Friday, June 15, 2012


Grammatiki A. Karla (ed.), Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman language and literature, 310. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2009. Pp. xxi, 194. ISBN 9789004175471. $136.00.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Bay, Brigham Young University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume features articles from an impressive assemblage of scholars of the ancient novel. Most of the chapters originated as papers in a similarly titled workshop held on November 10, 2007 at the Swedish Research Institute in Athens.1 Overall, the collection makes some valuable contributions to the study of ancient novel-like texts such as the Life of Aesop, the Alexander Romance, and others which have received significantly less scholarly attention than the more mainstream ancient novels.

The first and last chapters deal with the notion of "fringe" as a generic category. It may be surprising that the opening chapter of a volume focusing on fringe literature should question the very validity of such a designation. However, upon reflection, it is appropriate. After all, Holzberg, whose treatment of the fringe is invoked several times throughout the volume, suggested that the chief reason that peripheral texts are marginalized as fringe literature is that they "have so far not been subjected to such thorough scrutiny as have the 'novels proper'."2 And the overall purpose of the volume appears to be to increase the scholarly scrutiny of these less-studied texts. In the opening chapter, "Challenging Some Orthodoxies: The Politics of Genre and the Ancient Greek Novel," Helen Morales points out that the modern designations of "center" and "fringe" are misleading when applied to the ancient novel. In fact, in antiquity all of the texts we refer to as novels were fringe literature. Morales believes that a "pragmatic and fluid approach to genre" facilitates useful textual interpretation much more than formalistic categorizations. This approach is not unique; however, Morales' use of persuasive examples from ancient texts makes her assessment particularly convincing and relevant.

While acknowledging the validity of Morales's premise, Richard Hunter's chapter, "Fictional Anxieties," closes the volume with a discussion of the benefits of categorizations such as "fringe" and "ideal." He asserts that focusing on the five ideal Greek novels has led to valuable shared thematic analyses. He proposes that "fringeness" might also prove a useful category for focusing on literary aspects that might otherwise be overlooked. He discusses a modern Australian novel which displays remoteness and off-centeredness in various thematic contexts, and illustrates areas of analytical overlap with ancient novels and novel-like texts. Hunter ends his chapter with an intriguing, although tangential, discussion of belief and disbelief as they pertain to both modern and ancient literature.

Chapters two through four deal in some way with The Life of Aesop. In "Fictional Biography Vis-à-vis Romance: Affinity and Differentiation," Grammatiki Karla compares biographical fiction in the form of The Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance with the five "ideal" novels. She provides a wide overview of several areas of scrutiny, including plot structure, narrative technique, stylistic considerations, and audience. She identifies structural fluidity as a key difference between the two genres. Following Konstan she characterizes biographical texts as "open texts" because they appear to be compilations of preexisting independent stories that tended to accrue additional material throughout their transmission, while the ideal novels are "closed" because their stories are part the author's own narrative design and resist subsequent modification.3

Corinne Jouanno's chapter, entitled "Novelistic Lives and Historical Biographies: The Life of Aesop and the Alexander Romance as Fringe Novels," focuses on the same biographical texts as Karla's. But besides comparing them with the five Greek novels, Jouanno also compares them to historical biographical texts and trickster stories. She perceives that novelistic lives are distinct from novels in terms of structure, characterization, and plot. They are distinct from historical biographies in ways that might be predictable for fictional texts: a general disregard for chronological considerations and increased affective force. And finally, she finds an entirely different comparative milieu for these, and perhaps other novelistic texts, in folkloric trickster tales.

Unlike the prior wide-ranging discussions, the final treatment of The Life of Aesop, John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou's "Romance Without Eros," focuses in detail on its erotic themes, and more particularly how they differ in tone from those of the canonical erotic novels. He sees the crude physicality of the sexual encounters in various Aesopic episodes as clear echoes of Old Comedy and mime. This obscenity would be completely out of place in the canonical novels, and therefore clarifies the Life's generic differentiation. Papademetriou concludes his chapter with an appendix examining a significant Byzantine or post-Byzantine poetic text dealing with the widow of Ephesus story. This text invokes the name of Aesop, but seems to manifest the story's Roman tradition more than the Aesopic.

Thomas Hägg's article, "The Ideal Greek Novel from a Biographical Perspective," compares the "love stories" of the ideal Greek novels with a wider selection of "life stories," or biographical romances, namely the Cyropaedia, the Alexander Romance, the Life of Aesop, the Life of Homer, and Apollonius of Tyana. The starkest difference is the complete lack of amorous emotions in the biographies. This has been mentioned elsewhere in this volume, but Hägg's approach is noteworthy because it involves much more textual evidence and, consequently, seems to have more genre-wide validity. The treatment of families is different in the two categories: the heroes and heroines of the ideal novels come from isolated family situations with each, as a rule, being an only child; biographical texts often give siblings to their heroes. Also, biographical novels tend to cover two or three generations, while ideal novels focus only on one. The travel motif occurs in both genres; however, in the biographical romances it generally serves the utilitarian function of relocating the hero. In the ideal novels it becomes an essential part of the narrative, serving as the catalyst for many of the plot elements as well as being a dislocating theme in and of itself.

Bernhard Zimmerman's article, "The Historical Novel in the Greek World: Xenophon's Cyropaedia," begins by retrospectively examining modern historical novels and determining that some of their generic features include clear references to history that convey a temporal distance, a "zooming effect" or a sense of applicability to the present time of the reader, and authorial forwards which establish the archival credentials of the text. Xenophon's Cyropaedia contains all of these attributes, and, coupled with an encomiastic element which focuses attention on the hero, provides a model of an intermediary stage in the generic development of the later romance novels. Zimmerman sees a parallel between the development from epic to historiography and the development of historiography into the novel with its deemphasized historiographical features and increased emphasis on the love story.

Chapter 7, "Reunion and Regeneration: Narrative Patterns in Ancient Greek Novels and Christian Acts," by David Konstan, deals with plot patterns that the ideal romantic novels have in common with Christian hagiographies and apocryphal acts. These patterns are used in very different contexts and for very different purposes. Most of the novels contain a circular journey during which the protagonist lovers are separated, tested in regard to their fidelity to one another, and finally return and reunite. This pattern exists, too, in a changed form for early Christian narratives. In these, however, the journey becomes a quest toward conversion and spiritual renewal. Besides this overarching pattern, many subordinate paradigms are also present in both genres but with widely different and significant thematic consequences.

In Chapter 8, "Novelistic and Anti-novelistic Narrative in the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of Andrew and Matthias," Jason König examines these two examples of Christian acts in regard to how much they conform to or resist novelistic norms. In terms of plot, he is basically in agreement with Konstan in chapter 7, that the Christian texts manifest novelistic paradigms that are used in a uniquely Christian manner. However, he often sees uniquely Christian markers intruding so discordantly, from the point of view of the novel, that they cannot be generically reconciled. He consequently promotes a unique genre of "acts literature" for these texts. He further examines these texts in regard to the hero's (or, rather, apostle's) resistance to grotesque pagan consumption practices and his practice (or lack) of observation of his foreign surroundings. Like Konstan, König finds that the Christian texts participate in many of the forms and patterns of the novels, and then redirect them toward Christian ends.

William Hutton's chapter, "Pausanias the Novelist," provides an innovative analysis of the relationship of Pausanias to the novelists. Hutton reports that when he read Ewan Bowie's assertion in 2001 that Longus may have been influenced by Pausanias,4 he was intrigued and realized that with the uncertain dating of Daphnis and Chloe, the influence relationship may have conceivably gone the other way. Regardless of the direction of influence, authors of the Second Sophistic were acutely aware of their literary predecessors, and filled their works with literary allusions. Hutton has identified many points of contact between Pausanias and the novelists: a penchant for description and concomitant appreciation of physical monuments, the narrative point of view of a traveler and outsider, specific religious associations in the openings of the texts, the suppression of information to build suspense and dramatic tension, and delaying authorial identification. Hutton points out that the most novel-like sections of the Description of Greece are found in books IV and VII, sections replete with novel-like stories of romance and adventure. While it can't be proven that Pausanias made use of the canonical novels when he deliberately chose to employ these motifs for specific effects, Hutton states (p. 162) that he certainly made use of something in "the same intertextual ballpark."

Although all the articles deal in some way with fringe literature, the papers are uneven, as any book that began life as a series of individually written conference papers is bound to be. There are multiple typographical errors that are mildly distracting to the reader.5 The greatest problem is that of topical overlap, with a lot of very similar analyses of the same texts. However, in her introduction Karla does an admirable job of contextualizing the scholars' approaches, which are indeed individually impressive. She also has organized the chapters effectively in a thematic structure. In her preface (p. xvi) she states that an aim of the volume is to "help to bring the fringe from the periphery of scholarly research to the centre of critical attention." This volume is an excellent step toward this goal.


1.   William Hutton, the author of chapter nine, "Pausanius the Novelist," was not part of the 2007 conference. Richard Hunter, the author of chapter ten, "Fictional Anxieties," participated in the conference, but his paper there, listed as " The Life of Aesop and the ancient novel," seems quite different from his contribution here. Perhaps this change has something to do with the fact that The Life of Aesop is already very well represented in the volume.
2.   N. Holzberg, "The Genre: Novels Proper and the Fringe," in G. Schmeling (ed), The Novel in the Ancient World, Brill, 2003, 14-15.
3.   D. Konstan, "The Alexander Romance: The Cunning of an Open Text," Lexis, 16: 123-138.
4.   E. Bowie, "Inspiration and Aspiration: Date, Genre, and Readership," in S. Alcock, J. Cherry, and J. Elsner (eds.), Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece, Oxford, 2001, 30-31.
5.   One particularly curious example must be a remnant of a marginal comment that has crept into the text on p. 119.

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