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When I originally set out to record all the books I'd read this year, I stated that this was not going to include my work-related reading. This book, however, I read during my usual bedtime leisure reading slot, and primarily for my own enjoyment - although with the obvious secondary motive of broadening my professional expertise as well - so it counts as sufficiently non-worky to be blogged.

I had read quite substantial chunks of it before - certainly books 1 and 2 (Lucius as a human in Thessaly / Hypata) and 4.28-6.24 (Cupid and Psyche), along with various other short passages that cast light on particular areas of Roman social history and 9.5-7 (The Wife and the Tub) which we translated once in a Latin class at Oxford. But the translated passages I'd read were all from a rather clunky Loeb edition, originally published in 1915, but even then based closely on W. Adlington's 1566 translation - the earliest into English. Seminal though it doubtless was in its time, it is full of thous, haths and yea, verilys, and hence not entirely conducive to light leisure reading.

Still, I very much enjoyed translating The Wife and the Tub a few years ago, and after our recent research seminar featuring The Man Who Spoke For Fifteen Minutes On The First Word Of Apuleius' Preface, I found myself inspired to read the whole thing properly, qua novel. Since I'm lucky enough to have a colleague whose specialist area actually is Apuleius, I asked her to recommend a decent, lively modern translation of it, and off I went.

Basic reaction? Bloody ace. I mean, forget Robert Harris or Lindsey Davis. There is no more 'authentic' Roman novel than this. (Well, not a complete one, anyway). It's also much more coherent and in keeping with modern expectations about what a novel should be like than I expected.

The plot centres around the character of Lucius, a well-to-do Greek businessman with an eye for a pretty girl and a fatal curiosity about witchcraft and magic. Travelling around Thessaly, a region rife with magic, he takes the opportunity to investigate further. But when he tries to steal a witch's magic lotion that can turn the user a bird, he accidentally takes the wrong jar, and turns into an ass instead. The rest of the book follows his various trials and tribulations, and the stories he hears along the way, until he is rescued from his plight by the goddess Isis, and becomes a devoted convert to her cult.

The impression I'd gathered from previous browsings was that the story of Lucius was a fairly thin pretext to insert a range of unrelated stories and anecdotes - a bit like the Canterbury Tales or the Thousand And One Nights. After all, Apuleius does break off from the main plot for two whole books (out of eleven in total) in the middle of the story to tell the tale of Cupid and Psyche. But in fact, the main story of Lucius is both fuller and more carefully crafted than I'd assumed, while the shorter stories that Apuleius inserts into it do relate quite closely to the main plot, exploring as they do the same themes of curiosity, sexuality, toil, suffering, and the human relationship with the divine.

That said, there are a few signs that Apuleius was more interested in writing more for the immediate moment than in plot consistency. For instance, Lucius' home-town changes from Corinth early in the book (2.12) to Madauros at the end (11.27), while Psyche's sisters contract 'splendid marriages' at the start of her story (4.32), but describe themselves as slaves to aging and decrepit husbands later on (5.9-10). The final conversion to the cult of Isis has also famously seemed odd and incongruous to modern readers, and I was no exception. What seems strange is that Lucius, still as gluttonous, lustful and curious as ever at the end of book 10, is rescued after a despairing prayer to Isis without having achieved any apparent character development of his own. He has apparently learnt nothing from the harsh treatment and regular death-threats he has suffered along the way - only grown tired of it and sought a way out.

I do of course recognise that the expectation that Lucius should 'earn' a release from his asinine condition through character development and repentance is a modern one, probably grounded mainly in Protestant (and Stoic, actually) ideals of self-betterment through hard work. Apuleius, on the other hand, regularly makes it clear that while Lucius may have brought his initial problems upon himself, his sufferings as an ass are meted out to him by 'blind Fortune' - i.e. they have no ultimate function or meaning, not even to help him learn the error of his ways, but are simply the result of chance. Thus the message is that the only route out of meaningless human suffering is through religious conversion - and that self-knowledge or morality for its own sake are not required except insofar as demanded by the goddess. Perfectly reasonable by the standards of the day, no doubt, especially if you share Apuleius' admiration for Isis. But I'm just saying that from a modern perspective, it seems creepily 'cultish' - and Apuleius' descriptions of the repeated and expensive initiations which Lucius is encouraged to undertake by Isis' priests do nothing to dispel that aura. I can't help but think that Cicero and Seneca would have disapproved.

All the same, this is more than compensated for by the humour of the stories (yes, I did LOL at several points), the vivid characters and the sheer joy of the incidental details of local politics, theatrical and gladiatorial shows, and everyday life revealed along the way. I came across several passages I hadn't known about before that will probably make it onto my lecture handouts in the future as better demonstraters of particular points than the ones I'm using at the moment, and quite regularly found myself thinking, "Ah, so that's how we know that!". Given what a wealth of amazing social information the novel has to offer, I'm now quite ashamed that I didn't make the effort to search out a decent modern translation and read it properly before - but better late than never, eh?

The edition I read - P.G. Walsh's 1994 translation for Oxford Classics - certainly was well-recommended by my colleague overall. It was ten times more readable than the Loeb I had, and also well-supported by an interesting Introduction and useful, but unobtrusive, notes. I did wish I'd kept the Loeb on my bedside table as well, though, so that I could check what lay behind some of the weirder translations. For example, "Just because he carries his years well, does he strike you as a perpetual Peter Pan?" (5.31), which Walsh doesn't explain, but I can tell you now having looked it up simply translates the Latin 'puer' (boy).

Meanwhile, the notes offered plenty of helpful explanations, and especially valuable cross-references to other ancient authors. But they did contain some oddities too. The one that struck me most was the explanation for the 'harbour of Augustus' (Apuleius' Augusti portus) at 11.26. This harbour, actually built by the emperor Claudius, regularly was called the portus Augusti in the ancient world - but only using the word 'Augustus' in the general sense of 'emperor', not to refer to the actual emperor called Augustus, who had nothing to do with it. Yet the note reads: "the harbour of Augustus: constructed close to Ostia, had been built under Augustus." Worse still, it goes on to give some specific page references to Russell Meiggs' epic and fundamental Roman Ostia in support of this - the very first of which includes the prominent heading 'The Claudian Harbour'. (You may be able to see for yourself here if you have the appropriate institutional access).

These are the nigglings of a professional, though - for any normal purposes, I'd whole-heartedly recommend this translation, and indeed the book. As for myself, I think my next move should be to seek out a decent rendering of what remains of Petronius.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
It was interesting to read your thoughts about this book. I read it a couple of years ago for a classical literature class, though I read a different translation.

When I read it, I was amazed at what a good read it was, just because the novel is not generally a genre associated with the ancient world. I too found book 11 to be a bit of a disconnect, but I greatly enjoyed the rest of it, though I felt Cupid and Psyche didn't really gel that well with the rest of the book. But then, that's something that shows up a fair bit in classical literature, the digression in a different style.

I've been meaning to re-read this for a while, actually. I found it refreshing and fun, and like you I found the glimpses into society particularly interesting.

I really enjoyed your review. Thanks for sharing.
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:46 pm (UTC)
*squishes your icon*

Yes, I have really changed my view of the ancient novel now. Maybe some of those weird Greek ones about people getting captured by pirates would even be worth reading! Who knows.

I know what you mean about Cupid and Psyche, too. I think that because I knew it was coming up, and had pre-accepted it as part of the structure of the novel, I was happy enough with it. But if a modern person reading the book from scratch encountered that tale without knowing about it, it would certainly stand out as strange. It's hard not to think to Apuleius, "Well, if you wanted to write a long and flowery mythological tale, fair enough, but why didn't you publish it separately rather than elbow it in here?" Still, as you say, it is in keeping with ancient literary style.

As for the social details - from a bizarrely fannish point of view, and especially with reference to modern novels set in the ancient world, I kept finding myself thinking of those details in terms of 'canon'. It had never occurred to me before, but there is actually quite a link between modern fans establishing a canon by watching a TV series or reading books and professional historians establishing an accepted interpretation of the past through literature. Hell, even the raging debates each group have about how to interpret their sources aren't too dissimilar!

It's also clearly a sign that I've spent too much time on the internet that I found the words 'OMG furries!' flashing vividly into my mind as I read the rather bizarre sex-scenes between Lucius-as-ass and his enthusiastic female fan (10.21-22)!
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)
You know, I had never considered those parallels with fandom. But you're totally right!

I've only read one other ancient novel, and that was Daphnis and Chloe. I liked Apuleius a lot better. It was much more fun.
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC)
Ah - maybe I will stick to the Roman ones, then.
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:51 pm (UTC)
I was thinking of teaching this in my Greco-Roman survey -- what do you think?
Jun. 5th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
I would really heartily recommend it as an introduction to the Roman world, actually. It covers so much - social life, religion, the literary tradition - and really is accessible and enjoyable. The particular edition I read would also work very nicely for students, and has the advantage (certainly over here) of being reasonably priced.
Jun. 5th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)
That sounds interesting. I spent a happy hour in Unsworths this afternoon (the St Pancras branch not the one in Foyles) on a mission to buy Prokopios for vonheath, whom you really ought to meet. And have come away with a couple of obscure little gems which make me happy :-) If you haven't been there it's worth a detour.

I have a copy of this and would highly recommend it. The translations are fluid and readable and the stories are for the most part very entertaining.
Jun. 5th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)
Ooh, that actually does look rather tempting - especially if (as one of the customer reviews suggests) it contains Lucian's True History, as that's another one I've always meant to read.

And I should indeed be very happy to meet Mr. vonheath.
Jun. 7th, 2007 06:55 am (UTC)
Ooh, I've been meaning to read that too ever since I did excerpts of it in Greek class last year.
Jun. 7th, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)
as soon as ive caught up with my reading, i shall endeavour to read this particular translation, thanks for recommending.
Jun. 7th, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC)
You're welcome - I hope you enjoy it.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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