BMCR 2005.07.48

Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature. Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative. Volume One. Mnemosyne Supplement 257

, , , Narrators, narratees, and narratives in ancient Greek literature. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 257. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (xvii, 583 pages).. ISBN 143370613X. €149.00.

Nobody other than a reviewer would have much cause to read this book from one end to the other, which makes it hard to be evaluate how valuable it will be in ordinary use. We have a set of essays about narrators and narratees, some unexciting but useful to students of the particular author at hand, others enthralling. Some ancient authors are narratologically more interesting than others. Some contributors define the task more narrowly than others. Just to catalogue the characteristics of a particular narrative, such as overt/covert narrator or narratee, primary and secondary levels, is not without value, but it can become a tedious exercise, especially when the reader trudges through a long volume. Some parts of the book might have been presented graphically, as charts. So the reviewer is grateful to the ancient authors who are peculiar and the contributors who do not understand their task as entirely confined to the formal properties of their narratives, but try to relate these properties to other questions. The most fun is perhaps Lowe’s chapter on Lycophron, an author as delightful to read about as he is miserable to try to read. Not knowing the secondary literature on all these authors, I can only suspect that often specialists are likely already to know much of what I found new and not obvious, but I learned the most from and most enjoyed Cuypers on Apollonius, Bowie on Aristophanes (I had never considered how much the comedies rely on diffuse narrative), Rood on Polybius, K. Morgan on Plato, Pelling on Plutarch and his narratees, Whitmarsh on Philostratus, J. Morgan on Longus. I did not learn much from the other drama papers or from those on Homer and Hesiod, but those who not specialists on these authors certainly would. Harder on Callimachus is so crammed with observations that it feels like an abstract of a book in itself. An author as varied as Callimachus really needs more room, and maybe, since genre turns out to be not as determining as we might expect, Xenophon could have survived with fewer than three chapters. He seems most interesting narratologically as a historian; never having thought about his attribution of the Anabasis to Themistogenes of Syracuse, from now on it will be one of those questions that puzzles me without end (Gray’s discussion on 130-32 is all very sane and helpful but somehow does not quite solve the problem). One student at Michigan was thrilled to see a narratological treatment of Cassius Dio. So there is something for everyone.

This volume announces itself as the first in a projected series, an alternative history of Greek literature as the history of narrative. A following volume will deal with time, and future volumes may consider focalization, characterization, and so on. I am doubtful that this separate treatment of the aspects of narrative is the best way to approach the subject. Narratological analysis is usually most fruitful when its different aspects are integrated with each other and with other interpretive concerns.

“History,” in any case, is not quite the right term, as the final epilogue points out (552-53), since there is no story. While we can see a few developments — the interest in experimentation with narrative levels, more complexity in the interactions between primary and secondary narrators — Homer already shows much of the repertory. Occasionally there are bits of history within the generic sections, particularly those written by one person. Morgan provides something like a history for the novel. Edwards gives something close to a history of narrative in the orators, but it may frustrate some readers when he suggests that Demosthenes learned his technique for dividing narratives into two or more sections from Isaeus, since there is no discussion of Isaeus, who is not as familiar as he deserves to be, or when E. favorably contrasts Demosthenes 54 to Lysias 3, after exemplifying Lysias’ technique through Lysias 1. While I can understand that the editors would have wished to be consistent in organizing the book around authors, turning these very short chapters into a real, unified history of narrative in the Attic orators would have made the treatment tighter.

Insofar as there is a historical side, it would have been helpful if the editors had provided an index of cross-references to authors outside their own chapters. The influence of Herodotus on later narrative is striking (as de Jong and Nünlist note on 546), but there is no easy way to track it. (I suggest that they simply assemble such an index — a quick task — and post it on the web.)

Again, although the book is organized by genre, the epilogue acknowledges that “there is no direct correlation between genre and type of narrator” (545). The conclusions about genre (546) are in fact banal; I cannot decide whether this is because genre is really less important than it might seem, or because the narratological categories being applied are not well-suited to appreciating what genre does. Perhaps the most interesting single conclusion is a negative: external primary narrators, though some intervene, do not self-dramatize or “develop a full-fledged personality.” Presumably this means that no Greek external narrator goes on about himself like the narrator of Tom Jones, but more discussion would be welcome: Herodotus is a pretty strong personality. Are his allusions to his own activity different in kind from those of Fielding, or only in degree? (Or am I misunderstanding the implicit point of contrast?)

There are signs of theoretical strain. In the introduction, de Jong insists that the “implied author” is an unnecessary concept for narratology, which can work perfectly well with the distinction between narrator and the historical author. Yet J. Morgan insists on the implied author, and rightly, since M. argues that in both Achilles Tatius and Longus the primary narrator is in some ways unreliable. Often, a primary narrator is for practical purposes identical with the implied author, so that discussion of the narrator suffices. But where the primary narrator is unreliable, the reader must construct a hypothetical source of accurate meaning, and I suspect that most of us would prefer not to identify that construct with the historical author, since we can watch ourselves as readers in the act of creating it.

The volume also introduces a distinction I do not fully understand between drama, which is defined as outside the subject of narratology (the chapters on drama concern embedded narrative), and dialogic genres which are said to have suppressed primary narrators. This seems to be a way of dealing with the reality that Plato, for example, composes dialogues with and without primary narrators that do not seem essentially very different, or that Callimachus has mimetic and non-mimetic hymns. Yet why not admit that the boundaries are to some extent artificial, and that what we want to treat as “narrative” may depend on the purposes and scope of the inquiry at hand? Morgan makes a real case that the Platonic dialogue, whether or not it has a frame, demands to be read within the context of discipleship and transmission. Still, at a certain point these decisions begin to seem forced. What Hunter rightly says about bucolic, that we never have the sense of unmediated access to rural reality and so are aware of an authorial presence, is surely just as true of tragedy. And I am not at all sure how it improves our understanding of the Works and Days to call it “pseudo-diegetic,” that is, to imagine a suppressed framing narrative, as Nünlist argues we should. Is most of elegy also then narrative, or, if not, why not? What difference does it make that the frame is suppressed? It begins to seem as if narratological dogma is requiring energy to police boundaries, energy that could be better spent in other ways.

More than one chapter might have benefited from P. Rabinowitz’ distinction between the “narrative audience” and the “authorial audience,” which provides a way of discussing texts that fictionalize primary external narratees, pretending that the narratees have information they do not, or overtly addressing one audience while covertly speaking to another.1

Zeus could not have pleased everyone in selecting the authors to be covered in such a book. Still, it is odd to have the epinicia of Pindar and Bacchylides and no attention to Stesichorus, who was surely important in the history of Greek narrative. Maybe not enough survives in good enough condition to “make possible a definition of rules,” but the absence is bothersome. Medical narrative might have been interesting. Christian and Jewish literature are entirely absent, despite the wealth of recent narratologically-informed studies of the Gospels, and so is any interest in the relations between Greek and contemporary non-Greek narrative (including Latin). I would have liked to see Alciphron or another epistolary work, since these raise interesting questions about the primary narrator: who assembled these letters? Why? In general, since completeness is not possible, I would have preferred longer discussions of fewer texts, but others will doubtless be grateful that something I would have left out is here.

There is, of course, abundant room for disagreement with the individual chapters. On 384 Gray says that “to import this [sc. the later life of Chrysilla as described by Andocides] into the work and make her portrayal ironic is narratologically indefensible.” I can see that the resulting irony would make the work as a whole almost incomprehensible, but I do not see how it is narratologically indefensible, and I am more troubled by the irony the dialogue has Socrates direct at the entire aristocratic way of life. His criticism seems to me devastating, and I do not know how to explain it. I have two serious disagreements with Pfeijffer on Pindar. One is the claim, for which he does not argue, that the pseudo-spontaneity of the epinician is a device for concealing the commercial relationship between poet and victor. Yet there are occasions of pseudo-spontaneity where this is not an issue, and there is no essential connection between the two: friendship and the obligation to praise merit could have been adapted to a rhetorical pose that stressed the time and care the poet devoted to his composition. My other disagreement is closely linked to the topic of the book. Pfeijffer exaggerates the general difficulties of identifying boundaries between narrative and the rest of the ode, or between implicitly quoted speech and the poet’s voice, because he seems to assume that only explicit formal criteria can help. When a myth is introduced by a relative clause, for example, although there is no formal marker of the shift to mythic narrative, the audience surely was familiar enough with this structure, which was already conventional, that nobody would be surprised if a relative pronoun attached to the name of a mythic character introduced a myth. Pfeijffer distinguishes the common markers of pastness from markers of narrative, but pragmatically this is surely a distinction without a difference. The audience would know that in such a context ποτέ was a strong indicator that a myth was underway. There are, of course, places where the distinctions are blurred. But it is not possible that Apollo speaks Bacchylides 3.85. Pfeijffer says “the tone of 85-92 is just as oracular as 78-84.” But there is nothing “oracular” about 78-84; they are transparent. The shift to the “oracular” is also a shift from the kind of thing a friendly god says to a mortal to the kind of thing an epinician poet says in his grandest manner and a god does not.

There are a few minor problems. In the Homer chapter, de Jong has a catalogue of devices that bring the narratee into the text (22-23). In the history section, various chapters take the workings of these devices for granted without referring back to the earlier chapter. Without the discussion, these will not be clear to everyone, and although they are in the index and are summarized in the epilogue, they are grouped under “Narratorial devices,” where a reader may not know to look. Only one of the editors is a native speaker of English, and several of the authors are not. It is not a criticism of the contributors to say that a native speaker should have read the volume carefully. The English is often flat, sometimes unidiomatic or slightly wrong, and (only occasionally but unnecessarily) just bad. The translation of Bacchylides on p. 231 is gibberish: “Joy is the gold”; “For whom has success / silence does not bring adornment.”

None of the papers in this volume is without merit. Although I doubt that the project is the ideal way to organize the field or to use the talents of everyone involved, we should be glad to have it.


1. P. Rabinowitz, Before Reading (Ithaca: Cornell, 1987).