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Novel approach
July/August 2018

Whenever anyone attempts an analysis of the classical world we nearly always end up with a mass of speculation, partly because we simply don’t have that much information and partly because when it comes to parsing literature, you inevitably tumble into subjectivity. The chapter entitled “How Greek is the Greek Romance?” is a bit like asking “How British is the British novel?” It might be a question worth asking, but I’m not sure how you answer it.

The importance of cross-fertilisation can’t be denied, but as Whitmarsh also points out, you get parallel but independent developments around the world in technology and culture.

Consider this: “In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.” That’s the opening line of the Japanese novel The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, which was written around 1000 AD, a romance of extraordinary sophistication and almost certainly without any influence from the writers Whitmarsh is inspecting. It would take Europe another 600 years or so to get back to (or arguably reach) that level of graceful, extended narration. Genius does just pop up.

For the modern reader, I suspect the ancient novel that is most palatable is the Latin The Golden Ass by Apuleius (superbly translated by Robert Graves), but as a novelist let me offer an endorsement for the Greek five, particularly Heliodorus, whose The Ethiopian Story or as it’s sometimes less catchily referred to Charicleia and Theagenes, is extremely skilful and extremely weird. It was described by Philip Philagathus, a 12th-century archbishop, in a hard-to-outdo plug:

This book is like Circe’s potion. It metamorphoses into immoral swine those who partake of it in a profane spirit, but it guides to higher secrets those who are philosophic after the manner of Odysseus.

While Whitmarsh’s prose is admirably clear, Dirty Love is a professorial-strength tome of considerable erudition, not aimed at the general reader. Nevertheless, if you have some interest in the origins of the novel, the classical world or the roots of Western civilisation, you’ll enjoy this. I felt cleverer after reading it.

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