in letters from Bela, a reporter and close friend from Hungary. Through Bela, Istvan learns of the "fresh evidence of cruelty" from the past coming to light, where party members are "forced to feel the cruelty of the machine in which he had been one of the cogs," the changes in fortune for those once powerful in the Communist hierarchy. Istvan's boss refuses to change, believing that de-Stalinization had to proceed with caution since "if unleashed without restraint, may lead to internal upheaval." The party line is that moving too fast would favor Communism's enemies.

The political promise in Hungary of shaking off its past resonates with Istvan, who's unsure which direction he wants to go in his personal life. Like the upheaval back home, he realizes that it isn't possible to be passive and stay on the sidelines. He lacks the fortitude to commit to a decision in his personal life, though, choosing to continue acting as he has—in a sense, behaving just like his boss. His actions, or rather his inability to come to terms with what is happening around him, also mirrors some of the British he sees in independent India. Even though India is no longer one of their colonies, they feel more comfortable there than they do back home, where changes not to their liking are taking place.

The Hungarian embassy turns out to be a political cauldron. Istavan acts as if he is above the political dynamics there (he's a poet, after all), but like Hungarians realizing their country's insignificance in relation to others when other global events explode, Istvan comprehends too late he's just a small cog in the political machine.

The political discussions and events exhibited in the novel aren't its only strong point. Żukrowski's portrait of India, still feeling its way on the stage as an independent country, contributes a lustrous travelogue component to the novel. And it's a powerful portrait he paints. There's a political angle in these descriptions, where there is much talk about the potential that has yet to be realized. As some of the native characters realize, it was "easier to get rid of the English than to control" what was set in motion with their independence.

Żukrowski served in Poland's diplomatic service in India and it shows in his descriptions of everyday scenes. One of the characters describes India as a Breughal painting, and Żukrowski's portrait of India details a love of and appreciation for the lower classes similar to that of the painter's depiction of peasants. One example: there's a striking scene where Istvan finds himself in the middle of a demonstration made up of prostitutes and blind men (who play music in the brothels). These groups are protesting new rules relocating brothels outside the city, meaning a loss of their steady income. It's something so outlandish but presented in such a sympathetic light I have to think Żukrowski saw or read about a similar event. There are many such wonderful details and events shown in the novel as Istvan travels around India. Some of it is glamorized, but Żukrowski's love of the country shines through.

Even though the love affair central to the novel is the weakest component, the strength of the other parts, the political component and depiction of India in particular, made for a gratifying read. Recommended.

Additional links:
Stephanie Kraft discusses translating famous Polish novel into English: a fun five minutes on some of the difficulties on translating the novel

Paul Dry Books' reading guide to Stone Tablets. Contains a chronology of important dates around Żukrowski's life and the book, a character list (I found this handy), and chapter summaries (with spoilers).

Michael Orthofer has a more detailed review, including the insight below. It's one of the many parallels running through the novel that makes it enjoyable to read:

The lack of privacy Terey experiences is nicely presented, as he finds himself unable to keep even the locals who work for him from closely monitoring all his affairs, an amusing twist on the surveillance state he has otherwise been able to leave more or less behind... .

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Shakespeare in Swahililand by Edward Wilson-Lee

Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living Poet
by Edward Wilson-Lee
William Collins; London: 2016

One of the most striking things I found as I followed Shakespeare on his travels through East African history was the fact that the works were present at every stage of life in the region during the very period when the region was struggling to free itself from colonial rule. The plays were set as compulsory reading at school, yes, but they were not dispensed with after that as nothing more than rote learning. Many—even most—of those who would go on to become post-independence political, social and cultural leaders went on to study English literature at Makerere University, where the emphasis was heavily on the reading and performance of Shakespeare's plays. And though this odd fact in itself was the result of a curious set of historical circumstances, these readers of Shakespeare did not simply shake off their reading after graduation as so much colonial propaganda. Instead, they too Shakespeare with them out into the world, and he was woven into every part of the fabric of African life, into the speeches of politicians and lawyers, but also into the folklore of rural villages. Shakespeare even followed in times of crisis, into riots and guerrilla warfare and into concentration camps. Yet any temptation to write this love of colonial masters even as they overthrew them, is quickly dispelled as the trail is followed: these are wholehearted commitments to reading Shakespeare, and ones as likely to Africanize his works as to preserve him as a pristine European fetish. (137-8; quotes are from the U.K. edition)

Edward Wilson-Lee, raised in Kenya, teaches Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He ran across the fact that one of the first books printed in the Swahili language had to do with Shakespeare, "a slim volume of stories from Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, published ... on the island of Zanzibar in the 1860s." Traveling through the countries where Swahili was common (plus Ethiopia), Wilson-Lee found "a hidden history that brought both Shakespeare and the land I thought familiar into richer focus than I had ever known them." Shakespeare in Swahililand records his journey and what he unearthed in these southeastern African countries, part travelogue, part literary and theatrical development, combined with the region's history. Many colorful characters, political and theatrical, grace the pages.

Early explorers to Africa's Lakes Region made a point of noting they carried Shakespeare (and other weighty works) in their safari kitbag, not to share with the natives but rather to remain in touch with civilization. Wilson-Lee visits Zanzibar, where the volume of the Lamb's Shakespeare translation was published, only to find that most archived documents of the mission house are in various stages of disintegration. While the man responsible for the publication of the translation, Edward Steere, initially came to the area as a missionary, it seems clear that in publishing this volume, and in other of his reports, he wanted to establish a shared culture, too. Explorers and missionaries lifted Shakespeare's narratives in writing their reports and memoirs, showing how integral the poet was in their lives and, possibly, how they thought he captured aspects of civilization and savagery.

I enjoyed the tie-in between the history of a region and how it impacted the theater, such as the use of Indian workers to build the East Africa Railway, running from Mombasa at the coast to the interior lakes. The side-effect of this was a "vibrant culture of East African Shakespeare performance in the early years of the twentieth century." All play performances had to obtain a license from the colonial authorities at the East African Protectorate, and Wilson-Lee includes an appendix showing approval for eight approved plays in Mombasa that are either performances of or adaptations from Shakespeare during February and March 1915. Reports of these and other performances provide interesting detail, especially surrounding the changes to Shakespeare's plots. There was also music added, of which Wilson-Lee was able to find two gramophone recordings on shellac (crushed battle-shell). The changes to Shakespeare's texts, or maybe better described as liberties taken, demonstrate an interaction with the poet, highlighting his appeal to audiences throughout time, language, and place.

Wilson-Lee illustrates presence of Shakespeare at the stages of life in the region by showing how Shakespeare may have been present in colonial run schools, but more importantly he wasn't discarded with colonial propaganda on the countries' roads to independence. His language "was woven into every part of the fabric of African life, into the speeches of politicians and lawyers, but also into the folklore of rural villages." What the people of East Africa did was take Shakespeare's writing and make it their own. Or as Wilson-Lee puts it, "the Shakespeare made in Africa has come to replace the one that was taken there."

I think it a little dangerous to view what happened through the lens of Shakespeare, such as British explorers viewing natives through The Tempest, but Wilson-Lee makes it clear when he does something like this it's only speculation. The book is a marvelous guide to the life of Shakespeare's writings and performances in the eastern Africa region, a travelogue of the poet's influence in the area. Even though his writings are understood in differing ways, his works have been available to the residents of East Africa for a while, open to their interpretations, and made their own. East Africa has appropriated Shakespeare, just as Shakespeare did with other works. Very highly recommended.

The abrupt withdrawal of Shakespeare from the front lines of East African life [at the end of the Cold War, post-1989] gives a strong indication of the extent to which his place there was sustained by power struggles rather than by disinterested love of his works. This, like so many other aspects of the story I have been pursuing, makes clear how difficult it is even to ask questions about Shakespeare's universal appeal. The Victorians' idolization of Shakespeare meant that he would have a place at the foundations of language learning in their colonies, and would serve as a totemic standard of beauty for the peoples over whom they ruled. In this respect there was a certain inevitability to the central place that he would have in East African history—first as something kept from the natives, then a test through which they could prove their allegiance to their colonial masters, then as something they could take over and make their own, and finally as something to be cast off, as the final and most internalized form of colonial power. It is possible that something would have serve this role even had it not been Shakespeare's works. (220-1)

Additional Links:
Edward Wilson-Lee's article in Foreign AffairsAfrica's Theater of War: Shakespeare and Nation Building on the Continent

A more detailed (and much better) review by Ramnik Shah.

Edward Wilson-Lee's essay A Voice in the Desert at FSG's Work In Progress blog

"The resulting book is bursting with stories about reading in unexpected places and how it changes what we read, but at its heart is always the question of whether there is anything that is beautiful and significant to everyone—whether, in a sense, in a world deserted by shared values, there is any voice that can speak to us all."

Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet
by Edward Wilson-Lee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York: 2016

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Copperhead: Harold Frederic (1893 novel) and 2013 Film (Ron Maxwell, director)

Earlier this year Amateur Reader posted on Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware, which reminded me of my reading of that novel as well as Frederic's novella The Copperhead. At that time, the movie adaptation was available on Amazon Prime for only a few dollars, so I splurged and watched it. A few notes about both of them, although I'll provide the caveat that it has been a while since I've read Frederic's novella.

Frederic's short stories about the U.S. Civil War have usually been published together, often including The Copperhead. Copperheads, for those unfamiliar with the term, were northern U.S. opponents to the Civil War. In the case of Frederic's novella, the central character of Abner Beech is adamantly opposed to the Civil War, causing friction with the other residents of Four Corners in upstate New York. Jimmy, an orphan the Beeches have welcomed into their household, narrates how the abolitionist movement took hold in the area:

There was a certain dreamlike tricksiness of transformation in it all. At first there was only one Abolitionist, old “Jee” Hagadorn. Then, somehow, there came to be a number of them—and then, all at once, lo! everybody was an Abolitionist—that is to say, everybody but Abner Beech. The more general and enthusiastic the conversion of the others became, the more resolutely and doggedly he dug his heels into the ground, and braced his broad shoulders, and pulled in the opposite direction. The skies darkened, the wind rose, the storm of angry popular feeling burst swooping over the country-side, but Beech only stiffened his back and never budged an inch. (from Chapter 1)

Frederic, a native of Utica, makes upstate New York as much a character in many of his stories as the men and women populating them. On his writing of the U.S. Civil War, Frederic takes a very guarded position. There is no righteousness of the cause, there is no romanticism of war. Frederic focuses on the men, women, and children left at home during the fighting. In the novella, Frederic makes it difficult to like Abner Beech. Beech is against the war, mainly because he doesn't think it worth spilling blood. He's as racist as they come and doesn't have a problem with slavery. Or at least he doesn't think it an institution worth fighting over. If the southern states want to seceded, Abner says let them leave.

Edmund Wilson wrote an introduction to a reissue of The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic and had this to say about these stories:

His [Frederic's] stories of New York during the Civil War reflect the peculiar mixture of patriotism and disaffection which was characteristic of that region and for which [good friend Horatio] Seymour was so forthright a spokesman. Due to this, these stories differ fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction I know, and they have thus a unique historical as well as a literary importance. The hero of the longest of them—really a short novel—is not merely a critic of Republican policies but a real out-and-out Copperhead, an upstate farmer whose ideas are rooted in the principles of the American Revolution and who believes the South has the right to secede.

I recommend The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic even though they don't represent his best writing and are uneven. The best of them, The Copperhead included, focus on "the mixed feelings aroused by the war but also in their realistic footage focusing on the civilians at home." (Wilson, again, in the introduction)

Abner was too intent upon his theme to notice. “Yes, peace!” he repeated, in the deep vibrating tones of his class-meeting manner. “Why, just think what's been a-goin' on! Great armies raised, hundreds of thousands of honest men taken from their work an' set to murderin' each other, whole deestricks of country torn up by the roots, homes desolated, the land filled with widows an' orphans, an' every house a house of mournin'.” (from Chapter 8)

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 movie Copperhead directed by Ron Maxwell and adapted by Bill Kaufman. Minor changes made to the characters, Abner Beech in particular, improve the story. Abner, played perfectly by Billy Campbell, focuses more on his belief that the Constitution should guide the states' and citizens' actions, and he's less than thrilled by the steps President Lincoln has taken. A major change to his character is that the movie Abner is very much anti-slavery, but he puts his dedication to the law over his hatred of slavery. There are other changes as well, and for the most part well done. If it's possible, there's an even stronger focus on the home front, as you see boys heading off to war and coming home, if they come home alive that is, irreparably changed.

The strength of the movie is its focus on the issue of community during wartime and the many divisive factors (political, religious, legal, familial, economic) that can tear it apart. If I had any complaints about the movie, it would be that the ending was even more heavy handed than Frederic's. In such moments, though, it's easy to see what Frederic was striving for. Men like Jee Hagadorn (played perfectly with scene-chewing aplomb by Angus Macfadyen) may be on the right side of this moral question, but at what cost in other areas? Fortunately the movie and the novella don't pretend to make either Jee or Abner representative of the pro-war or anti-war North, instead using them to highlight important moral questions about this tumultuous period. Highly recommended.


Billy Campbell as Abner Beech in Copperhead

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes by Ronni Lundy


Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes by Ronni Lundy
Photography by Johnny Autry
Penguin Random House, 2016
Hardcover, 320 pages

2016 seems to be be the year of the redneck, at least when it comes to books. Or is it the hillbilly? White trash? Given the news, literary and otherwise, it looks like I'm up for another award. Given my background, which I semi-apologize to the boys when I remind them they're half-redneck, I might need to make room on my trophy shelf for another award to sit beside my more general TIME Person of the Year achievements in 1966, 1969, 2006, and 2011.

For an alternative to other redneck-related books released this past year, let me offer Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes by Ronni Lundy. I prefer this book over other recent offerings on related subjects. Lundy traveled around the southern half of the Appalachian Mountains (and nearby ranges), following hints and vague directions to discover people behind continuing southern mountain food traditions. Equal parts travelogue, recipes, area history, and Lundy's family history, the book charms you just like visiting family or friends in that area does. It's a beautiful glimpse into a regional area, but even more into a mindset and a way of life I have yet to find anywhere else. I'll go in reverse order of the different parts I listed.

Lundy was born in Corbin, Kentucky. Although she moved to Louisville when young, she visited relatives in the mountain region as she grew up. Stories of her family, though very different from mine, sound familiar. It's that feeling I get when reading Rick Bragg's family stories and I realize, "I know these people." While it's not exactly my history, it captures the mindset and background of people I grew up with. Maybe that nostalgia influenced my judgment of the book, and I mean that in a good way.

The part I labeled area history would be better described as area food history. You're not going to find a full, documented history of the area here. Rather, the book's chapters reflect different ingredients or components of the area's availability: corn, beans, salt, apples, preserves, etc. Using this construct, Lundy goes back decades and centuries, highlighting not just historical info but some of the people carrying on these traditions today, detailing the work by specific people, locals and transplants. Sometimes it's resurrecting a family property. Other times it's someone preparing an old recipe and/or method shared with them. What makes it special is their desire to save something and share it with others.

The recipes are a fun read, full of techniques and details which can help with other dishes. Although I grew up further south than the mountainous region, I recognized many of the dishes I saw in my childhood (at least those experienced outside of bland and/or processed meals at covered-dish suppers). Some of the ingredients aren't available to me now that I live in a different part of the country, but Lundy provides substitutions at points where it makes sense. For others...well, I'm out of luck since they are ingredient specific. Some of these I can fix as they are, but many I'll have to adapt for dietary concerns. We'll see how that goes. Some ingredient considerations in the recipes are common for me, such as saving bacon grease for future use, but others may take some adaptation or planning. Like most cookbook recipes, your mileage will vary, but I think Lundy provides enough information to play with changes and adaptations for many dishes. There's some talk of 'sustainability' and other current buzzwords, but at one point even Lundy asks such a question while admitting she's not sure what it means.

The travelogue part of the book may have been the most fun for me, especially seeing it's been a few years since I've been in the area. I tend to tune out culinary trends and it surprised me to learn about some recent developments regarding the Appalachian region. Driving over four thousand miles in the area, zigzagging on what passes as roads, with directions like "Look for the Dr. Seuss tree" to guide her, Lundy captures the look and flavor of the area quite well, past as well as present. I think my favorite moment in the book is when Travis Milton (wearing a Piggly Wiggly t-shirt in his photo), shows Lundy around the area that used to be his family's apple orchard. The area has been overrun by kudzu and Russian olive brush, yet he spies an ancient apple tree hiding in a thicket. "Holy...I can't believe...I mean...this is my great-grandad's apple. Right here." (ellipses in original) This captures the book perfectly.

For me, cookbooks make the most personal of books. If they fail to connect, they will stay distant from the reader, browser, or cook. Rarely do they become an "I'll look at that later when I have time" type of book. That may be one of the reasons cookbooks haven't always been mostly recipes but also include personal journeys, historical treks, or some other approach. Some times the different approaches work well, some times they don't. I think Lundy has found a great blend in this case.

A quick word about the photography by Johnny Autry...there is some basic food photography, but also plenty of pictures of the people and places mentioned. I don't know how to describe it, but it's not always a flattering "here it is at its best" shot. Because of that, though, more of the personality seems to come through in the pictures, adding nicely to the book.

Keeping in mind the limitations I describe, highly recommended.

Additional Links:

If I somehow managed to be mentioned in a publication titled Gardens and Guns, I'd be thrilled. See the link for a nice excerpt on the history of salt in the area and some links to recipes.

Lundy's beautiful article http://www.oxfordamerican.org/item/953-a-recipe-for-memory demonstrates one way recipes were handed down.

Since I mention him by name, here's a fun article on Travis Milton and the role of music in his work (article from 2013). And here's a more recent article, as well as this one about him.

Monday, December 19, 2016

How to Catch a Russian Spy by Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican


How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent
by Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican
Scribner, 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages

I'm not sure where I heard about this book or what caused me to place a hold on it at the library, but it followed me home one day and I finally opened it the other evening. I'm glad I did—it was exactly what I needed at the moment: funny, engaging, and something I could fly through.

For three nerve-wracking years, Naveed Jamali spied on America for the Russians, trading thumb drives of sensitive technical data for envelopes of cash, selling out his own beloved country across noisy restaurant tables and in quiet parking lots. Or so the Russians believed. In fact, this young American civilian was a covert double agent working with the FBI. The Cold War wasn’t really over. It had just gone high-tech. How to Catch a Russian Spy is the one-of-a-kind story of how one young man’s post-college adventure became a real-life US counter-intelligence coup.
(From the publisher's page)

Naveed Jamali describes himself as a master of underachievement in his early years. Playing video games and hanging out with his friends took precedence over study and homework during student days. His parents left academia to start a research company, obtaining published reports for clients. One day a Soviet official from the United Nations appears at the company door with a list of publications he wished to obtain. His visit was immediately followed by a pair of FBI agents asking to be informed every time the Soviet (later Russian) official requested publications. This unique situation gave Naveed an opportunity to provide potentially sensitive documents to the Russians when he took the reins of his parents' company.

Naveed's double-agent life delivers plenty of humorous and quirky moments, such as the time an FBI agent's period almost wrecked his marriage. More interesting to me was listening to Naveed reveal the motivations behind his actions. In appearing to be a turncoat, Jamali knew his best bet to appear legitimate was to appear to be motivated by one or a combination of the usual reasons for betrayal: money, ideology, coercion, or ego. For his personal life, though, setting his sights on a particular girl (now his wife) and wanting a commission to be a reserve officer in navy intelligence propelled him to end his slacker ways and focus on what it would take to achieve those goals. For the latter goal, he saw his unique situation as an opportunity to make that happen.

There are many fun characters in addition to Naveed, including the FBI agents and the Russian official. How the sting progressed, the steps Naveed had to take, and the audibles he had to call makes for fun reading. The story is also about the fine lines the FBI had to walk in dealing with a civilian taking the initiative on catching spies. While giving support and guidance, the agents also had to keep Naveed in the dark about many areas. In order for the sting to be successful, many agency guidelines had to be followed while others seemed to be made up as they progressed. The support and encouragement of his wife was instrumental, too. But so much rested on Naveed's initiative and improvisation. His preparation included coaching and instructions by agents as well as watching a lot of movies and TV series to see what worked and what didn't in different situations. Imagine walking into a tacky chain restaurant to meet a Russian spy where the best guide you've seen in this situation came from Miami Vice and you get an idea of the humor in the book.

Watch the video on the linked publisher's page above to get a taste of Naveed's story as well as his personality, which shines through in the book. Recommended.




As an aside, I love it when I find a book that doubles down on typos. This book has a great example: "near Worchester, Massachusetts, about an hour east of Boston." Riiiiight.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses on PBS

Passing along the info, for those that might be interested...

I really enjoyed PBS' airing of The Hollow Crown series last year (Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Part II and Henry V), and I'm looking forward to their The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses series airing now. This season's lineup includes Henry VI Part I and Part II, ending with Richard III. Fortunately you can stream the episodes whenever you'd like. I know what I'll be doing the next few weeks.

See "About the Series" for more information. Henry VI Part I is available now, availability ending on January 3rd.

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.