Perfect Summer Reading: Kurt Tucholsky’s “Castle Gripsholm,” Rebecca West’s “The Return of the Soldier,” and Karolina Palova’s “A Double Life”

What do I want to read during summer vacation? Will it be Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, or Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries?

I took my vacation last week, so the planning of vacation reading is moot. But let me recommend three short perfect books for travel.

The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story.  Tucholsky’s reply is facetious.

A love story… but, my dear master, how could I possibly? Love in the present climate? Are you in love? Is anyone in love these days?

Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And then the little summer story begins.

The characters are endearingly original and delightfully bohemian. A writer, Peter, travels to Sweden with his girlfriend Lydia, a witty secretary whom he nicknames the Princess. The two are romantically involved, though their manner is not in the least romantic.

It is impossible not to enjoy their repartee. The couple have the same comic sensibility.  On a brief stop in Copenhagen, they visit the Polysandrion, a little museum which displays bad paintings by a singularly untalented gay Danish artist who owns the villa. They find the paintings hilarious:  they depict scantily-clad young men with butterflies perched on their shoulders and bottoms.  But Peter and Lydia must delay laughing because the painter’s friend is there.

In Stockholm, they walk around admiring the beautiful houses. “A city with water is always beautiful.”  But they  want to get out of Stockholm and find a cottage in the country. A  shrewd guide who speaks German with an American accent takes them to Mariefred, where they tour Castle Gripsholm.  Unexpectedly, he finds them the perfect place to stay, large rooms in the annex of the castle.  Their stay is idyllic.

Tucholsky’s style is buoyant, witty, and lyrical. This lovely account of a summer holiday is so exquisitely detailed you can see the charming castle, feel the lapping of waves on the lake, and hear the beautiful silence which they are unused to in Berlin.  Peter says that eyelids are not enough:  he needs “earlids” in the city.

There isn’t much plot, and such as it is revolves around visits from devoted friends and a good deed (really a rescue mission).  The latter doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. But I loved this book.

In Rebecca West’s spare first novel, The Return of the Soldier, set during World War I, a soldier’s amnesia causes chaos.  Shell-shocked Chris cannot remember Kitty, his shallow, pretty wife, and is desperately in love with Margaret, a woman of another class whom he wanted to marry long ago.  The third woman, Jenny, his cousin, understands him as well as Margaret does, and also is in love with him.  Who are the real soldiers here? It could be argued that Margaret and Jenny are, as they sadly do their duty, which will make no one happy.

In the Russian poet Karolina Pavlova’s only novel, A Double Life, published in 1848, she mixes prose and poetry to great effect. Pavlova tells the story of a wealthy young woman, Cecily, who enjoys riding, parties, flirtations, and dancing.  The mood of the novel is often dreamy,  somewhat reminiscent of Turgenev.  Cecily leads a  double life, absorbed in dreams and fantasies of love;  but also apprehensive about where love will take her.  And she is surrounded by manipulative people: her  best friend Olga’s mother, a sophisticated society woman, views Cecily as the rival of her daughter , and plots to deflect an eligible suitor.  Pavlova was apparently unpopular with male poets and writers, who jeered at her poetry. And is this why she disappeared from the canon?   I admired this elegant novel.

Double Vision: Vacationing in One’s Hometown

College_Green_Park_Gazebo
College Green Park in Iowa City

I spent a few days in Iowa City, my hometown.  I did some research at the University of Iowa Library.  And I also took long walks around town.

Nostalgia was laced with Zola-like naturalistic observations as I contemplated the monstrous greed of developers who have destroyed whole blocks of graceful old houses and replaced them with cheap apartment houses.

And that’s why you can’t go home again.  It’s like having double vision:  seeing everything twice through optometrists’ lenses.

At first it was blissful.

Iowa City is pleasantly deserted in May, because the students are gone, and you have the place to yourself . You do not have to stand in line for an American Gothic coffee at Java House. You nip up the hill to College Green Park to sip your coffee and read Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, an eminently suitable vacation novel, peopled by Pym’s diffident, eccentric characters:  Ianthe Broome, a librarian, who  has “an unsuitable attachment” to a  younger man; Sophia, a vicar’s wife, who is obsessed with her cat, Faustina; and Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, who can’t decide if he is more  attracted to Penelope,  whom he calls”the pre-Raphaelite beat-nik,”and to Ianthe, who is “more suitable.”

an unsuitable attachment pymIn the days when College Green Park was called College Street Park (why the change?), I often sat on the swings or picnicked on takeout from the Pioneer Food Co-op.  It is the same mellow space it always was, except now it has a new gazebo.

After leaving the Park, I headed over to Washington Street and down the hill to the University of Iowa Library.  This is a real library–with tens of thousands of old books.   I found a table by the window in the eerily dark literature and language stacks, and arranged my crisp new notebook, British Library pen, and backup hotel pen. And so began the reading and note-taking.

mail and female sarah lindheim ovidSo many books, some great, some terrible.  I quickly flashed back to grad school  techniques and recalled the unscholarly habit of judging books by the  title.  Yes, why not?  One needs a whimsical sorting system among so many unpromising dull books.   Not surprisingly, Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides, is clever and amusing:  the title even  echoes You’ve Got Mail, the Nora Ephron movie.  Lindheim is such a smart, amusing writer that I can’t help but think the allusion was deliberate.  And the book is a fascinating analysis of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of elegiac epistles written from mythological heroines to their lovers and husbands.  On the other hand, I struck out with A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Patricia B. Slazman-Mitchell.  It’s best to avoid books with “gender” in the title, I decided.

HickoryHillParkVI
Hickory Hill Park

After a morning at the library, I did a lot of walking.  I do recommend visiting Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of woods, meadows, creek, etc.  I used to know  the park well, but they have bought more land,  built more trails, and have deliberately revamped others so you go nowhere near the gap in the fence that led into Oakland Cemetery and was a shortcut home.  The large open meadow is now confusingly planted with trees, while  another open meadow (which I mistook for the old one) still has that Andrew Wyeth look that makes you want to plop down in the sun. (I got sunburn.)   A deer and I came face to face when I stumbled on a remote muddy trail, which perhaps was not even a human trail.   Yes, I did get lost, but eventually found an exit that led  to Dodge Street.  Wow, I need to start a  five-miles-a-day walking regimen, because I could feel this in my legs!  My husband looked it up and said it was eight miles as the crow flies.

Iowa City is home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 2008 was named a UNESCO City of Books. We were always vaguely proud of the Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Frank Conroy, Marvin Bell, Marilynne Robinson, T. C. Boyle, Karen E. Bender,  Margot Livesey, and many other brilliant writers have studied or taught.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, however, is NOT a haven for Iowa writers.  The only Workshop alumna I can think of from Iowa is Elizabeth Evans.  No, these geniuses come from New York, California, occasionally Grosse Point, Michigan. The name “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” is an oxymoron.  I’m not suggesting a name change–I’m all for tradition!–but there is a certain irony.

Iowa City has always been bookish, but nowadays has trouble supporting bookstores, despite the UNESCO status.  Prairie Lights, a two-story bookstore established in the late ’70s,  is still magnificent,  and has a stunning selection of new books and a good selection of classics, but the number of books seems slightly smaller than it used to be.  Prairie Lights also sponsors readings,  though  fewer big names come through on tour these days.  Mostly the readings are by Workshop writers now.

There are only a couple of other bookstores left in Iowa City.  Around the block from Prairie Lights is Iowa Book, which used to be called Iowa Book and Supply (or Iowa Book and Crook).  To say I was shocked that the store now has only a few shelves of remainders is an understatement. It always made most its money from t-shirts and sweatshirts, but now that is the entire business.

As for used bookstores,  I am not a fan of The Haunted Bookshop, where a cat once attacked me.  The bookstore clerks apologized, but as  a longtime “cat mom” in a multi-cat household,  I assure you this is unusual cat behavior.  And, honestly, the condition of the books at The Haunted Bookshop is often barely “acceptable.”  I miss Martha the cat at Murphy-Brookfield, a truly great bookstore that, alas, folded a few years ago. The Haunted Bookshop is now located in the old Murphy-Brookfield building.

There are many restaurants in Iowa City.  The pedestrian downtown lost its department stores  years ago and is now a center of restaurants and bars.   The best food I found?  The vegetarian sandwich at the University Library’s cafe.  Honestly, I lived on those.  But you won’t go hungry.

CAVEAT:  Iowa City is larger than it used to be, and if you are a woman alone, do be careful. It’s hard to take Iowa City seriously as a city because it seems so quaint, but things change, and I was too casual in the evening.  Iowa City has a homeless problem, or so I’d read in The Press Citizen, without taking it seriously.  I scoffed, until I went to CVS at the Old Capitol Mall around 5 p.m., and had to thread my way through crowds of homeless men  out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. No, it wasn’t Little Dorrit or  the Father of the Marshalsea.  And I’m not anti-homeless, but they’re destitute and often off their meds.  I am talking about safety.  I also had not considered the risks of studying at the library at night.  During the day, there are people working upstairs, but at night the stacks were deserted.  I skedaddled out of there.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS.  IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE , LEAVE.

Yup, I couldn’t face it that Iowa City is a real city now.

Overall, a lovely trip, and it can be fun to visit your hometown.  Just don’t stay too long!

Libraries, Rumer Godden, and Ovid

I didn’t have time to read Rumer Godden’s  Gypsy, Gypsy.  After 30 pages, I regretfully put it away. Set in France, this charming novel focuses on Henrietta, a young woman who has been raised by Aunt Barbe, a Colette-like debauchee with “gentlemen” friends. Henrietta wistfully wants a simple life in the country but her warped aunt has other ideas. The book is a study in the contrast between simplicity and dissipation. Published in 1940, this does not seem to be one of  Godden’s better-written novels, but I do intend to finish it someday (if I can find it). I predict the end will be (1) marriage, and (2) a move to the country.

I was at the library to do research for an article which is not exactly scholarly but perhaps a bit esoteric. It wasn’t exactly boring—I enjoyed much of the reading—but then I found some lighter books in the stacks that I prefer. There was Gypsy, Gypsy, as well as Dear Dodie, a biography of Dodie Smith, and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Gratitude, a volume of her autobiography.  Such a treat!

But there is much to do when you’re on a brief “research” trip. If you don’t do research, the trip is not justified, let alone deductible, and I’m not at all sure about the “deductible” part anyway. You look up articles in a not very orderly way, you drag a lot of books to a table, you take a lot of notes.… and then decide to change the focus of your article.  I was delighted by Sarah Lindheim’s  Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides.  And so I wondered, Should I mention the Heroides, though I’ve always considered these poems substandard? This book  had caught my eye  in the stacks, and is  unusually well-written.  Some scholarly stuff really is not.

I was also astonished by what I could access on my tablet.  Free access to articles from obscure journals!  What? You don’t have to go up in the dark stacks and find the right journal? Oh, wait, this article is by a former friend and who knew how smart she was! Well, you did know… still. And it turns out you can subscribe to a service online and access these journals. But so much more fun to go to a library and get it free.

They try to make libraries “fun” these days.  The “fun” is on the first floor. There is a cafe, really more a market where you grab wrapped sandwiches and drinks. Then two TVs are on ALL THE TIME. I did not care for this concept. The sound was off, thank God.

The library IS a bit spooky at night. The lights are on a sensor system, so you walk miles in the stacks before the lights come on. I got the jitters one evening and got the hell out of there.  It’s a daytime place!

But then there are the books. Books and books and books, occupying four of the five floors, I think. Wouldn’t it be fun just to read at the library for a week?

The copy of Gypsy, Gypsy has that old-fashioned library binding. I like the feel of the cover and the library book smell. The dust jackets are not a part of a research library’s apparatus, even though the special library binding seems dead.

What is your favorite thing about the library?

Walking and Not Reading Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa”

Where are the benches in this cute gazebo?

We’ve had such lovely weather that I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors.  Nothing is more charming than sauntering on cobblestone sidewalks past lilac bushes and blooming fruit trees in the wild yards of old hippies.  White blossoms covered one brick sidewalk like snow.  I walked under blossoms across blossoms.

I also walked up and down hills, and my hips feel creaky as a result. I ambled around a scenic cemetery, green and leafy, very hilly, and looked at gravestones–the dates give you a perspective–other people have done this life thing before–and you’ll be in a grave one day .

The new gazebo in the cemetery had no benches.  I had planned to sit  there and read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, her exquisite memoir about life on a coffee plantation in Africa.  But I couldn’t sit on a stone slab! A pity, because Dinesen is ideal outdoor reading.  Her memoir is not precisely linear, but the language washes over you as her vivid vignettes unfold.

I wondered as I walked around the cemetery if Out of Africa, published in 1937, is still appreciated, or if it is dismissed as racist because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”?  And can the fussy readers of today imagine a Danish woman in 1912 moving to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returning to the man who infected her? After Dinesen’s husband left her in 1921,  she ran the plantation alone until 1931.  Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant.   No matter that she knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai: I can imagine the Millennials slamming the book shut.

I have not observed this readerly intolerance myself.  I worry about this only because professors and journalists rant about the younger generation’s rejection of classics.   If Millennials and Gen Z think something is sexist or racist, they’re done with it, according to several writers of articles.  I do hope they’re exaggerating.  I’m praying that the end of the world won’t go down in iPhones and intolerance.

I do love Out of Africa, and recently found a new Modern Library hardback with a pretty cover.  In my favorite part of Out of Africa, Dinesen decides to write a book.  The Africans who work for her gather in the dining room and watch her.  Kamante   asks if she really thinks she can write a book.  He picks up her copy of The Odyssey and points out that it is hard and the pages stay together, while hers are loose and all over the dining room table.  She explains that in Denmark they can put it together. But he doubts that anyone can make it blue.

And I love this bit about reading in a drought.

So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn.  In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.  Your mind runs, transported, along a fresh deep green track.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Political Novel, “Double Star”

I came late to science fiction.   I was 20 when a friend introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  Over the years, I have have enjoyed many SF novels.  I tend to stick to SF classics by award-winning writers like Doris Lessing, Pat Murphy, William Gibson, and Gene Wolfe.

Two years ago I finally read Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land–the first SF book to make The New York Times best-seller list.  It is literally a cult classic, in the sense that the hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a man from Mars, founds a church/cult on Earth based on a ’60s-style philosophy of brotherhood and free love. It actually influenced the counterculture philosophy of the ’60s.  (You can read my post on it at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu.)

I recently read Heinlein’s Double Star, which won the Hugo Award in 1956.  (The SF writer Jo Walton  recommends it in her excellent book, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000.)  Although Double Star is less complex than Stranger, it is an obvious predecessor:  Heinlein explores an idealist’s struggles to change society  and his work against a group of fascists who want to dominate the peoples of other planets (like Martians).  Heinlein is a master of plot but he is mainly a novelist of ideas.  In this novel, he attacks racism and white supremacy and weighs the effect of politics on morality and philosophy (political parties do make a difference).  The odd thing is that Heinlein does it at one remove–the star of the novel is an impersonator of a politician.

Actors and politics–they go together.  Aren’t all politicians actors?  In Double Star, the narrator, Lawrence Smythe, aka The Great Lorenzo, is an actor who is down on his luck.  After he buys a drink for Dak Broadbent, an American spaceman, he is offered an acting job. Dak asks if Lorenzo can impersonate someone.  You bet he can.  But Lorenzo doesn’t understand the risks until a Martian tries to assassinate them (and kills one of their partners) and they are on the run.

When they are on a spaceship headed for Mars, Lorenzo learns that he has been hired to impersonate a famous politician, John Joseph Bonforte, head of the Expansionist coalition “and the most loved (and hated!) man on the planet.”   Bonforte has been kidnapped, and there is a crisis in interplanetary relations; if Bonforte isn’t present at a meeting, the disaster could last for centuries. Lorenzo has always hated politics:  he  doesn’t even vote.  But  Dak’s idealism persuades Lorenzo to go through with the job.

Lorenzo tells us a lot about the art of impersonation (or acting).  Lorenzo and Bonforte already look alike.  Naturally, makeup is involved, but manner and posture are key. And to begin with, he has to make sure no one realizes he is the Great Lorenzo.

There are several ways to keep a… face from being recognized. The simplest is misdirection. Place a man in uniform and his face is not likely to be noticed—do you recall the face of the last policeman you encountered? Could you identify him if you saw him next in mufti? On the same principle is the attention-getting special feature. Equip a man with an enormous nose, disfigured perhaps with acne rosacea; the vulgar will stare in fascination at the nose itself, the polite will turn away—but neither will see the face.

The job of impersonating Bonforte requires hours of watching tapes so he can master the politician’s walk, style, and copy cadences of his voice and learn catchphrases.  But the most horrifying thing?  He has to attend a Martian assembly where he (or rather Bonforte) will be admitted into a brotherhood of Martians.  And Lorenzo hates Martians.  He has to learn to accept them.

Later, when things get really bad (with humans, not Martians), Lorenzo begins to understand politics and empathize with Bonforte, who opposes the so-called Humanity Party, essentially a group of white supremacists who want to extend their racism to controlling people of other planets.

Ideas and plot drive Heinlein’s writing.  The style is simple and sometimes clumsy, but somehow it doesn’t matter much here.

I came to appreciate Lorenzo’s philosophy.  He might not be the noblest, but he becomes a better man.

“The show must go on.” I had always believed that and lived by it. But why must the show go on?—seeing that some shows are pretty terrible. Well, because you agreed to do it, because there is an audience out there; they have paid and each one of them is entitled to the best you can give. You owe it to them. You owe it also to stagehands and managers and producers and other members of the company—and to those who taught you your trade, and to others stretching back in history to open-air theaters and stone seats and even to storytellers squatting in a marketplace. Noblesse oblige.

A really good read!

Caffeine, Books, and “Fireflood”

It’s 10 a.m. and I’m back from the coffeehouse. My “I’D RATHER BE READING” mug overflows with cappuccino. And I’m wearing a Charlotte Bronte sweatshirt (for bookish inspiration) with my jeans and reading socks.

The clock is ticking.

The reading clock, not the biological clock.

It’s time.

It’s reading time!

Does anyone ever have enough time to read?   Whether the books on the TBR are ancient classics or 20th-century best-sellers, all are significant, and I do long to read them. And so I’ve given myself  fifteen  extra minutes a day to read.  And I’m quite happy to find time to finish some disappointing new books, which I shall mention no more.

IN THE DAYS when I was an accomplished woman in a traditional workplace,  all I wanted to do was read.  I never wanted to break the glass ceiling or anything.   I’d come home from work, peel off my nylons, and read my book.

If you read a lot, people resent you. Divorced friends are annoyed if you aren’t available to go to a bar on Saturday night and help them pick up men. (There is never anyone suitable anyway.)  Friends in the mothering stage of life cry because they don’t get to read and you do. All you can do is sympathize.  And everybody thinks you’re a nerd if you attend poetry readings.

All my life I’ve been told reading is a “waste of time and talent.” “If only you would read less…” I wonder how many reading women have been told the same.   What activities are we expected to do instead?

As for wasting…  Talent isn’t everything, nor are awards. I’ve won awards  (plaques, certificates, in a couple of instances money). With the exception of a few women friends, no one has congratulated me on my achievements.  In a competitive world, people are not always happy for your success. Many of us duck out of the most intense competition so we can have  better personal lives.  So isn’t reading just as important as foolish competition?

Right now I’m reading a 1979 science fiction book, Vonda N. McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories.   McIntyre, whose work has been compared to that of Ursula K. Le Guin, died on April 5. Most of McIntyre’s work is out-of-print, but I have a copy of Fireflood.

II am most impressed by the story, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” which was later expanded into a novel, Dreamsnake. McIntyre’s prose is measured and clear, good enough to tell a story, though not elegant. “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is exceptionally well-plotted, with twists you don’t see coming.  The heroine, Snake, a healer who uses the venom of her snakes to cure illness, must deal with ignorance and fear as she treats a sick child in a remote tribe. The terrified parents kill Grass, the smallest snake, when it wanders out of the tent.  Snake dominates the situation as it spirals out of control.   Even today’s women SF writers aren’t usually this free of gender bias.  There is absolutely nothing feminine about her characters!

Would I be reading this collection of stories if McIntyre hadn’t died?  Well, probably not. She  has excellent ideas, though, and is much lauded by SF writers.  And her background is in biology and genetics.  I’m impressed!

Wicked Women of Rome: Clodia Metelli, the Medea of the Palatine

Clodia Metelli is probably the most famous Roman villainess of the mid-first century B.C.  Think of her as a cross between Cruella De Vil and Lucrezia Borgia. Like the bitches and witches of ancient poetry, Clodia had a reputation as a seductress, schemer, and murderer.  No one had anything good to say about her.  Cicero called her “the Medea of the Palatine.”

Cicero vilified Clodia in “Pro Caelio”

Yet I have always liked Clodia.  We know very little about Clodia.  What we know comes from ancient rumors, gossip, poetry, second-hand history, and professors’ hypotheses.  The only primary source of her biography is Cicero’s character assassination of Clodia in his speech Pro Caelio, a defense of his former student Caelius, who was accused of vis (political violence) and involvement in a political murder.

Cicero does not address the charges against Caelius.  Instead, he lavishes almost the entire speech on vilifying Clodia, who he claimed trumped up the charges as a revenge on her former lover.  The speech is an invective–and this is an actual literary form in ancient Rome. But the charge against Caelius was grave–participating in the murder of an  Alexandrian embassy that opposed the restoration of Ptolemy XII to the Egyptian throne–and does not quite seem like a lover’s revenge.

The ancient world was well-known for its sexism.  Men held the political reins in the Roman republic, just as they do in our sagging chariot of a quasi-republic.  The good women in Livy’s history tend to commit suicide to protect their virtue; the most powerful  in ancient history are the sexy villainesses.  There was Cleopatra, the seductive queen who brought the Roman Republic down, if you look at it from a certain angle, and who was also the model for Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid; there’s Livia, the emperor Augustus’s wife, a political strategist and reputed poisoner who, as a seductive young woman, so fascinated Augustus that he ordered her then-husband to divorce her so he could marry her.

I have read Cicero’s witty, polished oration Pro Caelio thrice, and admire Cicero’s elegant periodic sentences more each time.  He embellishes his labyrinthine prose with with poetic figures of speech, alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, hendiadys, asyndeton, chiasmus, the works.  In Latin you read Cicero for the style as well as the content.

But during my recent rereading of the Latin,  I found Cicero’s misogyny so brutal that I had to take frequent breaks. Perhaps it is painful because character assassination is such an integral part of our culture these days. Cicero does not need to prove his accusations against Clodia, he just has to put them out there.

All his accusations stem from sexuality. The speech is a nightmare of locker-room talk made public.  He accuses Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher and of poisoning her husband (the latter is a stock sexual joke in Roman comedy).  Cicero plays with the sexual double standard:  he says it was acceptable for Caelius, “barely out of adolescence” (he was actually 26 at the time of the trial), to play with a licentious life-style, but that Clodia, 36, was a perverted older woman who lured young men into her garden.  According to R. G. Austin, the editor of the Oxford commentary on Pro Caelio, Caelius and Clodia had an affair for two years.  And he says Cicero’s speech finished Clodia: that she is heard of no more afterwards.

I can well believe that, though Cicero provides no proof.  What have sexual relationships with Caelius and other men have to do with a charge of vis? Fama volat (Rumor flies), as Virgil writes some years later.

Here’s what Cicero’s got against Clodia. He writes,

“Accusers discuss your orgies, affairs, adulteries, trips to Baiae (a resort), beach picnics, banquets, Bacchanalian revels, musical entertainments and band concerts, and boating parties.”

(I wonder:  why would a  woman with such a varied  social and sexual life remain fixated on an ex-boyfriend who is in a lot of political trouble?)

After accusing Clodia of incest with her brother Clodius Pulcher, Cicero impersonates Clodius and pretends to chide her about Caelius, who, by the way, moved into her allegedly degenerate neighborhood after leaving home. Cicero glosses over that.  Cicero has Clodius say,

“Why have you begun to make a great scene about such a small thing?  You caught sight of a young man in the neighborhood.  His beauty and height, his face and eyes struck you.  You wanted to see him more often; you were often in the same park; you, a noble woman, wished to bind fast that son of a niggardly and tenacious father  with your money.  You could not. He kicked, spat, drove you away, and did not think your gifts were worth much. Confer yourself on another.  You have gardens on the Tiber at that place where all the youth come prepared for swimming.  Here you may choose new matches every day.  Why do you care about this man who spurns you?”

I am humiliated just reading it.  What must Clodia have felt?

There is conflict of interest here, not an issue they considered in ancient times.  Caelius is an enemy of the man who prosecuted the case, and both Caelius and Cicero were enemies of Clodia’s brother, Clodius Pulcher.

By the way, some classicists (not so many nowadays) believe Clodia is the model for Lesbia, the charming but promiscuous girlfriend in Catullus’s poems.  I do not, but I’ll write about that another time.

The translations from the Latin are mine.