Catullus: The Poems

Your Saturnalian bonne-bouche.”

I’m bubbling with a lot of writing, at least a dozen reviews are raring to spill forth; it would be a shame to let this heat slide off into a deadened feeling you get when you remember a book read long ago but retain nothing of it, because you had not taken the care to record your impressions. Over the years I have discovered that the best way to remember a book is to write about it. This doesn’t always materialise though. Life, you see.

I read this Penguin edition of Catullus’s poems (tr. Peter Whigham) side by side Peter Green’s translation. I have no hesitation in saying I prefer the latter, not because I am in any way able to compare it with the original Latin, but seeing the parallel text I can see that Green has endeavoured to remain faithful to metre, length and the rhythm of the original. This stands in contrast to Whigham’s translation with its arbitrary enjambments and unruly line-breaks, where some poems are summarily translated, others are bloated (over-translated?), perhaps to give clarity to the vagueness of the original. However, Whigham’s love epigrams are more spontaneous, direct and urgent compared to Green’s.

I do not object to artistic recreation in translation when its purpose is to convey the tone and spirit of the original, and to give a sense of the language even if it means bending the rules of idiomatic English, especially when it requires an intelligent rendering of satire. But I think if you take too much liberty with the original you end up turning it more your own creation and less that of the writer you’re translating. FitzGerald’s and Omar Khayyam come to mind. I have since long refused to call it a translation. Rubaiyat is FitzGerald’s reworking of Khayyam, a work that should be seen as Rubaiyat of Edward FitzGerald.

Entry #8 serves as a good example of Catullus’ angry love poem. It’s aimed at his lover, the wife of another man, whom he refers to as Lesbia in his poems. Catullus hates her for abandoning him and also hates being in love with her, but can’t bring himself to concede. I’m quoting both translations to highlight the difference between Whigham and Green. (All italics belong to the translators)

Peter Whigham translation

“Break off
fallen Catullus
time to cut losses,

bright days shone once,
you followed a girl
here & there

loved as no other
shall be loved,

then was the time
of love’s insouciance,
your lust as her will

Bright days shone
on both of you.

a woman in unwilling.
Follow suit

weak as you are
no chasing of mirages
no fallen love,

a clean break
hard against the past.
Not again, Lesbia.

No more.
Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you.

He won’t crave it.
It is cold.
But you will whine.”

Peter Green translation

“Wretched Catullus, stop this tomfool stuff
and what you see has perished treat as lost for good.
Time was, every day for you the sun shone bright,
when you scurried off wherever she led you
that girl you loved as no one shall again be loved.
There, when so many charming pleasures all went on,
things that you wanted, things she didn’t quite turn down,
then for you truly every day the sun shone bright.
Now she’s said No, so you too, feeble wretch, say No.
Don’t chase reluctance, don’t embrace a sad-sack life-
make up your mind, be stubborn, obdurate, hang tough!
So goodbye, sweetheart, Now Catullus will hang tough,
won’t ask, “Where is she,” won’t, since you’ve said No, beg, plead.
You’ll soon be sorry, when you get these pleas no more-
bitch, wicked bitch, poor wretch, what life awaits you now?
Who’ll now pursue you, still admire you for your looks?
Whom will you love now? Who will ever call you theirs?
Who’ll get your kisses? Whose lips will you bite in play?
You, though, Catullus, keep your mind made up, hang tough!”

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m eschewing a more detailed comment on Catullus’ longish (and excellent) poems mixing elements of tragedy and epic, so I’ll round off the note on translation by saying that I have been unhorsed along with my hoary perceptions about ancient Roman poets. “Beautiful” is not a word that comes to mind when you read Catullus, no; he is witty, sardonic, playful, deeply personal, highly offensive, almost autobiographical. He does not mince words when he is up to denouncing whom he does not like: his Lesbia whom he repeatedly accuses of turning into a whore with a multitude of lovers, all for having spurned his love(!), the poets of habit, time-wasting rhymesters, and his foes whom he abuses without a blush: his preferred revenge is to drive his equine male organ through the foully malodorous bog land of other people’s backsides. Not a man you would want to know in real life! Suffice it to say that Catullus startled me, amused me, shocked me, and gave me plenty to laugh through the sweet (& sour) time I took in reading both translations.

For Vibennius he has this to say. Poem #33

“Oh you cream of the con men in the bathhouse,
Pop Vibennius, and your son the bum-boy –
Dad may have a dirtier right hand, but
Juniorʻs got a more voracious backside –
why not just sod off to exile in some
hellhole, since Dadʻs larcenies are public
knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly
asshole, no, not even for a penny!” (Green)

Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics series I have discovered quite a few world greats which otherwise it would have taken me a long time to discover, independently. I was introduced to Catullus with this collection: I Hate and I Love, enjoyed it thoroughly and immediately sought out the full collection. Here are a couple of samplers to get a better (bitter?) taste of Catullus on your poetic palate!

Poem #16: Catullus rebukes his critics and detractors who most probably had objected to the content of his poems, as many still would! (I have no idea what the first and last lines mean)

“Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity…
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitalia are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses.
You deduced an effiminancy there.
You were wrong. Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.” (Whigham)

Poem #78B

“…but what irks me now is that your filthy saliva
has soiled the pure kisses of a pure girl.
You won’t get away scot-free, though. All future ages
shall know that, and ancient Fame tell what you see.” (Green)


The Company of Women by Khushwant Singh

(First published 2003)

It is a story of a millionaire Indian businessman, Mohan Kumar, who is trapped in a loveless marriage. He breathes the proverbial sigh of relief when his wife finally walks out on him with a divorce. Disillusioned, lonely and with a belief that the foundation of love is nothing but lust, he embarks upon a scheme of remarkable proportions.

He puts up advertisements in the national dailies for “paid love companions”, as temporary partners, to join him at his residence, for so long as it is fulfilling to either of them, in exchange for, among other things, handsome monetary benefits. Contrary to his expectations a surprisingly large number of women respond to his offer. And there begins a long narrative of raunchy sex scenes which reads quite like a cheap pornographic flick.

Khushwant calls this novel “fantasies of an octogenarian” for he finished writing it at the “youthful” age of 85, when, according to him, a man’s “sex instincts travel from his middle to his head”. An amusing cliché leave every recruited companion exclaiming hysterically, in bliss, of the massive phallus the protagonist commands, as soon as they set sight on it.

Reading between the lines the reader can vaguely discern a critique on the sexual ethics of Indian middle class and the taboos associated with it. The ending succinctly brings the point home. The free sex life of the protagonist ends in a lonely and bitter death as he catches Aids to which he finally succumbs.

My rating 2/5. The link from AMAZON.

Delhi by Khushwant Singh

(First published 1990)

It’s an usual novel; in part historical fiction and in part an invented story; in part a collection of independent short stories and in part a tale of a degenerate Delhiwala, but, taken in whole, it is an extremely rich depiction of the history and culture of Delhi.

It is, primarily, a story of the city of Delhi from the medieval till modern times. Two sets of narratives run simultaneously. First is the story of a journalist who returns to his native city after “having his fill of whoring in foreign lands”. Out of work, he sets out to explore his native city in the footsteps of an archeology historian. He accidently meets a hermaphrodite prostitute, a hijra, falls in love with her and moves her to his house. Through their dialogue, their outings and picnics, and their uninhibited sexual encounters, the geography and culture of Delhi comes alive.

The second set of stories is stand alone, independent pieces of narrative set in important periods of the history of Delhi. The stories are brilliantly told in the first person of figures such as Nadir Shah, Emir Taimur (Tamerlene), Aurangzeb Alamgir, Mir Taqi Mir and Bahadur Shah Zafar. They were prominent people, the attackers and the defenders, who tell their stories as they must have lived them.

There are more characters set in the times of Ghiyasuddin Balban and Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya which take the reader back in time and make them a part of the setting. There is a semi autobiographical story of an entrepreneurial family which plays a major role in laying the foundations of a new city off the historical metropolis of Delhi, which was soon to be known as New Delhi, now the capital of India.

In the end, the novel narrates first person accounts of the upheaval of Partition and ends with the murder of thousands of Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indra Gandhi. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of not only Delhi but of the whole Indian Subcontinent. My rating 5/5. Get it on AMAZON.

The Sunset Club by Khushwant Singh

(First Published 2010)

What do you do at the age of 95? The answer is write a novel. That’s right. Khushwant Singh, now 96, well, alive, and sill writing with hand, is back with his latest novel. He says in the preface that he had no intention of writing anything besides usual columns in the newspapers but one of his friends persuaded him to record the memories of his old and dead friends which he so often recounted. This, then, became the raison d’être of this novel.

It is a story of three octogenarians; a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh. The Sikh character is in large part autobiographical, having the same views as author’s autobiography (Truth, Love a Little Malice). The thee old men are living retired lives and have a lot of free time on hand. They meet every evening in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens which is surrounded by historical monuments especially from Indo-Islamic past. They talk and exchange views about the current Indian politics, culture, religion and other things. The narrative is set from 26 January 2009 till 26th January 2010.

Reading the novel one gets to know about the city of Delhi, its past, its present, its trees and flowers, and its cultural life. The issues in contemporary Indian society are looked at from the eyes of a dying generation.

The novel has all the characteristics of Khushwant Singh except one. It has clarity of language, acid wit, authentic depiction of India desi culture, excellent translation of the vernacular, saucy sex scenes, except an engaging story. Actually the plot does not exist.

In the end, the Hindu and the Muslim of the trio die and leave Boota Singh, the Sikh one, alone to wait death. A true reference to the author’s own life who says that not a single friend of his from old days is alive. He is, after all, 96.

My book rating: 3/5