Buchan and Catullus

I knew that John Buchan was a classical scholar, but I hadn’t realised that he went in for rude jokes.

His knowledge of Catullus is clear from The House of the Four Winds, where in a pleasant jest the elephant is named Aurunculeia, after the bride in Carmen LXI:

flere desine, non tibi, Au-
runculeia, periculum est,
ne qua femina pulcrior
clarum ab Oceano diem
uiderit uenientum.

Which James Michie translates as:

Aurunculeia, dry
Your tears. How can there be
Danger? No lovelier girl
Than you will ever see
The bright day raise its head
Out of the ocean bed.

I suppose Buchan’s joke here is that Aurunculeia is a rather ponderous name, more suited to a cumbersome elephant than to a lovely young bride (who was also known as Vinia).

In The Last Crusade, a story in The Runagates Club, Buchan sticks with Catullus, but gets onto slightly naughtier territory. For good reasons the journalist Willinck (“the least known of our great men”) invents the story of a fictitious vile conspiracy – the sort that Buchan had parodied in Scudder’s notorious speech in The Thirty-Nine Steps:

…the true rulers were not those whose names appeared in the papers, but one or two secret madmen who sat behind the screen and spun their bloody webs.

The worst of the conspiracy:

…he called Glubet. He must have got the word out of a passage of Catullus which is not read in schools, and he made a shuddering thing of it – the rancid toad-man, living among half-lights and blood, adroit and sleepless as sin, but cracking now and then into idiot laughter.

Glubet? This is a reference to glubit , surely, from Carmen LVIII – the poem where Catullus tells his friend Caelius that Lesbia, his ex-girlfriend, now hangs around on street corners, giving sexual services to men:

Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam
plus quam se atque suos amauit omnes
nunc in quadriuiis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

James Michie translates this as:

This Lesbia, Catullus, whom in other days,
Catullus loved, his one and only love,
My Lesbia, the girl I put above
My own self and my nearest, dearest ones,
Now hangs around crossroads and alleyways
Milking the cocks of mighty Remus’ sons.

Which gives the spirit of the thing, but is a bit free. Glubit is a word used for rubbing the husks off corn, so the last two lines of the Latin are literally

…now at crossroads and in alleys
husks the great-souled descendants of Remus

Some years ago I played with writing my own versions of a few Catullus poems, and came up with this, which is even freer than Michie’s:

Our Lesbia who was ranked above
Both self and kin in Caius’ love,
Our Lesbia – remember? –
Down one of Rome’s most sordid ways
Some great-souled citizen delays
And rubs against his member.

But the point is that Buchan chose this word (in a different tense of the verb) for his evil “rancid toad-man”. It’s a learned way of giving him the name “Wanker”. But is he saying that this loathsome creature is an image of someone driven crazy by masturbation? Or is it the opposite, a sophisticated joke at the expense of the Victorian doctors who solemnly claimed that masturbation drove you mad. I supect the latter, but I’m not sure.


Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: