Nikita Yarygin (trans. James Manteith)

My Pal Val Catullus

Published in: 29. The Career of Freedom

In August of the ninety-first year of the last century, the citizens of the third Rome cast off the tiresome yoke of the party patricians from their shoulders and gained Freedom!

In the autumn of the same year, when crazy oddballs were rushing back and forth in search of whatever popped up on the scene, I made my way through Moscow’s crowds to the “Science” publishing house with the sole desire to acquire the first edition of Gaius Valerius Catullus, a poet who witnessed the sunset of a republic and the birth of an empire, a contemporary of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Milo and Claudius, Cicero and Catiline, Crassus, Spartacus and many others, named and nameless, whose busts and fates embody the history of the first Rome for us. Catullus knew many of them personally.

Almost all the ancient classics, Romans and Greeks, were published in the USSR quite regularly in various intellectual series and drove Soviet bibliophiles wild. The works of ancient historians, philosophers, playwrights, prose writers, poets and progressive graphomaniacs, having miraculously survived to our days, naturally belonged to the elite segment of reading and ranked as scarce and prestigious objects of property.


Written in a realistic manner, in language that is perfect but alien to the crowd, moderately passionate but civically responsible, these literary artifacts, describing the mythologically distant, appeared organic in the ideological context of a country with an imperial self-awareness.

Suetonius, Appianus, Plutarch, Pliny, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Apuleius, Petronius, Seneca and his distinguished student, the singer-songwriter Nero — this is an incomplete list of the bright creative individuals who knew Catullus well.

But unlike them and many others, each in their turn with dignity accepting glory and death according to the laws of blessed stability, Catullus’ talent flourished in a terrible and wonderful transitional period between the times of oligarchic quasi-democracy and the atrocious Principate.

Since 1929, “tidbits” of Catullus had been published in Soviet Russia more than once, but namely these latest, recklessly frank translations, which saw the light beneath the scarlet curtain itself, became for me — a person who in all circumstances humbly bears a heavy burden of personal freedom — a sign of the coming changes.

Suddenly, among the spiritualized and severe faces who appeared on the historical stage of the prophets of the Soviet apocalypse, the hysterically cheerful and desperately evil face of the fossilized pagan libertine, exhausted by irregular nourishment and sensual incontinence, flashed like a ragged cartoon sketch across the peeling facade of reality.

At one time, this guy was one of those who today, as well as they can, bear the shameful stigma of “big shot” on their foreheads. His grandfather and then his father were doing business in his Verona long before the Montagues and Capulets were gnawing at each other there. And his family had a good status in Rome, by the way! Whoever ran it… Caesar himself didn’t disdain their domus and, on occasion, stopped by to visit.

Catullus and his brother Gallus faced the enviable fate of following in fresh footsteps on a beaten track. But things didn’t go so smoothly. His beloved brother died far, far away abroad, and Catullus himself and his comrades barely got back from the business trip that at first had seemed so promising.

Like the children of modern provincial aces, Catullus moved to the capital. Presumably, to some relatively decent housing corresponding to his status. Probably with the necessary, sufficient parental backing, with an obvious goal of starting and securing a successful career. To stand in a series, repeating from generation to generation, of replicas of his fathers and grandfathers. But he decided to become or stay himself. For that, all means are good — drunkenness, debauchery and, of course, Fate’s faithful companion, poetry.

Oh, those boys from “good families,” boys born with gold and silver spoons in their mouths … Some eventually get used to the fact that the spoon keeps them from speaking, and they go on licking the spoon until death. But others try to shove the uncomfortable object out of their mouths with a long and sharp tongue that doesn’t fit behind their cheeks. For them, the ability to speak out is more precious than precious metal.

These seemingly lazy pyros of life know the value of authority and the futility of ambition. They are bored and weighed down by formalities. The flipside of success is the daily routine of their lives from an exquisite diaper to a luxurious shroud. In the givers of blessings, they see not gods but only people whose moral weaknesses stick out all the more, the unbearable burden of gifts from touchy and erratic Fortune.

Neither the mob nor the rulers of the world forgive such a neglect of social stereotypes. And society responds similarly to such voluntary exiles from paradise. Rejecting their rightful place of birth under the sun and doomed not to find another, they fall. Not by the sword, but by ennui.

Let’s recall who else managed to do this, the chic superfluous men of the stagnant 19th century — Zhenya Onegin, Grisha Pechorin… The failed Decembrists, as we were taught in Soviet schools. Who degenerated into Prince Myshkins and Oblomovs — the way I see it.

In a futile search for the genuine, these purebred males are drawn through the gateway of mutts — girls and boys — dovelike Ipsitillas and sweet Juventiuses. The former do not succumb to training, and now and then bite their lovers, painfully instilling the cruel truth about the hopelessness of their situation. The latter, on the contrary, eagerly adopt the manners and lifestyle of their owners, becoming hypertrophic, mock copies of their tamers.

Seek yourself and you’ll find loneliness. And creativity is an inevitable monodialogue with yourself, your final interlocutor. Even in the crowd, at the forum or on Tverskaya; even among friends, in the tavern of the “hoodwinked brothers” or the cafe “Lira”.

Where is that barroom, that event horizon where the high and the low converge, where exemplary rhetoric turns into Latin cussing, and obscene abuse into coos of love? In what ancient garbage dump, not yet become a cultural layer, can two people find a place to love eternally?…

Catullus is not dead. He just stopped… writing? Living? There’s no evidence that he bit the dust from illness or opened his veins. Just speculation. Perhaps he just nailed everything shut. But ultimately it’s the same thing. And yet, as a sophist and cynic would say, the right to life and death must be confirmed by a piece of paper. Or at least a piece of parchment. The first is documented, but the second… Strictly speaking, it is impossible to assert with absolute certainty that Catullus ceased to exist. At least in the form of a certain archetype, forever imprinted in the unconscious.

I see you, my hapless brothers — in the shadows of university alleys, under the arches of Stalinist palazzos, at the entrances of high-rise industrial housing project insulas. Feeling foolish, you wander around with a can of Gallic swill in your hand and a bottle of something stronger than Falernian in your pocket. You have fashionable rags but perforated wallets; smart faces but empty eyes. Having killed another day, you go peacefully to bed, exhausted by chronic dissatisfaction, and fall asleep with an unextinguished cigarette on a funeral pyre of bibliographic rarities read indecently ragged…

So let me toss another volume into the fire! No need to look for a scholarly apparatus, historical materials or art criticism inside. Today you can track down anything you want, casting a wider worldwide net. But I strongly recommend, for starters, perceiving the proposed synthesis of poetry and graphics with a nude body and naked soul. I dedicate this unique art and literary publication to all of us — to you, to myself, and of course, to Gaius Valerius Catullus, whose sexual, creative and civic activity, like ours, came at a time of great change.

Ave Gaius Valerius Catullus! And … Barrra !!!

N. Yarygin. Cicero. Illustration to the poems of Catullus.

N. Yarygin. Cicero. Illustration to the poems of Catullus.


The text you have read is a preface to an unpublished book. Under existing conditions, its chances of seeing the light are very obscure, and the prospects of getting a sufficient number of copies unimpededly into good hands appear all the more doubtful.

And yet, the book I’m working on will certainly be published. This will inevitably happen when its obvious existence demands an adequate resolution of the current paradox.

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