Review by: James Ruebel - March 1, 2007
Book Review: The Lock, The Key, and The Door in the Wall
by James S. Ruebel
Benita Kane Jaro. The Lock. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers (http://www.bolchazy.com), 2002. Pp. 280. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 0-86516-535-1.
Benita Kane Jaro. The Key. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers (http://www.bolchazy.com), 2002. Pp. 280. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 0-86516-534-3.
Benita Kane Jaro. The Door in the Wall. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers (http://www.bolchazy.com), 2002. Pp. 280. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 0-86516-533-5.
By bundling these three novels together, Jaro stakes her claim to an interpretive literary trilogy of the closing years of the Roman Republic. She traces this story from 62 BC to 48 BC mainly through the adventures, and largely through the eyes, of Marcus Caelius Rufus, who is the protagonist as well as the usual narrator. On the whole, she has created a subtle, dark, ambivalent, and thoughtful set of interlocking stories.
The original publication date (1988) suggests that Key should perhaps be read first; but there is much to be said for beginning with Lock (evidently the last book written), where Caelius is still a young man.
Lock is the only tale not told directly by Caelius; in fact, while the narrator is an omniscient third person, the point of view is mainly that of a surprisingly sympathetic Cicero, who appears here in the most persuasively favorable fictional characterization that I know of. He acts neither pompous nor pretentious. While many novels of the period emphasize his vacillation (perhaps fear) or self-aggrandizement, Jaro's Cicero is courageous, warm, and clever, a man trying to be an honest and serious politician in an age of increasing corruption. The events of the novel form a classic ring: we begin at the Bona Dea trial in the shadow of Pompey's return from the East, where Clodius is prosecuted for spying on the rites; we conclude at the trial of Milo, where Cicero defends Milo for the slaying of Clodius along the Appian Way near a shrine of the Bona Dea, and Pompey seems on the verge of dictatorship.
The important characters of the trilogy are all introduced and fleshed out: Publius Clodius Pulcher, Clodia Metelli, Caesar, Pompey, and Catullus. Caelius himself is impulsive and naive, an admirer and protégé of Cicero. He is a friend of Catullus, whose featured role in Key is foreshadowed. The central events of Lock are political (when they do not hone in on Caelius' personal life), and the tone is, in general, upbeat: the darker episodes and revelations of later books, many of them contemporaneous, are on the perimeter of the action. Sexual perversity, which becomes a symbol in the trilogy of a deeper moral decay of the Roman order, remains here on the surface or ambiguous.
The historical events are, of course, slanted for novelistic purposes. The greatest liberty is the suggestion that Caelius and Cicero were implicated in advance in the murder of Clodius, about which Jaro is defensive enough to include a justification that both demurs and defends: "I have deliberately distorted what we know…. It is no more than conjecture-I think a plausible one-that they may have been involved in the way I have suggested" (Lock, 268).
Key is a bold experiment. On the one hand, the narrator is Caelius, reflecting upon what to tell Catullus' father about his dead son. On the other hand, the narrator steps outside the first-person bounds of what anyone other than Catullus could possibly have known or seen. This interplay of omniscience and Caelius' own narration is effective. The book follows the autobiographical clues of Catullus' poems with creative insight, sometimes through action that reflects the poems and sometimes through action on which poems are brought in explicitly to comment. The complexity of Catullus' character and of his relationship with "Lesbia" (who is, in this book, Clodia Metelli) and our Caelius, who is immortalized in Poem 58 (Caeli, Lesbia nostro, Lesbia illa), is well drawn. His alienation from his own society, his struggles to articulate that alienation and to maintain ordinary relationships with close friends animate the tale. Personally, I am not a fan of the autobiographical reading of Catullus' poems, but Key gives us a nuanced and sensitive exploration of a life otherwise impossible to recover.
The representation of social disorder in sexual deviation becomes more pronounced than in Lock. And the choice of material in Catullus is abundant: adultery, homoeroticism, incest, and everywhere betrayal, regardless of the original pairing. That Clodia, a Roman patrician with powerful and wealthy relatives, could find herself living in squalor, as she does here, is yet another symbolic reflection of the degeneracy of the society from which she comes.
In Door, the mood is dark. The story opens in 48 BC with Caelius having taken control of Thurii as the civil war between Pompey and Caesar has reached a climax; Pompey has been defeated and Caelius awaits the arrival of Caesar's men. He is performing the function his rank demands, but he has no understanding of why or on whose behalf he is doing so. So, bemused, he sits down to write a report as he waits and decides what to do.
Caelius describes his life in Rome in vivid terms, a dissipated romp beginning - as is thematic of the trilogy - with the Bona Dea sacrilege, here portrayed as a drunken lark in which not only Clodius but Catullus and Caelius were complicit. The figure of Caesar looms in the background, becoming increasingly dominant and increasingly the focus of Caelius' interest and loyalty. Caelius finally turns against Caesar after a particularly unpleasant abuse of personal loyalty and real power. Having cast his lot with Pompey, he has lost all hope after Pharsalus.
Jaro's Caesar is complex: as is rarely the case, one sees how he attracted followers with his brilliance and was able to lead in the most difficult situations; yet his character is venal, utterly ambitious, and ruthless. Pompey seems thoroughly realistic: a somewhat obtuse man of obscure motivation other than his own glory, a fine general, and no match for Caesar as a politician.
In view of Jaro's thorough knowledge of Caelius' letters to Cicero, I was surprised that she did not use the famous letter (Fam. 8.14) where the real Caelius gives Cicero his forecast of what he sees as an imminent civil war. Perhaps the tone was too light ("if it could be put on without danger, Fortune would be arranging a great and interesting show") or too calculating ("when it has come to war and the camp, we must follow the stronger side, and the better choice is what is safer") for her character, though Caelius' dilemma about whom to follow reflected the sentiment among many in late 50 BC.
In Door, the sexual motif achieves resolution. While sexual liberty is rife in the story, Caesar's forcible seduction of Caelius in his command tent represents not only Caelius' personal turning point but epitomizes the internal corruption of leaders of Caelius' society, perhaps also representative of Rome herself. The trilogy ends with a despondent Caelius preparing to ride out to meet Caesar's troops.
All in all, Jaro has forged a layered and provocative reflection on the fifteen years from the Bona Dea scandal to the death of Caelius.
James S. Ruebel is Professor of Classics and Dean of The Honors College at Ball State University in Indiana. His current teaching is primarily in honors humanities and a field-based symposium on the City of Rome.
Review: Kirkus Reviews - September 28, 2005
A convincingly imagined, well-researched first novel on the life and times of the Roman poet Catullus...[and] an inspiring, near-Byronesque portrait of Catullus.
Review: Classical Journal - September 28, 2005
The Key is a very poetic novel about Gaius Valerius Catullus...[It] is the most powerful account of Catullus and Clodia since Thornton Wilder’s 1948 novel The Ides of March.... The Key is...spirited, daring, at the end enigmatic and haunting, as was Catullus of Verona.
Review: Classical Outlook - September 28, 2005
The Key...does a good job of recreating the politics of the age...it provokes thought...
Review by: Doris Grumbach - September 28, 2005
If there is to be a worthy successor to Mary Renault, or to Marguerite Yourcenar, it may be Benita Kane Jaro.
Review by: David Standen, JACT Review - September 1, 2003
KJ has written a trilogy based on the last years of Republican Rome, and has done so with great aplomb. She is to be applauded for the effort which this endeavour must have taken. In the first book, The lock, she views the period through using the story of the statesman Cicero, in the second book, The Key, the same period and technique is used, but with Catullus as the character, and in the final book, The Door in the Wall, she uses Caesar. The key to the books, however is the character Caelius, the Marcus Caelius Rufus of Cicero's Pro Caelio: the story in each case is told through his eyes, although not in an intrusive way - each of the central characters is able to speak and operate without Caelius being present. By using these different perspectives, KJ is able to tell the same story in three different ways, building up the suspense in each one until the full story is revealed in the final book. It is important that each book is read in the correct order in order that the denouement comes as a surprise to the reader.
KJ has taken a period of Roman history when there were a great deal happening, and there were many factions at work, each pulling in their own different directions. This has enabled her to allow the story to unfold in the way that it does, and allows the confusion of the events to mask the underlying story. As might be expected the three books reflect the style of each of the authors, the first being based around various speeches of Cicero, and being somewhat ponderous, the second is rather more ephemeral and views Catullus through the poetry he wrote about Lesbia, and the final book is retrospective of Caelius when all the threads are pulled together. I found each of the three books a gripping read, both in their own right and as a trilogy.
I would recommend them to any teacher who feels the need for a little light relief from some of the more weighty tomes available on the last days of the Republic. For a student of the period, they certainly can be recommended - perhaps as holiday reading for one about to embark on one of the Ancient History topics related to this period. Although it must be pointed out that they are fiction and as such should not form the basis of a serious essay on the period, they certainly provide a readable and interesting overview of the period in a way that the reader will not feel like they are doing holiday work!