Just to give you the essentials: Probably around 180 A.D. (which is to say probably during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius), a novel was written in Latin. It really is a novel. Trot out any definition of novel: it’s that. Also, it’s the only one, complete, that we have from ancient Rome. Other similar books in Latin have been reduced, over the centuries, to rubble. The one I’m talking about is still whole. Corrupt, but whole.
The author’s name was Apuleius. He was famous during his lifetime as a Platonic philosopher. There were statues of him in North Africa, where he was from. They’re all gone now. And we don’t know how many copies of the novel existed during his lifetime. We do know that every one of ’em had to be copied out by hand. The text requires about two hundred pages of modern type, I don’t know how many pages of Latin holograph.
What’s in it. Well, a guy tells, in the first person, about traveling to the region of Greece that was most notorious for witchcraft in those days: Thessaly. He hears various ominous stories about how dangerous it is to meddle with magic. He does it anyway and, by mistake, transforms himself into a jackass. He gets stolen; he gets beaten; he overhears stories. He’s sold; he’s stolen again; he’s beaten again; he hears more stories. In the end, he turns back into a man, but his mentality is permanently altered. He has become a devotee of the goddess. He becomes a priest. The end.
The end, except I’ve left everything out. The stories he hears, both before the transformation and after, are—some of ’em at least—gold. And the author has set things up so there is an implicit running commentary every step of the way, for the benefit of anybody who’s really paying attention to what’s going on. Once you grasp that Apuleius is right up there with Jonathan Swift in terms of playing dumb while installing deep ironies and perversities, you are suddenly faced with a book that will stand up to a half dozen rereadings.
Apuleius called this book Metamorphoses. History knows it as The Golden Ass.
I’m not speaking loosely when I say the novel will stand up to a half dozen readings. I have read it six times in the last three months, and I am in the middle of a seventh read through as I write this sentence. What I did was I studied and annotated the first chapter in the most recent translation I own (2011). And then I just went right along reading all the other chapter-1 translations to which I had ready access. These are ten in number, counting one in Spanish and one in Russian. The oldest English one is from 1566. The next oldest English one is from 1822. Those first three chapters I read eight times each, but then I settled down into the six translations I found most interesting. I finished the book that way, and now am taking it from the top.
If you’re saying to yourself, He must be one of these ones who are medically incapable of getting bored, you couldn’t be wronger. I never do anything like what I’m describing here. I mean, I might do it with a single poem, but never with a whole book. In fact, I thought I was going to heroically read the first chapter eight times and then settle down to read whichever translation seemed best. The thing that went wrong with that plan is I kept learning important things, every single read through. Stuff that ran right by me on the first, second, and even third and fourth readings would suddenly unfold itself in its full significance on the fifth. And so on. I thought, If ever there was a book that should be read in this crazy way, I have found it.
Just look at chapter 1. The main character—his name is Lucius—is on his way to a town called Hypata. He runs into two travelers, one of whom is saying to the other, “Oh do stop telling such outrageous lies!” Lucius steps in and begs the storyteller to continue and scolds the other one for being closed-minded. Lucius goes off about how life is full of surprises and how he himself saw something he could hardly have believed if he had merely been told about it. He proceeds to describe a sword-swallower. Reader thinks, Oh this is good; his example is indeed amazing, but we know it is possible. But then Lucius goes on to describe an effeminate boy climbing the sword and doing a kind of boneless pole dance on it. Now the reader’s like, Hmm. The thing one doesn’t realize on first and maybe not even on second reading is that all through chapter 1, swallowing is made into an issue. It comes up a couple times at key points. If the book had been written in English, I would say with absolute confidence that the whole thing is playing on the idea of “swallowing” other people’s stories—but here the interrupted “liar” resumes his: It seems he, too, was on business in a foreign land (i.e., his situation “rhymes” with Lucius’s), and by chance he ran into his old acquaintance, whose name happens to be Socrates. Why does his name have to be that? Recall that Apuleius was famous as a Platonic philosopher. That name cannot be without special relevance. But this Socrates is sitting like a beggar, dressed in rags. The storyteller guy approaches him and gets the story. Socrates, it seems, was on business in a foreign land and was robbed by highwaymen. A kindhearted inn-keeping woman feeds him, shelters him, and takes him to bed. Thereafter, his life is hell. She, needless to say, is a witch, and holds Socrates in utter thrall. He dares not escape. Socrates tells his friend how this woman can turn the laws of physics inside out, invert nature at will, turn people into frogs, terrorize towns, et cetera. Our storyteller, frightened, says, “OK then we’d better get a good night’s sleep and then run far away, soon as the sun’s up.” They take a room at an inn.
Uh-oh. Late, late that night, the witches show up. The bolted door explodes open. The storyteller guy’s bed is thrown on top of him, so he becomes like a turtle in a shell. But Socrates doesn’t wake up. Two hags stand over him. The one says, “Here he is, my Ganymede! my Ulysses, fleeing his Calypso. He trifled with my youth, dear sister, toyed with my virgin charms, and now he wants to abandon me. And there, under that bed, is his friend who thinks we don’t know he’s there. What shall we do with these two, my sister?” The other witch suggests they castrate and kill the storyteller guy, but the main witch says, “No, leave him, so there’s someone to bury the body of this other wretch,” whereupon, she takes out a sword and plunges it into Socrates’s neck. The other has a sponge ready and catches the blood, every drop. Then the main one reaches into the wound up to her elbow and draws out Socrates’s heart, and they plug the hole with the sponge, saying a spell to the effect of, O sponge, born in the sea, beware of crossing a river. Then they squat over the other guy, who’s half dead with fright, and piss on him, thoroughly drenching him. Then they leave. The door springs back into place. The hinges reassemble. Then there’s some fuss where the storyteller guy wants to flee the scene, fearing he will be blamed for the murder. His flight is thwarted, so he tries to hang himself. He takes the plunge, the rope breaks, and the authorities charge in at that very moment. You would think his goose is cooked, but no. Socrates wakes up. He goes, “What is this intolerable disturbance, when I was just having the best sleep I’ve had in forever!” The storyteller guy is overjoyed. He tries to embrace Socrates, who immediately throws him off, complaining about the rank odor of the urine. The authorities leave and now the storyteller doesn’t know what to think. There’s no scar on Socrates’s neck.
Of course they decide to be off, but Socrates soon complains of hunger. They share a meal of cheese (the very stuff that Lucius couldn’t swallow before). And now Socrates is thirsty. And here it comes. When he bends down to drink from a nearby river, the sponge jumps out of his neck and a tiny trickle of blood comes out, and Socrates pitches over, dead, on the spot. The storyteller hastily buries him, flees for his life, has never gone home, and is now remarried. And guess what, the storyteller/survivor, the unbelieving listener, and Lucius have just reached the gates of Hypata. Lucius thanks the storyteller for his “charming and delightful” narrative, which made the walk seem so much shorter, and enters the town.
This is actually only the first half of chapter 1.
Two very important points. The witches operate by indirection. They could’ve just killed Socrates outright; instead, they prefer to let the storyteller guy enjoy (if that’s the word for it) a brief period where things seem to be improving. They do this the better to snatch away his hopes, later. They want to toy with their victims, and in this way, they very much resemble a natural phenomenon from real life, namely fatal illnesses, which often allow their victims all sorts of false hopes and time to think ’em over. As a friend of mine once said, Cancer doesn’t want to just kill you, it wants you to have a sinking feeling first. So there has to be all this toying, these feints, these fake outs. And so we must note that the witches also resemble a different real-life phenomenon: the Nabokovian novelist.
Important point number two: there is something very obviously wrong with the end of the story there. Lucius, who has promised to believe anything the storyteller has to say, does not react to the narrative like a person who believes it. If somebody told you that stuff, and you believed it, you wouldn’t call the thing charming and delightful. But this is one of these “reveals” that run right by you, the first time you read ’em. Apuleius seems in many places to regard belief in general—and religious belief in particular—as a kind of “charming and delightful” game. I think this is what he thought of Plato himself, and definitely what he thought of the goddess to whom he devotes the most notoriously baffling final chapter from Classical Antiquity: Book 11, sometimes called “The Isis Book.”
I shall have a great deal more to say about this in my next post, but since you’ve read eighteen hundred words, I think you are due for a rest. (← This move is the kind of thing Apuleius would do.)
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.