BMCR 2020.08.34

Inventing the novel: Bakhtin and Petronius face to face

, Inventing the novel: Bakhtin and Petronius face to face. Classics in theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. xvi, 225 p.. ISBN9780198841265 $85.00.


This volume is marked by a lungo studio e grande amore towards the two authors mentioned in the title. and reflects “an engagement with Bakhtin and Petronius lasting decades” (xv). Branham has edited or authored a number of indispensable books on Bakhtin and on Petronius that, like this one, reassess Bakhtin’s significance and shortcomings in, among other things, his account of ancient narrative, genre development and comical desacralization. This book is also a sustained reflection not only on what Bakhtin said, but on how it is relevant today. It will be a worthy sibling to other groundbreaking studies such as M. Holquist Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction, 1990; D. Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres, 1994; S. Lalanne, Une éducation grecque: Rites de passage et construction des genres dans le roman grec ancien (2006); K. de Temmerman, Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel, 2014; or T. Whitmarsh, Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel: Returning Romance, 2015.

Branham explains that his book “was conceived not as a collection of essays on Bakhtin and ancient literature but as an argument in four stages, each of which is premised on what precedes it” (xv). He adds in a note: “This is why I have kept the early stages of the argument (Chaps. 1-3) largely as originally written.” These chapters were originally published in 1995, 1999 (chapter 1), 2002 and 2003. In this context, repetitions are unavoidable, but some of them can be burdensome, e.g. “Bakhtin would have agreed with the Formalist Iurii Tynianov that ‘it is only in the context of changing generic paradigms that a single genre’s function can be grasped’” (42). And in a footnote: “As characterized by Fowler (1982) 235”. Then again: “But as the Formalist Iurii Tynianov points out, ‘it is only in the context of changing generic paradigms that a single genre’s function can be grasped’” (54). And in a footnote: “Fowler (1982) 235”. And again: “As Tynianov has taught us, ‘it is only in the context of changing generic paradigms that a single genre’s function can be grasped’” (88). And in a footnote: “As paraphrased by Fowler (1982) 235”.

Branham’s engagement both with literary theory and philosophy is clear from the outset. In this, he is not alone: “Bakhtin’s thought has two sides: if, as a phenomenologist, he is a philosopher of consciousness, as a student of the novel he is a philosopher of the history of consciousness” (xv). This familiarity with Bakhtin – and this community of interests and methodology – pervade the book.

Its intended readership seems to be both “students of fiction” and “classicists” (39). In his zeal to cater to both, the author on occasion adds explanations that might seem superfluous. On p. 15, for example, he describes who the god Janus is: “I deliberately invoke Janus here, the Roman god of doorways, gates, and thresholds, of spatial and temporal boundaries (as in January)”. On the other hand, Branham does not explain features of Bakhtin’s analysis which will certainly confuse and mislead “students of fiction” with no classics. For instance, in his Proppian morphology of the Greek romance, where he presents a “typical composite schema” of the plot, Bakhtin states that “There is a boy and a girl of marriageable age. Their lineage is unknown, mysterious (but not always: there is, for example, no such instance in Tatius). […] They are […] exceptionally chaste […] the marriage cannot take place straightway.” At least in a footnote, it would be expedient to warn the reader that in Longus novel the boy and girl are not of marriageable age when the novel begins, but younger; that the lineage is not unknown or mysterious in Chariton and Xenophon, not only in Tatius (indeed, only in two of the five “big” extant romances it is); that in the novels of Chariton and Xenophon they are married straightaway, and separated only afterwards; that Clitophon says to Leucippe in Tatius’romance: “How long will we stop at mere kisses, dearest? […] let us add erotic grace notes” long before they marry, that Callirhoe marries a second husband when Chaereas is presumed dead in Chariton’s romance, that Daphnis learns effective love-making from a town woman, Lycaenion, married to someone else, etc. In short, these characters, while more chaste than Encolpius, are less chaste than many others in ancient literature, and their description as “exceptionally chaste” calls for some explanation when addressing “students of fiction”. Bakhtin may “advance as typical the extreme to which genres aspire”, but an interpretative work such as Branham’s would do its readers a favor if it had defined the meanders and boundaries of Bakhtin’s methodology, often not deductive or inductive but abductive in Peirce’s sense: a methodology which takes one or two individual works as representative of an entire genre.

The book is divided into a short Prologue, an Introduction, four chapters, an Epilogue, four short appendices, a bibliography and an index. “The Introduction […] is primarily devoted to giving a selective overview of Bakhtin’s life and groundbreaking theoretical work in the 1920s […]” (xv). Indeed this chapter is devoted to Bakhtin’s early philosophical-aesthetical endeavors and to provide a short biographical account of the movements, both spatial and theoretical, of Bakhtin. It is refreshing to see Branham engage in a lively discussion with Bakhtin’s early production. His enthusiasm is evident at all points: “Whatever classicists may finally conclude about the virtue of Bakhtin’s methods or their results, his work constitutes a crucial moment in the modern reception of the classical past, undoubtedly the most important since Nietzsche” (13). Key concepts like polyphony (the multiplicity of voices within a narrative work, each of them embodying a distinct world) or carnivalism (the mixture of serious and comical which, in Bakhtin’s words, “assisted in the destruction of all barriers between genres, between self-enclosed systems of thought, between various styles” [91]), are discussed and used throughout.

“Chapter 1 sketches Bakhtin’s macroscopic view of literary history […] as an agonistic dialogue of genres” (xv) and concludes with Bakhtin’s claim “that the novel originates as a new way of evaluating time” (xv-xvi). It is also a close reading, and a contextualization, of Bakhtin’s seminal essay “Epic and Novel” (1941). Branham states that the ancient novel closest to what Bakhtin calls a “novel” is the Satyrica. Differences between epic and novel are underlined by Bakhtin. So for instance “[i]n epic […] the poet-narrator shares with all his characters, mortal and immortal, a single language and ideology given by tradition. […] Thus Achilles and Hector speak the same language in a way in which Eumolpus and Trimalchio do not. […] The swineherd Eumaios’s speech is stylistically continuous with that of the gods and heroes” (43). Here as elsewhere, Branham is discussing Bakhtin, not evaluating him. And yet a short account about how modern scholarship no longer claims that Homeric characters speak all in the same way would be welcome, especially since the revision of “dieses Dogma der epischen Objektivität” has implications for the temporal structure of the works (see A. Rengakos, “Zeit und Gleichzeitigkeit in den homerischen Epen”, Antike und Abendland 41 [1995] 1-33, here 31).

“Chapter 2 explores […] this claim [sc. ‘that the novel originates as a new way of evaluating time’] as they emerge in Bakhtin’s theory of chronotopes […]” (xvi). This is perhaps the chapter to which the student of Bakhtin (and of narratology) would be firstly drawn. The text underpinning it is Bakhtin’s “Form of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” (1937-8). The crucial genres tackled by Branham are the Greek romances and the Roman novels; other works studied by Bakhtin are left out or treated only very briefly. Branham is a firm defender of Bakhtin and, in my opinion, he succeeds at rejecting or, at least, at putting in perspective the contentions of his critics. So for instance S. Lalanne has famously argued in her 2006 book (quoted above) that Bakhtin is wrong when stating that characters of the Greek romance do not change: they undergo a “rite of passage”. While not denying that there is some kind of change, Branham makes the crucial point (quoting D. Konstan): “Greek romance ‘does not involve a progress in the character of the male protagonists or other figures’ of a kind that has inspired modern romance since Samuel Richardson’s Pamela” (68). This is essential, I am convinced: Bakhtin was not interested in genres in themselves as much as in their dialectic change. Many of Bakhtin’s claims about the Greek romance and the Roman novel may prove exaggerated or too absolute, but they are nevertheless true in the larger picture. And this is where Branham hits the mark, by interpreting Bakhtin in the framework of his entire enterprise, not only as an historian of the ancient novel.

“Chapter 3 assesses Bakhtin’s poetics of genre as exemplified by his heterodox account of something called Menippean satire as constituting a crucial stage in the ancient history of the modern novel” (xvi). In fact, this chapter discusses the position of “what can be fairly called the first novel” (the Satyrica) in its relation to genre. Here, Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky (1923), and especially the revised version of 1963, is the basic underlying theoretical text. Here Branham is extremely critical of Bakhtin, probably for the first time in the book. “The problem with Bakhtin’s account is not that it is dialogical but that it is not dialogical enough. In attempting to account for the anomalous category of the novel, a genre that finds no place in traditional poetics going back to Aristotle, he creates another anomalous category–the carnivalesque–which shares certain salient features with the explanandum, the novel” (93). Indeed, Petronius (“arguably the best example of carnivalesque fiction in antiquity”, 91) found his model in the Menippean satire and in the Greek romance (101), yet this, as Branham notes, does not explain the very peculiar place of his novel in the field of ancient narrative. Crucial to this is humor as a narrative motor in Petronius (103), and specifically carnivalesque humor, which is not any kind of comicality but only hierarchy-breaking comicality; this goes a long way towards explaining why Aristophanes is of no concern to Bakhtin.

“Chapter 4 addresses the prosaics of the novel, using Petronius to explore Bakhtin’s account of how novelists […] orchestrate the babble of incompatible voices expressive of an era into ‘a microcosm of heteroglossia’ […]” (xvi). Here Branham expands the Platonic model: “The formal history of the novel is the story of how the relations between mimēsis[direct speech] and diēgēsis [authorial narration] were repeatedly altered to permit more varied and subtle ways of representing the consciousness of others, of characters, through such devices as free indirect discourse, interior monologue, and narrative focalized through a character’s consciousness, all of which typically involve (what Bakhtin has taught us to recognize as) ‘double-voiced’ discourse” (106). Indeed, “[w]hat Petronius has done would be the equivalent of replacing the authorial narrator, Homer, with a character-narrator, something not done in epic or in any example of fiction known to us. This was a radical innovation and produced ‘a quantum leap’ in the realism and immediacy of the entire narrative. Even the diēgēsis (narrative) is now an act of mimēsis […].” (107) This, in turn, favors polyglossia and allows for a more nuanced opposition of worldviews–one which would be unthinkable in more unitary works, like those of classical epic, or in more idealized compositions, like the Greek romance.

In this chapter, I have particularly relished Branham’s astute criticism of Auerbach’s analysis of Petronius in Mimesis: “if Auerbach can see only an absence of stylization in Hermeros’s pitch-perfect skaz–hitherto unknown in ancient literature–it is because ‘there is absolutely nothing’ in it ‘for a stylistics based on poetic criteria of excellence to get a grip on’ [quotation from D. Lodge]’. […] The confusion at the heart of Auerbach’s assessment of Petronius’s realism–oscillating as it does between the apparently artless ‘objectivity’ of its effects and the mysterious ‘subjectivity’ of its means–is a high tribute to the Arbiter’s art” (131).

I did not find many typos (I quote only one: “komodie” instead of “Komödie”, 96, n. 46), but faulty phrasing occurs now and then: “St. Petersburg, founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, was called Petrograd between 1914 and 1924 and since 1991 has been officially known as Leningrad” (12, n. 52) (read “until 1991”). “Jakobson […] reduces the addressee’s role to the ‘connotative’ function” (35) (read “conative”); note that the addressee, even in Jakobson’s model, has a more complex role.

I have missed some more general works on time in narrative, like P. Ricoeur’s Temps et récit (1983-5) or M. Sternberg’s Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (1993), and at least a word on how classical narratology appropriates or confronts Bakhtin’s model.

This volume is much more than a dynamic reassessment of Bakhtin’s explicit and implicit references to Petronius. It is a philosophical and literary-theoretical book in its own right, which will shed light not only on Bakhtinian and Petronian studies but also on the history of the novel, interspersed with brilliant close-readings and amusing and cunning reflections. May the reader enjoy its elegant and concise exposition as much as I did.