Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Reading List: "The Golden Ass"

The last time we hit one of the great books it was Gilgamesh, often held up as the world’s oldest extant tale. This time, we’ve got The Golden Ass, which is sometimes described as the world’s oldest extant novel. It’s tricky, though, because the definition of “novel” is a sticky wicket and the last thing you want is for all of the Cervantes, Mallory, or Dafoe people to come at you seeking their terrible vengeance. So let’s just say that The Golden Ass is the only complete book-length work of fiction that we’ve inherited from the Roman Empire.

Notes on the Translation

First of all, every translation and copy comes from a single version that was copied out in an Italian monestery sometime in the eleventh century, before photocopy machines were widely available. There have been literally oodles of translations into English, as I discovered at Powell’s when I went to purchase my very own copy. I was confronted by a plethora of Golden Asses, all of which I examined diligently, and I was quite surprised by the considerable differences in tone and editorial choices. Since it is an old, old, old, old, old text, some of the translations are now a bit long in the tooth themselves, including the one most available online. That one is by William Addington, from 1566, and begins

As I fortuned to take my voyage into Thessaly, about certaine affaires which I had to doe ( for there myne auncestry by my mothers side inhabiteth, descended of the line of that most excellent person Plutarch, and of Sextus the Philosopher his Nephew, which is to us a great honour)…
But the modern translations diverge quite a bit too. Here’s one from 1999.

I was on my way to Thessaly to transact some business. My family on my mother's side hails from that region, and the prominence lent to it by the famous philosopher Plutarch, and later by his nephew Sextus, lends us esteem.
And another, from 2007:

I was going to Thessaly on business. Why? Because it was from there that the root and stock of my ancestry, on my mother's side, was first made known to the world; passing through the great Plutarch and then through his nephew, the philosopher Sextus, it created our name and fame.
And here’s mine, E.J. Kenney’s 1998 translation for Penguin:

I was on my way to Thessaly – for on my mother’s side our family goes back there, being proud to number among our ancestors the distinguished philopher Plutarch and his nephew Sextus – I was on my way, I say, to Thessaly on particular business.
Since the original apparently involves heaps of wordplay and plenty of offhand references to things that are no longer common knowledge, and since it was written without the modern (Carolingian, actually) niceties like spaces between words, and paragraphs, and chapters, the whole thing seems like rich terrain for the fine craft of the editor. I found all of these subtle and obvious differences quite fascinating, and felt the same call that Stephen Mitchell did with Gilgamesh – “Hey! I could compile the ur-translation by cross-referencing these! Without learning a classical language!” In this instance, though, cooler heads prevailed.

Picaresque Means, In This Case, Lots of Sex and Violence!

Sure, it takes a few pages to get used to the tone of a 2000 year old book. The greater hurdle is getting used to the structure. There is a single overall story, but it is interspersed willy-nilly with tangential stories that the narrator witnesses, hears, or recalls in his various journeys. These range from quick paragraph-length anecdotes to a telling of the legend of Cupid and Psyche that occupies a good sixth of the book. Everything is told at a fairly manic pace, and until you are a few chapters in it’s hard to keep track of which details are going to be important later and what is an entertaining tangent.

Because it’s old and it’s episodic, you might assume that The Golden Ass is akin to those romances of the middle ages in which knights and heroes are always charging around whacking on monsters and other knights and encountering beautiful maidens and strange monks, all with a perfect vagueness that renders the whole thing meaningless and impossibly tedious to the modern reader. Not so! The Golden Ass is rich with colorful detail and full of surprises. It is also rich with the eternal crowd-pleasers, sex and violence. The narrator spends plenty of time rolling in the hay, as it were, and at least half of the tales he reports second hand are, one way or another, about -- to put it delicately -- doin’ it. As a kind of grand finale to the tale, we are treated to the second most explicit description of human/equine passion I have yet encountered. (For the MOST explicit, see Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus, if you dare.) As for violence, did I mention that this is a Roman book? Theirs was not a society to go easy on the punishments.

Once you get into the rhythm, in other words, The Golden Ass is a perfectly accessible and enjoyable book. It’s a little like being a kid awake when all the adults think you’ve drifted off, and your aunts and uncles start gossiping and telling dirty jokes. You learn a lot about adult life that way, in passing. With this book, you learn a lot about life in antiquity in passing. The narrator encounters people from all levels of society, and quite offhandedly describes common Roman stuff – clothes, tools, towns, ways of getting around, the justice system, and so on. To the original readers, it was just the setting, but for us, it’s an accidental window on another world.

The Plot

The narrator is an overly curious young man with a particular interest in magic. Trying to turn into an owl for the evening, he grabs the wrong potion and turns into a donkey for a full year. It’s a tough life, but he has all sorts of amazing adventures along the way, and overhears even more amazing stories with his big, long, pointy donkey ears. In the end, he resumes his natural form and has a powerful religious conversion. Apparently nobody knows whether the last chapter, which is all about how totally jazzed he is to have joined the cult of Isis, is supposed to be the moral of the story, is supposed to be hilarious satire of holy rollers, or was even tacked on later by somebody else.


Elaine said...

Hmmm..somehow, think this is a "must-miss" for me.

d said...

i'm sorry, this sounds exceedingly dull. i know we're supposed to learn from our past and all that, but maybe this is a little too far back. i mean, it's not like the romans really contributed anything lasting to our culture or anything, right?

LegalMist said...

I'm in the minority so far, but I think you made it sound interesting. I would never have thought to pick it up, but now I may have to do so...

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine, d: Well, it's your choice, but I must emphasize that it's chock full of wacky misadventures and mildly deviant sexual behavior. What's not to love?

Plus, you get to walk around with a book called "The Golden Ass," which is a pretty good conversation-starter.

@LegalMist: That's the spirit!

Elaine said...

I imagine one of the kids coming to visit, spotting this book, and the conversation THAT would start. "Oh, god, Mother...."

I am sure d is being facetious about Roman contributions...just, is this really one of them?

Hey, and didn't you HATE poor little Pinocchio?

Sarah Nopp said...

Great review! Now I need to read it. I love Roman history, it was the way we studied Latin on high school :) Thanks to netflix, and much to my husbands horror, I am currently watching all the I Claudius again.
I wonder which translations they have available for iPhone...

Aviatrix said...

Wow, you make it sound appealing. I like the aspect of finding out about the culture through details that were obvious to the narrator.

I'm glad that the two quizzes I missed were for stuff I don't know anything about anyway.

Anonymous said...

This was required reading my freshman year in college and I liked it because it was racy.