BMCR 2004.02.15

The Ancient Novel and Beyond

, , , The ancient novel and beyond. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 1 online resource (xix, 489 pages).. ISBN 1417549580. $93.00.

This book (hereafter ANB) contains 30 of about 100 papers delivered at the International Conference on the Ancient Novel at the University of Groningen, July 2000 (ICAN 2000).

The ancient novel, once a marginalized field of Classical scholarship particularly in the case of its Greek versions, in the last 30 years has dramatically affirmed its status in the mainstream of ancient literature and indeed world literature. Scholars have allowed themselves the freedom to turn to these ancient romances with new eyes and to make imaginative comparisons of a kind that would have once been thought unthinkable, and that make contemporary criticism on the novel often refreshingly new and unexpected. ANB is certainly evidence of this kind of creative thinking. The authors of its articles break down geographical boundaries (the novel and eastern traditions, especially Arabic), temporal boundaries (the ancient novel and its Byzantine imitators, or its anticipation of the 18th century French epistolary novel), and above all, genre boundaries; indeed Maaike Zimmerman in her Preface (xiv) quotes with approval a statement by Simon Goldhill that, so far as the novel is concerned, ‘the issue of genre…”has had its day,”‘ meaning that to try to think of the ancient novels only in terms of their conformity to the conventions of a single genre restricts too much our ability to understand their original cultural and historical setting. ANB well demonstrates how other literary forms, including philosophy and religious literature, epic, lyric poetry, comedy, tragedy, and moving forward in a never-ending stream, continue to be sought out in comparison to cast some light on what the ancient novelists may have thought they were creating in their books. The status and function of ancient novels continues to be re-evaluated.

I will not touch on every one of the thirty contributions to ANB, but will attempt to show something of their variety. Thus Part I, “The Ancient Novel in Context,” opens with two articles (by Richard Stoneman and Faustina Doufikar-Aerts) that focus on fictionalized accounts of Alexander the Great in the Arabic tradition. In his absorbing study, Stoneman shows that Alexander “is an important figure in Arabic literature” in documents ranging from the Qur’an to romances and wisdom literature, where he sometimes becomes “a prophet of God” who attempts to convert the world to Islam. Ellen Finkelpearl (37-51) traces connections between the ancient Vita Aesopi and the narrator of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (both find their power of speech renewed by Isis, for example). Enter the fine arts: these chapters are followed by pieces by Froma Zeitlin and Niall Slater which center on art and visual representation in Chariton and Apuleius. Enter philosophy: Kathryn Morgan (who has been accidentally omitted from the ‘Notes on Contributors’ at the close of the book) writes on Plato’s Theatetus and fiction, balanced by Andrew Laird on Lucian’s parody of travel literature, the Verae Historiae, and its surprising function as a vehicle for introducing Platonic themes. Finally, papers by Kathryn Chew (129-141) and Stelios Panayotakis (143-157) both introduce a Christian comparison by showing the resemblance of death scenes in the novels to those in accounts of Christian martyrs.

Part II, “The Ancient Novel in Focus,” opens with good studies by Wytse Keulen on wordplay in Apuleius, and John Morgan on a narratological reading of Longus. When we read in Daphnis and Chloe 1.30 that “A swimming cow would never drown unless its hooves got soaked through and dropped off” (Christopher Gill translation), this is, according to Morgan, an example of the gullibility of the narrator, “who purveys this surreal nonsense in all seriousness.” While it is no doubt helpful to separate the narrator’s voice from that of the author, this passage sounds to me like an ironic joke by the narrator, not an example of his gullibility; the narrator is capable of wry humor elsewhere, e.g. at 3.9 where he humorously describes Daphnis kissing Chloe’s father in his sleep, dreaming that he is Chloe.

Other highlights of the second part of ANB include Tim Whitmarsh on irony in Achilles Tatius (191-205), whose Leucippe and Clitophron is one of the most interesting and underrated of Greek novels, perhaps the one which comes closest to Petronius and Apuleius in its quirkiness and narrative sophistication: Whitmarsh indeed calls Achilles’ technique of multiple perspectives “…complex and thrillingly inventive” (204; later in ANB 371-380, Ingela Nilsson discusses the “creative transformation” of Achilles’ novel in the 12th century Byzantine novel Husmine and Hysminias). Donald Lateiner’s “Tlepolemus the Spectral Spouse” (219-238) probes the function of appearances of murdered spouses in Apuleius and elsewhere; Stephen Harrison (239-254) analyzes the openings and closing of books in Apuleius’ novel with an eye to analogous features in epic, especially Homer and Vergil. A related point is picked up by Stephen Nimis (254-269) who discusses the “second prologue” phenomenon in the novel, where the author seems to “begin again” and charts a new direction; this point of Nimis’ might profitably be developed further, it seems to me, and compared with second beginnings in other works on a grand scale, not only in epic but in the historians such as Thucydides. Finally, Françoise Létoblon’s “La Lettre dans le Roman Grec…” (271-288) shows how letters — principally for official communication with officials, or love letters — function in the novel as a major device for advancing the plot.

Part III, the final section, is “Beyond the Ancient Novel.” Here we find more comparisons with other genres and with imitators from a later period, the Byzantine novelists, including more papers on the latter by Ruth Harder and Willem J. Aerts). Judith Hallett (329-343), comparing Petronius’ Satyricon with Latin love elegy, finds the aggressive female (e.g., Quartilla) and impotent male (Encolpius) in Petronius to be a parody and resistance against the picture of Propertius and the other elegists, where the male responds with more passion to the assertive female. The point can stand, but when we add the assertive females and passive males of Juvenal’s sixth satire to this mix and include some of Apuleius’ Milesian tales, I have to wonder if Petronius is not so much reacting to the elegists as presenting a picture of dominating women and male victims which is more or less a satiric stereotype.

Niklas Holzberg (393-397) introduces us to the literary efforts of Hana Sachs (1494-1576 CE), who wrote plays based on ancient prose narratives. Massimo Fusillo’s “From Petronius to Petrolio: Satyricon as a Model-Experimental Novel” (413-423) explores an attempt by the great director Pier Pasolini to produce a “philological metanovel” in imitation of Petronius; the novel was to have a deliberately unfinished character but when Pasolini was murdered, “a planned incompleteness [became] an actual incompleteness.” Like the movie “Fellini’s Satyricon” of Pasolini’s countryman Federico Fellini, which also experiments with fragmentation and incompleteness, Pasolini’s novel is another enthusiastic but flawed attempt by a modern Italian cinematic genius to offer a tribute to the great and problematic novelistic fragment of Petronius.

One of the more substantive contributions to ANB is Danielle van Mal-Maeder’s “La Mise en Scène Déclamatoire chez les Romanciers Latins” (345-355) which examines the use of and attitudes toward declamation in Petronius and Apuleius. The Satyricon as we have it opens with a passionate denunciation by Encolpius of the vacuity and irrelevance of declamatory exercises in schools ( Sat. 1.2-3), but when we later find a mockery of declamation coming from the comic butt Trimalchio, who is himself removed from and insensitive to the problems of the poor ( Sat. 48.4-6), we may rightly wonder, as Mal-Maeder asks, which, if either, of these passages represents Petronius’ own views. The author has retreated behind his masks. She further shows how typical topics of controversiae lie behind many scenes in the two Latin novels.

The last piece in this book, by Gareth Schmeling, “Myths of Person and Place: The Search for a Model for the Ancient Greek Novel,” in a happy comparison takes us far afield to the “Myth of the Southern Belle” in the U.S. Southern novel, of which Gone with the Wind is a late and famous example. The parallels are many and cast light on both genres: “[T]he Belle…is the unofficial queen or symbol of Syracuse or of the plantation in the South. As long as Callirhoe is safe in Syracuse, or the Southern Belle virginal in her plantation, the myth of place is in equilibrium” (430).

Though the Preface to ANB assures us that “[t]he papers have all been thoroughly revised and rewritten by the authors for this book (xi),” their original status sometimes shows through, as conference papers which represent only a preliminary look at an idea rather than a thorough study; one might compare my comments above about Stephen Nimis’ paper with what Froma Zeitlin, 82 and Erkki Sironen, 298, say about the need for further collection of data on their topics. Yet ANB is valuable partly for this reason, that it represents experimentation in a fertile field and suggests new directions for research.