The storyteller has always been a figure of magic, and the circle a magic figure. This is Rudyard Kipling, casting his spell around 1902, the year the Just So Stories for Little Children were published. He is on a liner sailing from Southampton to Cape Town in South Africa, where the Kipling family had taken to spending the winter.
‘What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom,’ asks Dickens’s narrator in Bleak House. As the novel develops, it offers various possible answers, including disease, family, money, and friendship.
“Your library of a gracious country villa, from where the reader can see the city close by: might you squeeze in my naughty Muse, between your more respectable poems?” Martial’s avid fans will find themselves on familiar ground here, at the suburban ranch of the poet’s aspirational namesake, Julius Martial (4.64).
“If you have no better offer, do come,” 11.52 helps put flesh on the bones of Martial’s Rome (‘you know Stephanus’ baths are right next door…’) and presents the city poet in a neighbourly light. It’s also a favourite of modern foodies in search of an unpretentious sample menu from ancient daily life.
The proudly coifed and teased hair, the desire to make a splash, the lust after wealth, the racist remarks: Donald Trump? Or Mark Twain? Today is Mark Twain’s birthday; he was born on 30 November 1835, and died on 21 April 1910.
To celebrate the new BBC Radio Four adaptation of the French writer Émile Zola’s, ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, we have looked at the extraordinary life and work of one of the great nineteenth century novelists.
I begin with one of Martial’s more troublesome twentieth-century Avid Fans: the poet, editor, translator, and Fascist propagandist, Ezra Pound.
Why adapt Zola? What’s he got to say to us today? If the novels are so good why not leave them as they are – as novels – and forget it?
Martial adores sexy boys. He craves their kisses, all the more so if they play hard to get, “… buffed amber, a fire yellow-green with Eastern incense… That, Diadumenus, is how your kisses smell, you cruel boy. What if you gave me all of them, without holding back?” (3.65) and “I only want struggling kisses – kisses I’ve seized; I get more of a kick out of your bad temper than your good looks…” (5.46).
‘Dear Martial’ – what a strange coincidence that Martial’s soul-mate, who leads the life he himself dreams of living, is called ‘Julius Martial’. In our selection we meet him first at 1.107, playfully teasing the poet that he ought to write “something big; you’re such a slacker”; at the start of book 3, JMa’s is ‘a name that’s constantly on my lips’ (3.5), and the welcome at his lovely suburban villa on the Janiculan Hill 4.64 is so warm, ‘you will think the place is yours’.
Charles Darwin was widely known as a travel writer and natural historian in the twenty years before On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859. The Voyage of the Beagle was a great popular success in the 1830s. But the radical theories developed in the Origin had been developed more or less in secret during those intervening twenty years.
His books are famous around the world, but their author struggles to get by – two themes that quickly become familiar to any reader. Martial has an eye for fabric. He habitually ranks himself and judges others by the price and quality of their clothing and accessories (e.g. 2.29, 2.57), a quick index in the face-to-face street life of the crammed metropolis.
Thomas De Quincey produced two versions of his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He launched himself to fame with the first version, which appeared in two instalments in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, and which created such a sensation that the London’s editors issued it again the following year in book form.
An epigram is a short poem, most often of two or four lines. Its typical metre is the elegiac couplet, which is also the metre of Roman love poetry (elegy) and the hallmark of Ovid. In antiquity it was a distinctively Greek literary form: Roman writers were never comfortable in it as they were in other imported genres, such as epic and elegy. When they dabbled in epigram they often used Greek to do so. Martial’s decision to write books of Latin epigrams, and nothing else, is thus a very significant departure.
Who is ‘Martial’? “Up to this point, Madam, this little book has been written for you. You want to know for whom the bits further in are written? For me.” (3.68) Marcus Valerius Martialis was born some time around AD 40 (we know his birthday, 1st March, but not the year) at Bilbilis in Hispania Tarraconensis, a province of oil- and wine-rich Roman Spain.
The poet we call Martial, Marcus Valerius Martialis, lived by his wits in first-century Rome. Pounding the mean streets of the Empire’s capital, he takes apart the pretensions, addictions, and cruelties of its inhabitants with perfect comic timing and killer punchlines.