Book review: A Thousand Kisses

In this excellent book, Raphael's life and verse become as fresh and relevant as the day they were lived and penned


A Thousand Kisses by Frederic Raphael with illustrations by Michael Ayrton (Holland House Books, £14.99)

Catullus’s 103 surviving poems, enough to fill a slim volume, are the go-to verse for every Latin student desperate for a break from the interminable clauses and sub-clauses of Cicero and the impeccably noble hexameters of Virgil.

For Frederic Raphael, sometime Cambridge University classical scholar, whose passion for the ancient world has never waned throughout a distinguished literary career, Catullus (c. 84-54 BCE) has been a lifelong fascination. Translations with Kenneth McLeish, to whose memory this book is dedicated, were published in 1978.

Illustrations by Raphael’s friend, Michael Ayrton, of Lesbia’s sparrow, symbol of Catullus’s love, made just before the artist’s death in 1975, appear intermittently in this latest tribute, an imagining of the life that focuses on the poet’s famous relationship with the aristocratic Lesbia (‘‘Clodia’’ in Cicero’s famous ‘‘Pro Caelio’’ speech)

Here is Raphael on Cicero, whose own story has been successfully revived for the current generation by Robert Harris:

“His effusiveness, when flattering those he came to take as his equals, was part of the endless trial in which he himself, peerless as he might be when it came to rhetorical devices, sought acquittal from those whose endorsement he never ceased to crave, not least when presuming parity with them.”

Where Cicero’s prose is measured and restrained, Catullus’s poetry is passionate, his feelings for Lesbia raw and pained.

Raphael, whose first-class translations of many of the poems are one of the great joys of this book, paints a credible picture of a sensitive, irreverent, prodigiously talented, young, provincial writer, confident enough not to be cowed by the likes of Julius Caesar, Cicero and other grandees whom he encounters, but painfully vulnerable and, despite his punk image, deeply learned in the ancient Greek literature that so influenced his style.

A few of Catullus’s translations of Sappho and Callimachus survive, but Raphael is surely right to suspect that “snarling” Archilochus, a kindred spirit whom Raphael has also translated, played a part.

‘‘Sexpot altogetherboys
Ninth pillar up from The Brothers,
Woolworth dimeadozen house,
The only slobs with big ones are we?’’

This is Raphael’s appropriately raunchy version of the first lines of a poem scholars once chose to suppress, a vicious assault on Catullus’s adulterous mistress. In Raphael’s excellent A Thousand Kisses, where his own pithy prose is often Tacitean ­­— “What matters in Rome is your clout not your wit” — the poet’s life and verse become as fresh and relevant as the day they were lived and penned.

Mark Glanville is a writer and singer

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