Counting the Stars (by Helen Dunmore)

Counting the Stars is, essentially, an historical romance based on the love poet Catullus' Lesbia poems. The blurb on the back mentions poison and implies other concerns, and poison certainly plays a large role in the plot, but the book is concerned almost entirely with the relationship between Catullus and Lesbia, identified, as usual, with Clodia Metelli, the woman whose reputation (whatever it was beforehand, and presumably there was some foundation for Cicero to build on) was completely destroyed by Cicero in his defence of Marcus Caelius. Before reviewing the book, I want to talk briefly about the historical characters, since they've been subject to all sorts of interpretations from their lifetimes onwards. Spoilers follow (although no major events are invented, the spin put on them varies between versions!).

The first thing anyone writing about either Catullus or Clodia has to decide is whether or not they think Clodia was actually Catullus' mistress 'Lesbia'. The evidence is pretty convincing (a poem about Lesbius, who is connected with pulcher, Clodia's brother Clodius' nickname, would seem to suggest one of Clodius' three sisters and a reference to Rufus - quite likely Marcus Caelius Rufus - in connection with body odour, with another poem about Lesbia running off with a man with body odour, plus a poem addressed to Caelius referring to 'our Lesbia', all suggest the woman Cicero accused of sleeping with Caelius and of incest with Clodius, her brother). It is worth bearing in mind that the identification comes from Apuleius, who was writing some 200 years later, and that Lesbia may have been another of Clodius' sisters, or that Apuleius may have been wrong and she was someone else all together. However, the evidence is pretty strong for identification with at least one of Clodius' sisters, and the most infamous one is not only the most likely choice, but also by far the most interesting for a novelist.

The next pressing issue, and the one where I tend to take a different view to several novelists, is Clodia's character. (My favourite depiction of Clodia so far, by the way, is that in Steven Saylor's Gordianus books). Cicero performed one of history's most effective character assassinations on Clodia, snidely accusing her of sex with just about everyone including Caelius, holding orgies, financial extravagence, incest with her brother, implied that she might have poisoned her husband, and at one point just uses the word 'Baiae', a notorious seaside resort, and lets people imagine what they want. The assumption is that something of this must have reflected reality, since Cicero won the case and the speech went down very well (though there was rather more to the charges against Caelius than just his relationship with Clodia). Personally, I doubt there's very much we can conclude based on Cicero's speech, given that it is written with the sole purpose of socially destroying Clodia and making Caelius look less bad. I would infer from it that Caelius and Clodia had a relationship outside marriage, that Clodia probably had other affairs, though they may not have been as numerous as Cicero makes out, that Clodia was known to hold parties at her house and at Baiae and that she was close to her brother. Beyond that, it's up to the novelist to decide how far they believe Cicero.

Then there's the character of Catullus' Lesbia. Lesbia also appears to have other lovers, besides Catullus, and a husband. She would rather be married to the poet than anyone else, but he senses that she may be lying - she certainly doesn't seem inclined to marry him. On the other hand, the last two poems to mention her, 107 and 109, describe the poet's joy that they are back together and although he still doubts her sincerity a little, he seems content. She is referred to as mea puella, 'my girl', a phrase with overtones of 'little girl', 'maiden' or even 'slave-girl'. And she may or may not have a pet sparrow which she mourns when it dies - many have theorised that passer, 'sparrow', actually stands for the poet's manhood, while others have suggested a different sort of bird, maybe a thrush, since this tame creature doesn't sound much like a sparrow. Personally, I suspect he meant it to mean a bird-pet of some kind and his manhood - that's rather the point of poetry. Whether this woman is an entirely fictional construct, an entirely real lover or something in between is impossible to tell - and, again, the novelist can choose how to represent her.

The problem with trying to write a character who is both Cicero's Clodia and Catullus' Lesbia is that they don't really match. Adultery and unfaithfulness is the common theme, but the other aspects of this imaginary woman's personality don't quite fit each other - I don't see the 'girl' who wept over her sparrow in the woman who hosts orgies at Baiae. Any novelist who tries, as Dunmore does, to present a character who fits both profiles completely is, I think, doomed to failure, though Dunmore gives it a very good try. Her Clodia is pretty convincing, certainly as Cicero's Clodia and even as the sparrow-mourning Lesbia, though she takes her grief over a bird rather far (see below). I just don't quite see the girl, the puella, in this Clodia - she's far too much woman (not to mention, ten years older than Catullus - a possible reason for assuming his Clodia to be the youngest, not the second, sister. A woman in her thirtes could be girlish, but I'm not convinced Dunmore's Clodia ever is).

Modern Baiae, now mostly underwater

I think one of the biggest problems with this book for me is that neither central character is particularly likeable. Catullus whines and moans and mopes and nearly dies of bronchitis or something similar, while Clodia is a borderline insane domestic abuser who regularly beats her maid and then apologises in the manner of a violent partner, while the maid protests that 'she doesn't mean it'. The book is also so consumed with describing a fiery love affair that anything else, including Caelius' trial, which is upcoming but the book ends before we get there, is shoved to one side. The ending itself reminded me of Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, which I like very much but which stops before it gets to the point, right before she dies. The novel breaks off just before the trial that ruins Clodia, and not long before Catullus own untimely death - despite all the build-up concerning his ill health and the knowledge that he is the last of his line, the book denies us the closure of a final ending. (I realise that many readers like this sort of open ending, and not all will know the history, so this is probably down to personal taste - I like my endings ended!).

I also found the narrative style rather off-putting. The book jumps around between different points of view, though it stays with Catullus for the most part and never empathises with Clodia. The first chapter is written in the second person and much of the rest of the book in the third person, but in the present tense, which I'm afraid I find rather pretentious. There is a classical precedent, since much ancient literature uses the historic/vivid present to engage the reader, but this is a 21st century novel, not a 1st century epic poem, and it seems 'off' to me.

I don't mean to criticise too much, though, as this is actually a good novel. The writing, present tense notwithstanding, is engaging, the characters may be unlikeable but they do feel real and there were sections where I was rally drawn in, mostly those about Catullus' freedman Lucius or about the death of Metellus and the poisoner Gorgo. Best of all, Dunmore really knows these poems - she clearly has intimate knowledge of all of them and she fills the book with snatches of poetry, not just in English, but in Latin as well. She translates all the Latin, but she also describes the way the poet finds just the right words and how he puts the poems together and how they sound, all beautifully explained.

I also liked the way the novel dealt with the relationship between Clodia and Clodius, never quite stating outright what their relationship was but, like Cicero, implying things. It is implied that they slept together when young - there is an overtone of abuse, or at least mistreatment, in the way this is described that prevents it from becoming a more hysterical 'look at the naughty Romans, gleefully committing incest' moment that comes up in portryals of Caligula so often. It is never outright stated that they have done so and much of the implication comes from Catullus' confused mind and his hatred for 'Pretty Boy Clodius'. Historically, personally, I suspect this was a slander of Cicero's based on the fact that the widowed Clodia was close to her brother and the fact that he hated Clodius, but I thought this was a really interesting way to approach the issue.

But towards the end, just as I was thinking I'd been too harsh on this book when I complained it was boring while reading the first few chapters (during which very little happened except that Catullus and Clodia had a lot of sex, then went to Baiae and had less sex), things took a bit of a turn. Clodia sells her body slave Aemilia, another annoying character with a horrible temper who is made to speak with an accent even though, as home-bred slave brought up in the household and serving as her mistress' personal slave from early childhood, she ought to speak in a similar way to Clodia. When Catullus visits Aemilia, he discovers the most bizarre tale of violence and murder that takes both Clodia and Aemilia from 'slightly eccentric pair with very hot tempers' to, as one might put it, 'completely batsh*t insane.' Aemilia, it transpires, killed Clodia's sparrow because she was jealous of the attention Clodia was giving to it, and was not giving to Aemilia. Aemilia then implied that Clodia's husband, Metellus, had killed the sparrow. So Clodia poisoned Metellus. She has sold Aemilia because Clodius thought Aemilia was spying on them and nearly beat her to death, taking her eye out in the process. What?! I can't help feeling that this reflects popular culture's obsession with the sparrow poem more than anything else. (I saw it in the title of a collection of love poems the other day - for some reason a lament for a bird/possible penis metaphor is considered one of the greatest love poems ever written. I prefer the 'Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love' one).

The novel had already established that Metellus was poisoned with a trip to a poisoner who could diagnose his symptoms and it was heavily implied, like Cicero in his speech, that Clodia was the poisoner (though at a largeish dinner party, it could have been several people). This was all quite interesting and left the reader intrigued to discover if Clodia had, indeed, poisoned him and why - perhaps to free herself, so that she could see her lovers without impediment, perhaps due to political machinations involving her brother or another lover. But no - she did it because she thought he killed her pet. Really? That's up with Eddie the psychotic roommate from Friends in terms of bonkers behaviour.

All in all, I think one of Catullus' poems probably best sums up my feelings about this book. Odi et amo - I hate it and I love it! I love the way the book describes poetry, the bits of Latin dropped in among the English, the portrayals of Lucius, 'Dr Philoctetes' (though I could live without the anachronistic 'Dr'), Catullus' father and his brother Marcus. I actually cried when Marcus died, though I think it was Catullus' own poem that brought the tears. But so much of the book drags on with nothing really happening and all the interesting things that do happen are referred to only briefly or happen offstage (except the death of Metellus, which is very effectively described in all its horror). And everyone turns out to be completely mad. Overall, I suspect this is just the wrong genre for me - I like political history and murder mystery with a bit of romance, whereas this is romance with a bit of history and murder mystery.

A sparrow. I'm not putting pictures of the other thing on here!


  1. Excellent review. I also love Saylor's Clodia (but then again, I'm a huge Saylor fan). Your distinction about this being a romance with a bit of history as opposed to a history/mystery with a bit of romance is very helpful. There's nothing more aggravating than thinking you're going to get a certain type of story and then end up with another. Still, this is one is going on my TBR list because, after all, who can resist Clodia?

  2. It's definitely worth a read - the way she uses Catullus' poetry is beautiful, so it's recommended for that alone! I just wish Clodia wasn't always seen through Cicero's eyes :)

  3. Clodia! Even I've heard of her. We translated a bit of Cicero's argument in GCSE Latin. There was a fair bit of blushing.

  4. Blimey, Cicero at GCSE - I'm almost glad I didn't do Latin! (Almost. It would've come in really handy later!). I once pointed out to a seminar group that Cicero essentially calls her a tart or a slapper - something to that effect - they looked shocked and I pointed out that's more or less the gist, only in Latin. We had to look at the speech in our first term - it is probably the source of my intense dislike for Cicero!

  5. A "pop classic" you might be interested in.

  6. Oh that's brilliant! I'll have to blog it later this month, thank you!

  7. this is my favorite of all the fictionalized versions i've encountered (which include, inter alia, the book under review and Thornton Wilder's "The Ides of March"):

  8. Wow, that's quite something! Not sure I'd have cast Aragorn as Catullus - Catullus is much whinier and weedier - but I love the song choice!

    Review of'The Ides of March' forthcoming sometime around mid-March by the way!


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