Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.53

Romain Brethes, De l’idéalisme au réalisme: une étude du comique dans le roman grec. Cardo 6.   Salerno:  Helios, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 298.  ISBN 8888123334.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Claudia Arno, University of Michigan (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer would like to apologize for the delay in sending this piece.]

The traditional (and, Romain Brethes argues, overly simplistic) school of thought concerning the Greek novel, dating back to the late 19th century, holds that all Greek novels are purely formulaic works, promoting escapism through the repetition of certain set fantastic elements. This "simple" escapism of the Greek novel, the traditional school maintained, compares unfavorably with the explicit and acidic social commentary of the Latin novels of Petronius and Apuleius. Brethes, in contrast, sees the comedic techniques of these novels as complex and nuanced, and argues that Greek novels in fact reflect the social complexity of Greek society under Roman rule during the second and third centuries CE. In examining the composition and intent of these novels, Brethes addresses the development of the genre of the novel, the relationship of that genre to the genre of New Comedy, and the nature of "comedy" itself.

David Konstan's four-page preface provides an engaging summary and analysis of what Brethes has to say about New Comedy and the narratives of Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius. Focusing on Brethes' engagement with the primary sources, Konstan highlights some of Brethes' observations on and interpretations of the ancient authors' style.

Brethes' introduction includes brief, but detailed and useful, summaries of the methodological concerns involved in writing about the ancient novel, including trends in the existing scholarship (specifically, the traditional undervaluation of novels as literature), the various types of comic devices employed by the authors, and the historical and literary context (the Pax Romana and the Second Sophistic) in which novels flourished. Brethes here introduces one of his central arguments: that while "the ancient novel" merits recognition as a genre, we must also recognize the degree of individualism demonstrated by each author’s choices of comic devices. As part of this argument, Brethes explores the significance of "le comique" in the novel – which, he argues, as a literary device, is both "ouverture au monde" and "révélation d’une vision de ce monde“ (p. 11). Comedy, in other words, functions as a lens through which the ancient novelists viewed and presented their world; accordingly, it is a vital element in our understanding of the meaning and significance of the nuanced and complex work of these novelists, as well as of the complex world in which they wrote.

The core of Brethes' argument is that (1) the ancient novel is a legitimate and understudied genre; (2) at the same time, each ancient novel has its own distinctive qualities and, specifically, interpretations of comedy; and (3) as a genre, and especially in the use of comedy, the novel is closely tied to other ancient genres. Indeed, the "rapport intergénérique" between the novel and New Comedy is the constant on which this work is based (p. 67). In order to make these arguments, Brethes discusses ancient theories and understandings of comedy (especially those of Aristotle and Plutarch), the types of comedic effects actually used in Old and especially New Comedy; and the ways in which novels follow and stray from these conventions. This is an extremely ambitious project, and Brethes' attention to detail and reluctance to leave a point of comparison unexamined is truly admirable. The complexity of the resulting layers of evidence, however, may prove challenging for readers to follow – especially if those readers are less than totally familiar with the ancient novels, plays, and literary theories Brethes references so frequently. Brethes does, however, provide ample and very useful footnotes to his secondary sources, including many published in English (notably the work of D. Konstan, G. Anderson, S. Goldhill, J.R. Morgan, J.J. Winkler, and F.I. Zeitlin). These citations should certainly increase the book’s appeal to Anglophone students. Non-French speakers may also find the book’s organization (that is, its minutely detailed table of contents and the division of the book into parts, chapters, sections, and subsections) helpful; this will be especially true for those readers whose interest lies in a particular part of the book. For the reader approaching the work as a whole, however, these occasionally abrupt subdivisions (and the inevitable reduction of many subsections into brief, essentially self-contained discussions of specific points) can become a little distracting, making it harder to see the larger arc of the study.

Part I (L'héritage des anciens: un dialogue ludique avec la comédie nouvelle) introduces a major theme which Brethes continues to emphasize throughout: the degree to which the authors of Greek novels appear to have felt free to introduce certain forms of behavior and morality that do not appear in New Comedies written for the stage. For example, beginning on p. 59, Brethes discusses the ways in which couples in the novels show reciprocal sexual desire: women, as well as men, feel and express desire, and men talk about romantic love even before they are about to be married. Neither of these features is to be found, as a rule, in New Comedy. In a comparison of the novels to the plays of Menander, for example, Brethes also notes that while Menander refrained from including homoerotic relationships in his works, authors of novels regularly described (or at least noted the existence of) such relationships. Similarly, while love in Menander’s plays occurs only between individuals of the same class, romantic love in ancient novels easily crossed such social boundaries.

Part II (Spécificités et écarts des romans grecs: un genre vivant) is primarily a discussion of the nature of the Greek novel as a genre. Brethes deals with the definition of genre, emphasizing in particular the idea that authors do not, by following a given set of literary conventions, necessarily abandon their creativity: on the contrary, he argues, the strict submission to rules is simply another opportunity for the author to assert his originality, and such originality is amply displayed in comedy (p. 67). While each author of a Greek novel appears to work within the boundaries of one particular "esthétique de la fiction" at a time from the numerous options available to him (Chariton, for example, at the beginning of his narrative, makes use primarily of dramatic irony), Brethes states that "cette frénésie de la création et de la dynamique narrative" is a feature common to all Greek novels discussed here (p. 73). Perhaps the most significant attraction of the novelistic style for ancient (and modern) readers lies in its constant use of unexpected narrative twists and turns.

In Part III (Les sophistes s'amusent: étude de procédés comiques chez Chariton, Xénophon d'Éphèse et Héliodore), Brethes continues his discussion of the variety of comedic devices within the genre of the Greek novel with a focus on the comedic elements characteristic of these three authors. Brethes points out here that the modern scholarship on ancient novels suffers from a lack of consistency in terminology and methodology. In particular, modern scholars have not always distinguished consistently between intertextual, intratextual, and extratextual comedy. Brethes sees as especially significant, in other words, the relationship of comedy in each Greek novel to a literary tradition, the relationship of each Greek novel to itself, its genre, and the conventions of its own individual comedic system, and the use of comedy in each Greek novel to address common themes and conventions such as love, marriage, and sexuality (p. 127). Brethes analyzes Chariton's use of irony, Xenophon's use of sensationalism, and Heliodorus' use of the element of surprise in his narrative style. In Brethes' estimation, Heliodorus' comic style is the most sophisticated of the three; Heliodorus uses both irony and shock to good effect, but, most significantly, he also uses realism at unexpected moments in the narrative. Brethes explains that Heliodorus presents the readers of his Aethiopica with glimpses of a startling and brutal reality in order to provide a contrast to the ideal vision of the world to which he is, in fact, dedicated. At Aethiopica II.19.4-5, for example, Heliodorus pauses during the hero Cnemon's journey with a band of robbers to describe the blood from nearly raw meat flowing down the famished robbers’ cheeks (p. 165).

In Part IV (Glissement progressif du comique: Achille Tatius, l’autre voix du roman grec), Brethes discusses the ways in which Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon differs from other Greek novels, with particular emphasis on the fact that it is told in the first person. The different levels of perception made possible by this device (the "facts" of the story as developed by the author are filtered through the view of the narrator, himself a character, before reaching the reader), make Leucippe and Clitophon "un roman en trompe-l’oeil." The position of Clitophon as romantic hero and narrator provides a wealth of opportunities for dramatic irony. Brethes also elaborates on the use of heroic exempla in Leucippe and Clitophon; while such exempla appear in multiple Greek novels, Achilles Tatius inserts a comic twist by having Clitophon, who as narrator is comparing himself to Heracles, Achilles, and others, identify with the most effeminizing aspects of these heroes’ stories (Achilles dressed as a girl among the daughters of Lycomedes, for example). The first-person narration also allows the author to deal with issues of non-recognition in an unusual way. The hero's inability to learn from past experience is particularly comic when he, as narrator, necessarily provides the details that tell the reader what is really going on.

Toward the end of Part IV (p. 247-267), Brethes returns to the question of how the novels relate to the society in which they were written. He focuses on the role of virginity in Leucippe and Clitophon, noting that S. Goldhill and others have argued that representations of romantic love, marriage, and male and female chastity in the Greek novels reflected changing attitudes toward these concepts during the time that the novels were written. Brethes expands upon this argument with an in-depth analysis of the references in Leucippe and Clitophon to male virginity (p. 249-256), female virginity, or "pseudo-virginity" in the case of Leucippe (p. 256-263), and deities concerned with virginity, especially Artemis (p. 263-267); he argues in particular that the novels are not mere illustrations or reflections of Greek society under Roman rule, but had a part in shaping popular culture.

In the conclusion, Brethes summarizes his definitions of idealistic and realistic comedy and the ways in which each appears in the novels under discussion. (This is the point in the book at which these definitions are clearest.) Chariton’s Chaireas and Callirhoe, as the novel that appears to follow most closely the standards of New Comedy, is the most "idealistic"; Brethes reminds us, however, that Chariton does not follow these standards without question and that his allusions to both comedies and epics can be read as explorations of the boundaries of the Greek novel as a genre. Xenophon of Ephesus in the Ephesian Tale appears to compensate for the overly "idealistic" (read: straightforwardly incorruptible) characters of his protagonists by placing them in the most "realistic" (read: grotesque) situations possible, and so appealing to the voyeurism of his audience while allowing propriety to prevail. In the Aethiopica, Heliodorus seems to alternate consciously between the idealistic and the realistic in order to make an impression on his audience.

Greater emphasis on the cultural context in which the novels were written and analysis of the potential social repercussions of the popularization of the genre would strengthen the work overall; the various authors are much more present in this book than are their audiences, regardless of the fact that much of our understanding of these individual authors' intent is necessarily based on speculation and inference. Taken as a work whose primary focus is on the place of the genre within the ancient literary tradition, however, it is admirably comprehensive as well as persuasive.

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