Sadly, Jaro's always cinematic Key is Out-of-Print. I went to LSU and the last time this book was checked out was May 1989. I believe there is a professor at LSU who has written extensively about Catullus--I'd assume it was him who checked it out. I saw a fascinating article by Asa Baber about Catullus, proof that Catullus still today exists in the conscious of American culture. And probably without Catullus, the already thinning ranks of Latin classes would certainly be empty. I'm not one to blame anyone, but the elitist attitude of Classics professors certainly has something to do with this.
When you first start researching into the fiction (novels, plays, operas, other sketches) based on the turbulent life of Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84--c. 54 BC), who according to the book's cover is "Ancient Rome's Greatest Poet," you find that as much as Catullus has influenced subsequent poets and continually stands as a monument in the scene of poetry, how little his life and work has inspired an equally great sketch--it seems every one has been, as Catullan specialist T.P. Wiseman points out, "somewhat unsuccessful." Many have said that it's very difficult to really understand him, even more difficult to write about him. Benita Kane Jaro opens her book with a quote are difficult to understand, Catullus is nearly impossible." From early on, she sets a tone. Best guesses at every turn, but imaginative and powerful ones. And a story that does not simply transcribe what the poet wrote himself. Jaro brings something to the party here.
The sparse hard evidence presents yet even more problems to an author like Jaro; Christian Patriarch St. Jerome, Essayist and Novelist Apuleius (who mentions Catullus nearly two hundred years after his death) , biographer and historian Suetonius' Vita (lost by the 15th century but some facts come down via other sources), subsequent Latin poets Ovid and Martial's blurbs and before his poetry and the man ascended to godlike status in Roman poetry, as the Augustan poets borrowed heavily from him, especially Virgil, in both style and literary theory. But no one probably cared about Catullus when he died to gather some hard facts that a biographer could well use. Like Jesus Christ, a generation passed before interest in Catullus bloomed.
Benita Jane Jaro not only succeeds but passes this test with flying colors. How did she do it? Well, the first sound choice Jaro made was making the narrative first person, with Marcus Caelius Rufus, friend of Catullus, serving as the narrator; he's nothing less a source of balance and tenderness, even in an atmosphere--1st century Rome BC--that is strange and brutal to a Twentieth century American reader. I find it interesting that Jaro chose Caelius to perform this task, to basically make us understand what Catullus was like, a task that no one, not even the brilliant classicist T.P. Wiseman, has dared proclaim to have undertaken. (Anyone interested in Catullus should read Wiseman's Catullus & His check out Cinna the Poet & Other Roman Essays.)
Writer Andrei Codrescu, author of The Blood Countess and Messiah, said that "the love triangle" was one necessary ingredient to make great literature, from Le Morte D'Arthur to The Great Gatsby to Stephen King's The Stand. The Catullus-Caelius-Clodia triangle is what great literature is made of, and Caelius' eventual involvement serves to make his narrative all the more relevant, as he is no passive historian with a condescending tone-- and I suppose it is here where the true passion and anguish and tragedy of the story lies. It's amazing, because although Caelius writes in a calm but elegiac manner, most of these
events occur only a short time before Caelius composes his biography of Catullus. Caelius writes his biographical sketch at the request of Catullus' dying father, who gives him a box of all Catullus' remaining earthly belongings, including something which wrenched my heart from its chest, a little toy boat Catullus played with while swimming in Lake Gadara when he was a boy.
The end begins when a poverty-stricken, shunned Clodia is befriended by an ailing Catullus (he is already dying of tuberculosis). They enact a hubby and wife routine--the only thing Catullus desperately wanted but was the one thing he couldn't have--which is eerie and foreboding but oddly touching--something Stanley Kubrick could've captured on film well. But we know it can't last, and it hurts. I suppose things might have been different, but they weren't, even though Catullus would have liked them to have been.
But although Jaro probes the psyche of Catullus via Caelius' fluid prose, you could really say the central character of the story is Clodia Metelli herself; Jaro paints a palpable and erotic portrait of her. Like Catullus, you can simply feel her while reading--her body, her voice, "If you ask for alot, don't be surprised that it costs alot." And it cost both Catullus and Clodia quite a bit.
I am looking forward to reading the book's sequel The Door in the Wall, wherein Caelius,
surrounded by a different cast of characters, records his rise and fall in Roman politics