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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.
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