Chaotic to the Core
- Satyrica by Petronius, translated by Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney
Dent, 185 pp, £18.95, March 1996, ISBN 0 460 87766 6
- BuyThe Satyricon by Petronius, translated by P.G. Walsh
Oxford, 212 pp, £30.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 815012 1
In all of ancient literature there’s nothing quite like the Satyricon, a fragmentary autobiography of one Encolpius, who appears and disappears according to the hazards of textual survival. On our first sighting he’s making a speech about the decadence of modern education, then he’s somewhere else and a cloak has been stolen; more interference, another error, a randy priestess intent on revenge: ‘Both of us swore by all the religion in us that so dreadful a secret would die with us.’ We’ve lost it again, then light at the end of the tunnel: a game of catch, a long, late afternoon in a town near Naples, the dinner-party of Trimalchio, rich and technicoloured, darkness descends, a dreadful night, boyfriend goes off with best friend, a lecture in a gallery of paintings, boyfriend’s back, now they’re on a ship, so is a sworn enemy, a storm, a wreck, a city in Southern Italy, legacy-hunters, imposture, impotence, a priestess of Priapus, a cannibalistic will, an ending: ‘And when Numantia fell to Scipio, mothers were found cradling in their arms the half-eaten bodies of their own children.’
It seems to have been a very long novel (400,000 words?) of which we have only a tiny fraction. The surviving remnants and references in later authors give hints as to what was lost: a period in Marseilles, a murder, a tryst in a pleasant garden, an act of sacrilege, any number of infidelities, an offence in a portico of Hercules. The narrator moves easily from prose to poetry and shows himself a master of many metres. He writes in Latin, but all the main characters have Greek names. There are disquisitions on art and life and epic poetry, brawls and threatened suicides, coincidences, surprises and luck, lots of sex. It seems to defy classification and that for a long time seemed its most distinctive characteristic. Earlier scholars played with the title: Satyricon, Satiricon, from satura, a ‘satire’, a ‘sausage’, with elements of satyrus, a ‘satyr’. The work was a salami, a satyriastic Menippean satire, deliberately diverse in form and content. The only consistent motif was the anger of Priapus, which led some to see it as a spoof Odyssey, the ithyphallic fertility god standing in for a wrathful Poseidon, pursuing vengeance and Encolpius all over the Mediterranean.
In fact, the genre with which the Satyricon had most obvious affinity was a distinctly modern one, the picaresque. Encolpius became a posthumous precursor in a genealogy of rogues ranging from Lazarillo de Tormes to Felix Krull. Exactly how he fitted into this family-tree was never quite clear. Classicists have always found it easier to demonstrate Petronius’ precedence than to illustrate his influence. In contrast to that other great Latin novelist, Apuleius, who managed to create in the Golden Ass a blend of burlesque and piety that was exactly to the taste of the Early Modern European, Petronius was either neglected or rejected by the comic tradition. Fielding claimed to find more wit in St Paul. Petronius, perhaps, was too subversive. His genre-chaos and his moral chaos make the other pícaros look quite proper.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 14 · 18 July 1996
Bracht Branham and I appreciate James Davidson’s intelligent review of our version of Petronius’s Satyrica (LRB, 6 June), and we found it especially pleasing that of the two new English texts he reviews, Davidson chooses ours for all his illustrations of what makes Petronius’s work even now so chaotically, archly compelling. We are troubled, however, by Davidson’s intimation that though our version is indeed more engaging than P.G. Walsh’s new version from Oxford, this in some sense depends on our rendering the Latin less accurately or less closely than Walsh. We believe that our version succeeds where it does because it hugs Petronian idiom more closely, not less, emulating at all turns the risqué rapidity, the velocitas and fortunata audacia, that already for Leibniz sufficed to distinguish authentic Petronius from his counterfeiters. Not to labour the point, here is the three-line Virgilian pastiche Davidson quoted, for Petronius a deftly outrageous remapping of epic estrangement and loss onto his feckless hero’s defiantly dodgy anatomy, i.e. his unco-operative penis:
illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat
nec magis incepto vultum sermone movetur
quam lentae salices lassove papavera collo.
Here is Walsh’s new version, a scholarly rendering in which Dido’s shade (ghost) from the subtext, Aeneid 6, very much dominates:
She looked away, and kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
Her face was no more softened by these opening words
Than pliant willow, or poppy with its drooping head.
And now ours, in which Dido’s shade comically sinks to below-the-belt snubs without ever quite losing its plangency:
Its eye fixed on the ground it turned away,
as little roused by what I had to say
as willows limp or poppies drooping sway.
It is time to retire the ex-wisdom that faithful means dull in translations and mates; it is unfair to mates and translations, at least to the lively and faithful ones, Walsh’s and ours.
Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996
Daniel Kinney and Bracht Branham (Letters, 18 July) are worried that when, in the course of a generally favourable comparison, I noted that P.G. Walsh’s translation of Petronius’ Satyricon ‘hugs the Latin more closely’ I was casting aspersions on the accuracy of their own version. It would be nice to keep both the spirit and the letter of a translated text (and every other level of meaning in between), but since each language has its own peculiar characteristics and will not slip easily inside another’s skin, choices sometimes have to be made. It seems to me undeniable that Kinney and Branham when faced with this choice opted for what they thought was the Petronian spirit over the letter, while Walsh follows more precisely what the Latin actually says. Whether those who are faithful in spirit or those who are faithful to the letter are more faithful to Petronius is a question my review was not attempting to answer.
These differences are perfectly apparent in the passage chosen by Daniel Kinney for comparison, Encolpius’ description of his unresponsive penis. Professor Walsh’s member is of female gender and the eyes she fixes on the ground are two in number, which might lead some readers to suppose a disappointed woman is still in the room. In Kinney’s and Branham’s version the organ in question is an ‘it’ and it has a single eye with which to stare groundwards. This certainly produces a more vivid and more humorous image, but it is not Petronius’ joke. His humour is to be found in the mock-epic bathos, citing Vergil at this juncture and comparing the recalcitrant penis with Dido’s sullen ghost ignoring Aeneas in the underworld. It is hard to know how a translator could have conveyed this rather morbid mixture of lewd and pseud – ‘My dick ignored me, like the ghost of a jilted lover encountered on a trip to hell’ – but some quotation marks might have helped.