BMCR 1994.10.03

1994.10.03, Tatum (ed.), Search for the Ancient Novel

The Search for the Ancient Novel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. 463. $24.95 (pb).

It is now almost five years since the memorable International Conference on the Ancient Novel (otherwise known as ICAN 2) was held for most of a week in a very hot July in the wilds of New Hampshire, under the auspices of the hostly James Tatum. This conference was one of the most exciting that many of us had attended, not only because it gave us a chance to talk to our footnotes while crossing deep gorges on rotting logs, but because it more or less formally marked the emergence of the study of the Ancient Novel as a legitimate field. This volume represents a sampling of the papers delivered there, twenty-four essays (now expanded and with copious footnotes) of the original ninety papers. The Search for the Ancient Novel is a welcome memento of that wonderful occasion and many of the essays in it will be of interest to a wide variety of readers.

It is the nature of the collection and the audience for which it is designed that, in the long run, may be the most problematic. The original aim of the conference was to cover “every aspect of the novelists of ancient Greece and Rome: the recovery of their texts; their reception, ancient and modern; their place in literary history and theory” (Tatum, p. xii). This volume certainly reflects that wide range, but not comprehensively; one should not consult the book hoping to find a survey of all the major approaches or introductory essays on the major novelists. There were obviously constraints from the outset: the editor had to select from the papers that had been presented and was limited by the fact that, as he points out in the preface, many of those papers were already promised elsewhere, about to be published, parts of larger projects, or prolegomena. It is nonetheless striking that nine of the essays (more than a third) are about Nachleben of one sort or another, and that four out of the five major Greek novelists have no single essay devoted to them (Longus gets three). Nor is there any essay on narratology, for example, although there were a significant number of papers at the conference on this topic. In other words, in terms of selection, this is truly a satura, perhaps fittingly. For whom is it designed? Specialists will find that there is frequently much more plot summary or even sheer sensuous quotation designed to expose innocents to the joys of the ancient novel (Winkler) than would be ideal. Those teaching the novel may find that there are not enough basic essays on the novels to give them a foothold in the field, and that most of the essays are not of a sort to hand on to students either because they are theoretically too complex or simply not central enough to the discipline. Scholars in other fields may enjoy some of the essays on the connections between the ancient novels and later works, but may experience some of the same problems just mentioned.

On the other hand, one could argue that there is something here for everyone. You should go to this collection prepared to be randomly amused, edified, and provoked, to learn fascinating bits of information—the illiterate General Makriyannis who, at the age of thirty-two learned to read and write in order to “record the truth” and went on to compose in 1829 “one of the glories of Modern Greek prose,” the Apomnimonevmata (in Peter Bien’s “The Reemergence of Greek Prose Fiction”); or the name of Alexander the Great in Arabic: Al-Iskandar (Faustina C.W. Doufikar-Aerts on the “Legacy of the Alexander Romance in Arab Writings”); or that Columbus, in his youth was thought to have sailed a hundred leagues beyond Thule, a land at the ends of the earth (James Romm, “Novels Beyond Thule”). There is much here, too, that makes one reflect on the nature of the novel as a genre, the conditions under which it has flourished throughout history and in different cultures, as well as the validity of those very comparisons and classifications.

Since the collection contains twenty-four essays and since Tatum himself gives admirable summaries of each in his Introduction, I will concentrate on a few issues and individual essays, beginning with the last segment: “How Antiquity Read Its Novels.” This section contains three careful, well-documented pieces which examine the readership of the novels from tangible evidence rather than via an extrapolation of the readership from our modern perception of the novels’ literary character, or from the model of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century. In other words, assumptions held by Perry and later reaffirmed by Hägg and others that the novels were read by women, the newly literate bourgeoisie, and other less serious and educated readers is challenged in favor of the view that the novels were read by the same group of educated elite that read Homer or Thucydides. Susan Stephens (“Who Read the Ancient Novels?”), pointing out, first of all, the high cost of papyrus (several days’ wages for a common laborer) and the low level of literacy, goes on to calculate the comparative number of papyrus fragments of novels vs. the number of fragments of canonical literature found in Greco-Roman Egypt. She concludes that the number of fragments of novels is actually quite scant and that this literature, far from being popular, may actually have been difficult to procure. Ewen Bowie (“The Readership of the Greek Novels in the Ancient World”), addressing the same issues, combats the assertion that there were no mentions of novels in antiquity, one of the central props of the view that novels were a genre that nobody wanted to admit to reading. Where, he asks, would we expect to find references to reading novels? They are too late to be mentioned in the ancient works of literary theory. Moreover, there are several references; Philostratus mentions Chariton, the Emperor Julian warns upright citizens to avoid reading a type of literature that must be the novel, and there are others. Bowie also discusses the sophistication of the literary texture and allusions in the Greek novel as an indication of a readership that is not composed of “women, juveniles, and the poor in spirit” (as Perry had claimed).

Ken Dowden’s article in this section, “The Roman Audience of The Golden Ass,” aims to mainstream Apuleius’ novel by suggesting that it was written in Rome and with a Roman audience in mind, rather than being “marginalized to North Africa.” Dowden begins by stressing the oddity of the work, with its extravagant style and its status as the only Latin romance and continues by discussing its physical marginality and the way that Apuleius has traditionally been associated with Carthage. He then argues for its Roman quality on the basis of references within the text (Christians, the Dea Syria, Sextus), its survival through manuscripts in Rome, and the probable dates of Apuleius’ “Roman Period.” He feels that it would be absurd to imagine that Apuleius was writing merely for an educated provincial audience without an eye to the people who mattered in this world, the educated Roman elite. Dowden’s arguments are convincing and come at the problem from many different angles. They situate the novel much more at the center of Latin literary history than has been traditional (which is something I do in my own work in a different way). Composition at Rome does not, however, explain away the oddities with which Dowden begins the article; the Golden Ass is still just as strange stylistically and just as much of an anomaly. Is it not possible that some of the strangeness comes from the outsider status of Apuleius as North African trying to assimilate himself—or not—to Roman society? His marginality as Greco-Roman-African is now appealing and I, for one, would like to see it supported (though only in responsible ways) rather than minimalized, as there are days when I think the only reason I still have a job is that I can claim that I work on an author from North Africa who concludes his work with an epiphany by an African female divinity. The values of the center and the margins have been realigned in the last five years, and now that we have put Apuleius sufficiently at the center, we may want him back at the edge.

These three essays are meticulous in their methodology and scrupulous in their efforts to correct the misconceptions of the past and also form the most cohesive section of the collection. Nonetheless, they, too, have their ideology. In 1989, it seemed expedient to prove that the novels were not “merely” a popular form of literature akin to Harlequin Romances, that they were serious works read by MEN not women; Romans, not North Africans; the elite, not middle class tradespeople. In the spirit of ICAN 2, the establishment of a readership no different from that of Homer or Thucydides brings the novels into the canonical fold (see Helen Elsom’s cynical comments in Pornography and Representation, in an essay that was part of ICAN 2 in an earlier form). In 1989, Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels was just coming out, before which time it was very difficult even to locate a decent translation of some of these novels. In the last five years, however, interest in and respect for the novel has grown dramatically, while a not unrelated interest in women’s studies and social history has also, rather slowly, entered our field. While I find these three articles impressive and persuasive, I also wonder how certain one can possibly be when dealing with questions of literacy and readership at this remove. How many people own copies of Shakespeare and the Bible, but read their borrowed copy of Stephen King? How many people who couldn’t read were read to, if even the Elder Pliny had slaves read to him? While we may reject the claim of female readership that has been made on the basis of the novels’ allegedly poor quality, we may still wonder at the fact that the romances have women—virtuous and triumphant ones, unlike Greek tragedy—so much at their centers. Elsom (above) and Egger (“Women and Marriage in the Greek Novels” in this volume) both, in different ways, read the treatment of females by the novelists as admonitory, affirming of male power and the institution of marriage as a way of limiting women’s legal possibilities. Their analyses require a female readership. This all seems to me very much still an open question. (I should mention that this same stance, the assumption of high quality in the novel, yields excellent results for Stefan Merkle’s article on Dictys, “Telling the True Story of the Trojan War.” Essentially, by believing in Dictys, Merkle shows that the account is sophisticated literarily and interestingly anti-epic.)

Another major theme of the collection is the nature or definition of the novel, the question of whether we can call these “novels” at all or include them under the same generic heading. The large percentage of essays on Nachleben seems designed partly to pursue this question of whether we can legitimately claim the novel for antiquity. If the earliest “modern” novelists looked back at Heliodorus, Chariton, Apuleius, and the like, does this not support an unbroken generic line connecting these works? In addition, some of these essays enlighten our investigation of the nature of the novel by useful comparison. Peter Bien, for example, in an essay that does not really address the ancient novel at all, shows that the conditions Ian Watt proposes as favorable to the rise of the novel in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries (increased literacy, a growing capitalist middle class, etc.) just do not work in the case of Greece—hence perhaps further cause to doubt that the model of Europe in the Eighteenth century is an appropriate one for antiquity, either. Margaret Doody, in “Heliodorus Rewritten: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Frances Burney’s Wanderer,” does not dwell on the question of whether there was any direct influence by the ancient novel, but discusses them side-by-side in ways that illuminate Heliodorus. One of the high points of the essay is the discussion of the oracle about Chariclea and why “sable brows”? Doody examines the ending in terms of a “becoming-black”, a vindication of her Ethiopian heritage. At the same time, the comparison with the ending of Frances Burney’s novel, which defies conventions of closure, reveals the artificiality of novel/romance endings. The other piece in this group that I found particularly memorable was David Rollo’s “From Apuleius’ Psyche to Chretien’s Erec et Enide,” in which parallel representations of gender are explored. While it is frequently noted that Apuleius is interested in gender roles, Rollo takes the symbolic reading of Cupid and Psyche to new extremes. Not only are the arrows phallic, but “the appropriation of metaphorized masculine power reaches its apogee at the moment at which Psyche’s lamp, the illuminating impulse for her liberating gestures, achieves its ejaculatory overflowing.” It is interesting to observe the different ways that Classicists and non-Classicists read a text within the essays in this volume.

While some of these essays on other sorts of novels indirectly address the issue of “What is a novel?”, Daniel Selden challenges the whole notion of a genre for the novel (in “Genre of Genre”). As he says, “The question is not simply whether there is a coherent corpus of prose fiction from antiquity, but why and under what historical conditions it becomes both possible and desirable to conceive of it as such.” He sees the main ingredient of what we think of as a “novel” as convincing characterization, the portrayal of the individual. He rejects this for the ancient novel, and offers instead a model whereby ideology is indeterminate in the face of two mutually resistant models of behavior, a double logic where two systems of morality are simultaneously upheld. These texts, by maintaining their double logic, defy the very possibility of genre. The essay is a healthy ingredient in a volume that assumes (as do most of us) a genre for this set of texts that may have none. On the other hand, he comes up with his own way of defining these works, one that may fit better with the reason that many of us approached them in the first place: their irreverence and refusal to conform to classical norms. On the whole, though, while the question of the nature of the novel and whether it is legitimately ancient was one of the central issues raised in Tatum’s Introduction, we are left more with a set of interesting pieces to the puzzle than with any solution—necessarily, of course, since this is a series of essays by different authors.

Finally, which essays will I read again? “Trimalchio’s Underworld” in which John Bodel examines the sepulchral nature of the visual imagery in the Cena strikes me as a classic. Winkler’s essay, “The Invention of Romance,” a characteristically iconoclastic unfootnoted critique of the romantic basis of the institution of marriage (today and in the ancient romances) in contrast to the archaic and classical perception of eros as impermanent, is a welcome inclusion although it is reprinted from Laetaberis 1982. It was imperative to include something by Winkler in this volume as his absence was a major presence at the conference, and this essay provides a fitting beginning to the book by asking whether this dreamlike unreality of the two ideal lovers that we so often criticize in the ancient novels isn’t actually the basis of modern society. Froma Zeitlin’s “Gardens of Desire in Longus’Daphnis and Chloe : Nature, Art, and Imitation” does real justice to the complex interaction of the natural and the artificial, word and image, and the erotics of physical and literary desire in ways that some other essays in the volume that dwell on the issue of realism in the novel fail to achieve. (That this is an abbreviated and revised version of her essay in Before Sexuality may actually seem an advantage to those who admire Froma Zeitlin but don’t have much time.) The essays by Romm and Konstan give some sense of the books that both of them subsequently published, and for someone who hasn’t read them are a major incentive to do so.

This book, in short, is in some ways—but for obvious reasons—a curious melange, but also has some real high points, and I am sure that we can all be glad that some of the essays that we heard or failed to hear five years ago July are finally available.