BMCR 1994.04.05

1994.04.05, Letoublon, Stereotypes grecs

, Les lieux communs du roman : stéréotypes grecs d'aventure et d'amour. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 123. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993. vii, 248 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004097247. Gld.115/US$65.75.

This book covers a wide and varied terrain. After sketching the theoretical framework of the study and commenting sporadically on the nature of the ancient Greek novel (Chapter 1) and its influence on French artists and writers, particularly Huet and Prévost (Chapter 2), the book settles down to an analysis of the themes of space and population (Chapter 3), the love romance (Chapter 4), the characterisation of the hero and heroine (Chapter 5), love (Chapter 6), the use of literary genres (Chapter 7), the obstacles to love (Chapter 8), and modes of communication (Chapter 9). The final chapter is concerned with the degree to which the style of the novels is shared (Chapter 10).

Létoublon defines the aim of the book as follows: ‘Le présent essai s’attache à montrer à travers l’étude des lieux communs du roman qu’il s’agit d’un genre essentiellement répétitif …’ (p. 1). The author adopts M. Weil’s definition of a commonplace as a ‘configuration narrative récurrente’ (p. 7) 1 and bases her analysis on not only the notions of syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes from structural linguistics but also the description of the ancient novels as a ‘palimpsest genre’ from narratology (predictably Genette). In this approach the Ephesiaca of Xenophon is taken as the ‘degré zéro’ while the novel of Heliodorus is the most erudite and elaborate of the five novels selected for study ( Chaereas and Callirhoe, Leucippe and Cleitophon, the Ephesiaca, Daphnis and Chloe and the Aethiopica). Létoublon takes her study further by tracing the influence of the commonplaces of the ancient Greek novels on the French writers of romance after the appearance of Amyot’s translation of the Aethiopica. Létoublon emphasises the importance of the reception of the Greek novel in France and aspires to fill the critical vacuum in French scholarship on the Greek novel since the now dated study of Feuillétre. 2

There is clearly merit in examining the extent to which the ancient Greek novelists made use of commonplaces and in doing so established the stereotype of the romance novel. More problematic though is the question of the conclusions to be drawn from this investigation. Létoublon cites the five extant novelists (Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, Chariton, Longus and Xenophon in order of frequency) but not the fragments, the Latin novels or Apollonius of Tyre, except in passing. The preselection of material detracts from the value of the analysis of the commonplaces as defining elements of the ancient novel as a genre, which the structuralist analogy would suggest to have been the aim of the study (the author’s reference to ‘l’économie romanesque’ [p. 9] supports this suggestion). The preponderance of references to Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius further erode the attempt to establish some kind of formula for the genre, as both authors (Heliodorus in particular) frequently refer to the work of the poets and historians. Indeed Heliodorus is treated as a brilliant exception to the other novels (particularly with regard to the order of the episodes). Longus also differs markedly from the other novels in a number of important respects (above all in respect of the restriction of the story to the confines of Lesbos). Moreover, there is a troubling circularity in Létoublon’s use of the later tradition of romance, although this is part of her stated method: ‘Nous lirons le roman grec à la lumière de l’histoire du genre et de l’histoire de la critique, et nous lisons le roman et la critique modernes à la lumière du roman grec’ (p. 7). Not only does the reader want to know why the five novels alone are used in this study but, more particularly, why the history of the genre and the history of criticism of the genre is restricted for the most part to Huet and Prévost.

In her first chapter Létoublon explores the tension between reality and fiction in the novels. Evidence of realism is found in the geographical space in which the stories are set (for the most part on the periphery of the Mediterranean). There are also indications of the social status of the characters: the hero and heroine are mostly single children of wealthy middle class or aristocratic parents; respectable females are contrasted with prostitutes and courtesans; servants and slaves play a secondary, auxiliary part in communicating between the lovers. The novels generally reveal a tension between young love and parental marriage strategies. The breakdown in law and order in the late Roman empire is reflected in the ubiquitous attacks of brigands and pirates. Religious rituals, oracles and beliefs are present although mostly in conventional form. An anxiety about sexuality is everywhere apparent. On the other hand, Létoublon shows that the authors of the novels are aware that they are writing fiction and that their works are images in the same way as paintings and sculptures are (for example, Longus 1.2), and that their characters are representations in the same way as theatrical personae or religious images (Xen. Eph. 1.3.2). Though brief, this is an excellent chapter, which deals perceptively with the central concerns of ancient fiction.

Létoublon next considers the influence of the Greek novels on French literary criticism, particularly the Parnasse réformé of Gueret (1647), the Lettre-traité of Pierre Daniel Huet (circulated in 1666) and two works of Abbé Prévost ( Le Pour et le Contre and Histoire d’une Grecque moderne) from the eighteenth century. Huet discusses the definition and evolution of romance as a genre in some detail. While Huet praises the work of Heliodorus he condemns romance as dangerous poison, which encourages passivity and softness, particularly when used by men as an instrument with which to seduce women. Prévost is less knowledgeable about the genre, being attracted—like Gueret—by a supposedly scandalous incident in the Aethiopica, but wrote a parody of the ancient novel (the Histoire d’une Grecque moderne) which reveals a familiarity with the commonplaces of the genre. As in the case of the art which decorated French, German and Danish palaces, Prévost’s work shows that the ancient novel had exercised a strong indirect influence on European culture since the sixteenth century. This chapter is out of place in the overall scheme of the book, however, and would be better off as an appendix or an entirely separate study.

Chapters 3-10 are concerned with the topoi or commonplaces of the ancient novels. Among the topoi Létoublon includes are space (the home, ships, the garden, prison, the tomb, the cave [20 pages]), population (the family of the hero and heroine, the adversaries of the lovers, the friend, the wise man [25 pages]), the sequence of topoi (itself topical: the presentation of the hero and heroine, their falling in love, the pain of love, the separations and trials to which the lovers are exposed, the lovers reunited, the happy end [13 pages]), the presentation of the hero and heroine (their nobility, wealth and beauty; their birth and parentage [18 pages]), falling in love (love at first sight, the sufferings of lovers, jealousy, disguise as brother and sister, plaints in solitude [19 pages]), the novels as literary texts (the novel as image, dreams and mythic models, rhetoric and theatre in the novel, romance within romance, lies and fiction [18 pages]), the obstacles to love (storms and pirates, the fatal beauty of the heroine, feuding families, false deaths, chastity [20 pages]), the problem of communication (conversation, symbols, correspondence, language, dreams, desire [14 pages]) and lastly the style of the novels (motifs, reflexivity, and metaphor [14 pages]). Clearly not all these topoi are present in all the novels.

Understandably, Létoublon has given most space to the section on ‘population’ in her exposition. Even so this is a section in which still more needs to be said, since the characters in the novels are frequently developed beyond the limitations of their conventional stereotype (for example, Calasiris in the Aethiopica, who is given very slight treatment by Létoublon). Others fulfill an ulterior literary purpose in the novels: Cnemon, for instance, takes the place of the reader in the Aethiopica and gives expression to his or her feelings as the narrative unfolds (as first noted by Winkler). 3 The figure of the hero’s friend is also a familiar one in Homer and the poets, yet Létoublon does not exploit this tradition in her discussion nor does she relate this literary commonplace to the alteration in psychosexual attitudes that are evident in the novels.

Despite its expense, this book has been badly produced. There are numerous instances of excessive ‘white space’ between the type, missing punctuation and words which run into one another. More seriously, abbreviated citations given in the notes are frequently not found at all the bibliography (for example, references to Denis de Rougemont p. 2, Bailey p. 114, de Jong p. 156, Winkler p. 171); well-known English authors have their names misspelled (Defoé: with a diaeresis on the ‘e’, p. 66); on occasion notes have gone missing entirely (p. 127, n. 18); and translations do not always match the text cited (p. 172). Readers who make use of the recent English translations of the novels edited by B.P. Reardon, will also find that references cited by Létoublon differ from those in their text. Potential buyers will not be encouraged to meet the price demanded when the text has been so carelessly edited and proofed. All these blemishes detract from the value of a book which in other respects has a lot to offer.

  • [1] M. Weil, ‘Comment repérer et définir le topos?’, Colloque de Toronto SATOR (prépublication) 1988. [2] E. Feuillétre, Etudes sur les Ethiopiques d’Héliodore, Paris 1966. [3] J. J. Winkler, ‘The mendacity of Kalasiris and the narrative strategy of Heliodoros’Aithiopika‘, Yale Classical Studies 27 (1982) 140.