Remants of a Genre
Remants of a Genre
B. P. Reardon (ed.), Collected Ancient Greek Novels (University of California Press, 1990)
Prose fiction is the segment of Greek literature that has left the faintest impression on later ages, as is demonstrated by the fact that virtually all of its remnants fit within this thick but not unwieldy volume. The contents include nine complete tales, most of which we would call novellas, plus epitomes or fragments of ten more. None of them is famous today, though Lucian's "True Romance" is often cited as a precursor to science fiction and Heliodoros' "Ethiopian Story" was popular as late as the 18th century.
The core of the book consists of five novelette-length "novels" - all from the 2nd century A.D., give or take a hundred or so years - that share enough conventions to be labeled a "genre". Their plots, in broadest outline, are identical: Boy and girl meet, fall in love, are married or about to be married, then are snatched apart by misfortune, faced with escalating threats to life and chastity, and finally reunited with virtue intact (hers anyway - his may wind up a bit tattered).
Within this pattern, there is much variation. "An Ephesian Tale" is sheer melodrama, "Chaereas and Callirhoe" a loosely historical romance, "An Ethiopian Story" a skillful narrative that opens with a trompe l'oeil scene that would do credit to a contemporary novelist. Perhaps the most interesting to the modern reader is "Daphnis and Chloe", where the perils to the lovers are more psychological than physical and the story traces their love affair from the first stirrings of adolescent attraction through long-delayed consummation.
Also present are works in other genres: a bawdy comedy ("The Ass", wrongly attributed in the Middle Ages to Lucian), a Munchausen-like travelogue (the authentic Lucian's "True Romance") and the faux-historical "Alexander Romance", which shaped the later image of Alexander the Great as much as or more than did genuine history.
The translations, all but one specially prepared for this volume, are readable and generally lively. Only one of translators (stuck with the rather hopeless "Leucippe and Clitophon", in which he labors to uncover deeply hidden virtues) feels compelled to preface his effort with a discourse on literary theory.
The fictions gathered here are little-traveled paths in the terrain of classical literature and the reader may stumble now and then among the brambles, but the sights along the way are not without interest and charm.