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Novel approach
July/August 2018


Detail of “Theagenes receiving the palm of honour from Chariclea”, 1626, by the Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert



In one of the most profound reflections on what readers really read,  “Bookshop Memories”, George Orwell pointed out, from his experience behind the counter in the 1920s, that you could always sell Dickens or Shakespeare, but they weren’t what people wanted to read. What they relished was romance and detective fiction.

Time Whitmarsh’s Dirty Love: The Genealogy of the Ancient Greek Novel is indeed an examination of the earliest extant texts (those that have a claim to be considered as novels). They date from around the time of Christ onwards. But Whitmarsh goes much further, reflecting on the novel as a genre and Greek culture as a whole.

The  five Ancient Greek romances that have made it down to us in their entirety are an enigma. We don’t know who wrote them, or why, or the audience they were aimed at. We know Flaubert and Joyce took the novel seriously because they very kindly told us so. At first sight the ancient novels have a distinct pulp feel. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl to pirates. Boy gets girl back after various shipwrecks, fake deaths, courtroom drama and other standard elements of soap opera.

The novels have been dismissed as proto chick-lit, but that similarity aside, they were obviously written by highly literate authors who throw in the odd allusion to make it clear they are. Some of the novels have also been hailed as mystical texts, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Whitmarsh is keen to underline that his work is not about “the tired Eurocentric tropes of Greek genius and bequest”. His interest in the novels is precisely because their action is “at the junctures between different cultures.” Whitmarsh’s contention is that the “genealogy of the ancient Greek novel is seriously impure: contaminated, cross-bred, bastardised”.

In a way that might be a good working definition of a novel: that it is the omnivorous beast, the ultimate predator that can feed on any aspect of human experience or activity. The novel can be epic, comic, philosophical, dramatic or poetic. Beat that. One of the earliest novels in English, Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), is a messy affair because you can sense that Nashe is almost bewildered by the freedom the form has given him, that he can go anywhere and say almost anything (within the licence of Elizabethan England).

It should be emphasised that Whitmarsh’s work strays far from his title. It turns into an extremely ambitious reflection on the intellectual history of the West, although Whitmarsh is trying to pull away from that. Have you ever thought about Ctesias? I know I haven’t, but there is a wonderful chapter on Ctesias the Cnidian and the romance of Zarinaea and Stryangaeus. Ctesias was a Greek man of learning who worked for the Persians and his work illustrates how history has always been riddled with story-telling and that historians have always spent much of their time trashing other historians.

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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