How do Babylonians boil eggs?

Peter Parsons

  • Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments edited by Susan Stephens and John Winkler
    Princeton, 541 pp, £48.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 691 06941 7

The Greeks themselves had no word for their last and most lasting literary invention. ‘Extended prose fiction’ would describe it; ‘novel’ or ‘romance’ would characterise it. Modern critics used to opt for ‘romance’, with its implication of purple sentiment out in the Mills-and-Boondocks of literature. Nowadays, we hear more about the Greek Novel, with all that implies for a place in the Great Tradition.

The novels have led a chequered life. Like all classical literature, they underwent the practical selectivity of hand-copying and changing taste. Homer, the great school classic, survived the Middle Ages intact; of the novels, most disappeared. The five that remained at the Renaissance found an enthusiastic audience. Heliodoros’ Ethiopian Story gave Cervantes the model for a last bestseller; Racine learned the Greek text by heart, when his puritan preceptors confiscated his copy. Even in the Romantic dawn, when Dresden shepherdesses and Chinese milking parlours had lost their lustre, Goethe still saw Daphnis and Chloe as a Poussin in words, ‘a mountain-peak of Intelligence, Art and Taste’. But minds were closing. The new historicism of the 19th century looked back to Greek critics of Greek literature, who had made a point of distinguishing carefully between the classical and the post-classical. The novels, a product of the Roman period, fell short in date as in seriousness of mind; and it has taken the recent revival of the higher frivolity to bring them back into fashion.

The five complete survivors, and their Latin cousin, Apollonius King of Tyre, paint with the same brush; their colourful conventions are thrown into relief by the two Roman geniuses who parody and transcend them, Petronius and Apuleius. (New translations of the whole Greek corpus now come in a bumper volume, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by Bryan Reardon.) This is teen-romance in its salad days. Fate separates young lovers; they travel through hostile climes, endure trials of life and virtue, come together and live happily ever after. The bad end badly, and the virgin end virgin (except that gentlemen may lapse occasionally, for experience or from a willingness to oblige). Pirates and brigands, shipwreck and human sacrifice cannot derail the classical vocabulary and the mellifluous style; true love and Hellenic heroism ignore economics (no bourgeois vulgarity here, no setting your cap at a single man in possession of a good fortune). The Greeks, now dispersed through the eastern provinces, felt the agoraphobia of a colonial class and the humiliation of Roman rule; they responded by constructing a cultural cocoon – the counter-empire of their own language and literature. So, in the escapist world of the novel, all the hazards of the foreign can be survived. Nobly literate Greeks and friendly or unfriendly Orientals populate these spaces; the Romans, who ran the show, rarely intrude.

There was once a lot more to the genre: lost works, which we know only from summaries and quotations, and from the snippets of ancient papyrus which survive in the rubbish dumps of Greek Egypt. In this handsome new volume, Susan Stephens and the late Jack Winkler have collected the bits and pieces, The book combines a scientific reconstruction of texts and contexts with translations and literary comment: a fiddly enterprise, but carried out with such tact and gusto that the whole thing is a pleasure to read.

The snippets present formidable technical problems. The papyri reveal their dustbin origins, torn, stained and nibbled by worms. Their text has no capital letters and no word-divisions: its desultory punctuation provides no question marks and no inverted commas. Consider this: ‘forthoughsh[c. 9 letters lost]lingwhilesh[c. 10]lipswithawan[c. 7]thoughiforgiv[c. 9]kingyourvowstoh[c. 5]iexpectyoutokeep[c. 4]vowstomethefriar[c. 5]nedtheembracewhic[c. 4]sethisbloodonfiret[c. 2]luxuriousandunboun’. This sensuality must originally have made sense; the editor has to restore it within the limits of space and grammar and generic expectation. What has the friar to do with lips and luxury? ‘The friar [frow]ned’? ‘The friar [spur]ned the embrace’? Connoisseurs of the Gothic won’t have much difficulty here. (‘“For though,” she added smiling, while she sealed his lips with a wanton kiss, “though I forgive your breaking your vows to Heaven, I expect you to keep your vows to me.” The friar returned the embrace, which had set his blood on fire. The luxurious and unbounded excesses of the former night were renewed.’ The Monk, Chapter 6.) But the Greek texts move in more alien contexts. Different reconstructions of the same papyrus often look very different (an extra ‘not’ may be decisive); often one reconstruction drifts into orthodoxy, and the reader will find it hard to distinguish between the original timber and the editorial caulking, between the basic Venus and the plaster arms. Winkler and Stephens have thought everything through anew; it’s a great merit of their collection that it has stripped off a load of speculative barnacles.

Such texts are literally constructs, and literally open-ended. The scraps give us a glimpse, and leave us to the pleasures of speculation. What kind of story figured a character called Grape, who was found in a vineyard and reared by King Woody? What magician can pull down the moon, stop the sun and walk on water, yet has no magic against falling in love? How to continue: ‘the apparition signalled me to thrust home and seemed to urge me on. So, beaming and cheerful, as if killing an enemy, I cut my own throat. When I fell down and died, I recognised the apparition. It was Severis and —’? Other fragments, however, are long enough to give a real sample of long since vanished fictions. The genre, as it turns out, expanded in several directions: towards Oriental colour, into Grand Guignol, even as far as the picaresque.

At the nicer end of the market, we find Metiochos and Parthenope discussing the nature of Love; their parents are part of Greek history, the children simply play out the civilised drama of pure passion. With high success: the story migrates later into Coptic prose, as the Martyrdom of St Bartanuba, and into Persian verse, as The Romance of Wamiq and ‘Adhra’. Love even conquers conquerors: in Ninos and Sesonchosis, famous Oriental warriors (the predecessors of Alexander the Great) come to grips with empire and embarrassment. Ninos, at 17, commands a hundred and fifty elephants; he rules Assyria and far beyond. He could have glutted himself with sensual enjoyment. Yet he has returned uncorrupted. ‘Now, I suffer defeat – by Eros and my age ... Your daughter has taken me prisoner: how long must I deny my capture?’ In Kalligone, we move to the Crimea; another undaunted heroine attempts suicide over a lost lover – and faces as an equal the Queen of the Amazons. Such foreign fictions may be adorned with foreign facts, provided they exemplify the unthreatening quaintness of the Other. How do camels sit? They sit on their chests. How do Babylonians boil eggs? They whirl them round their heads in a sling.

At the other extreme, Phoenician Story offers guts and villainy. ‘Meanwhile another man, who was naked, walked by, wearing a crimson loin-cloth; throwing the boy’s body on its back he cut it up, and tore out its heart, and placed this upon the fire.’ A group of initiates swear loyalty on slices of the heart; our hero (it seems) avoids eating his share, as being underdone. Then the others devote themselves to drink and sex and sleep; at midnight some of them dress up in black, with blackened faces, some in white, with whitened faces, and sally forth. Some scholars have read this scene as serious ritual; others as a typological orgie de brigands with satanic trimmings. The cynics are surely right. In the black and white brigade, crooks disguise themselves as ghouls. The same tactic turns up in The Golden Ass; and more recently in Bucharest, where (Reuter reported in 1992) police ‘arrested three teenagers who donned white bedsheets to pose as ghosts in a cemetery and scared passing drunks into parting with their money’. Low life imitates low literature.

Beyond violence, there are even hints of comedy. Tinuphis is a magus, imprisoned and soon to be executed; a single brick will save him. Iolaos’ friend gets initiated as a eunuch priest, and teaches him all their secrets; no doubt this hero (it is a heroic name) will pose as a eunuch to get access to his girlfriend (a plot line that passes down through Terence to The Country Wife). These are stories of cunning tricks and marginal people; even formally, they stand at the margin, for they mix plain prose with sub-literary verse. On both counts, they are cousins to the Satyricon. Perhaps Petronius invented the picaresque novel, and the Greeks followed; more likely the Greeks began burlesquing their own novels, and it was Petronius who raised the whole thing to classic status.

The papyrus fragments provide scenes without plots. But for two novels, we have plots without scenes. They survived long enough to be read by Photios, a Byzantine scholar of the ninth century. In some interval of his public life (he was twice Patriarch of Constantinople, and twice deposed, events which precipitated the final schism between Constantinople and Rome), he summarised his reading: 280 books, serious, even devout, for the most part, but including three novels. In Achilles Tatius (whose work survives intact) he commended the style and regretted the immorality. Of lamblichos and Antonius Diogenes he recorded a detailed scenario which suggests close reading and extraordinary recall.

Iamblichos (Babylonian Story) provided a feast of the bizarre. Winkler and Stephens summarise: ‘The hero and heroine roam through the Near East pursued by two eunuchs whose noses and ears have been cut off. They encounter bees with poisoned honey, a lesbian princess of Egypt, a cannibalistic brigand, look-alike brothers named Tigris and Euphrates who happen to be exact doubles for the hero, and a rather dignified farmer’s daughter whom the heroine forces to sleep with an executioner who is really a priest of Aphrodite who helps his son Euphrates break jail by dressing in the farmer’s daughter’s clothes ... ’ Beyond the bizarre stands Antonius Diogenes, with a five-hundred-page blockbuster of Post-Modern artifice. Its very title, Incredible Things beyond Thule, is a provocation; its format – in 24 books – challenges the Odyssey. It presents itself as a fiction, but a fiction based on the best authorities; the fiction presents itself, in true Borgesian fashion, as the transcript of a document; the document presents itself as recording oral reports of oral reports in a regressive hierarchy which at its densest would require seven sets of inverted commas. In these reports, the hero and heroine traverse the known world: it is a stationary road movie, an epic of flash-back. The document claims to be written on wooden tablets – which leaves the reader to wonder how large a forest would be needed to accommodate this vast narrative. The authorities turn out to include Pytheas of Marseilles, an explorer who was believed to be a liar (he had sailed beyond Scotland, and reported that the night lasted six months); and a liar who posed as an explorer, the Münchhausen of the Greeks, Antiphanes of Berga. (Münchhausen, like Pantagruel before him, borrowed one of his best tall stories from Antiphanes: in the icy northern winter, words freeze as they come from the mouth; you can only hear them when they thaw in the spring.) How did Pythagoras fit into all this, and Astraios, whose eyes became smaller as the moon waned? We must wait for a papyrus to restore the climactic scene in which the villainous Paapis turns the hero and heroine into zombies, before the heroine’s lover kills him, and then himself, over her apparently lifeless corpse. All in all, any provident narratologist will regret the loss of this self-de-authenticating multiplex of designer figments.

Winkler and Stephens have assembled a posy of broken blossoms – a standard reference and a book attractive to the amateur of sentiment and sensation. In an edition which enlivens unpedantic scholarship with uninhibited relish, the valley of bones comes up roses.