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Elizabeth Jeffreys, Four Byzantine Novels.

Elizabeth Jeffreys, Four Byzantine Novels. Translated with Introductions and Notes by Jeffreys. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012 (Distributed in the US by the U of Chicago P). 488 pp. $120, cloth.

For the Greekless reader, this long-awaited anthology provides an important link between the ancient Greek novel and the novels we read today. The Greeks created what we now call novels at the beginning of the Common Era, peaking in the fourth century with the greatest of them, Heliodorus's Ethiopian Story. Eight complete novels survive, along with fragments from a dozen or so others, all conveniently gathered in B. P. Reardon's Collected Ancient Greek Novels (University of California Press, 1989). When the best of them were rediscovered and translated during the Renaissance, they provided the template for the European novel of the early-modern period, as Margret Doody has demonstrated in The True Story of the Novel (Rutgers University Press, 1996). However, few readers are aware that in twelfth-century Byzantium, a handful of writers revived the ancient Greek novel and put their own spin on the genre. What is most striking is how modern, even postmodern, these medieval novels sound. Like Barth and Pynchon imitating the eighteenth-century novel in The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, respectively, the Byzantines set their novels in the past and artificially imitated the Greek of antiquity rather than their own vernacular, all while having some metafictional fun with older forms of fiction and diction.

Jeffreys translates and annotates the four that have survived (as in the case with ancient Greek novels, more were undoubtedly written but have disappeared.) The earliest, a novel in verse entitled Rhodanthe and Dosikles, was composed probably in the early 1130s by Theodore Prodromos. Like Nabokov in Laughter in the Dark, he tells us upfront what his novel will be about, a rehash of the standard topoi of earlier Greek novels:

These [are the adventures] of the silvery girl Rhodanthe with the lovely garland and of the valiant and comely youth Dosikles, the flights and wanderings and tempests and billows, brigands, grievous eddies, sorrows that give rise to love, chains and indissoluble fetters and imprisonments in gloomy dungeons, grim sacrifices, bitter grief, poisoned cups and paralysis of joints, and then marriage and the marriage bed and passionate love. (20)

Structurally and thematically similar to Heliodorus's Ethiopian Story, Rhodanthe and Dosikles is essentially a vehicle for various rhetorical set pieces, an opportunity for Prodromos to show off his skill and knowledge and occasionally to make fun of the conventions of the genre. (These novels were read aloud at the imperial court and in the literary salons of Constantinople; they were literally performance pieces. Like ballets, they do not so much tell a story as perform one.) Although nowhere near as complex and ingenious as Heliodorus, Prodromos manages to say some interesting things about dream psychology, military theory, and statecraft while performing elegant variations on the ancient theme of ideal lovers who elope, are separated and suffer various setbacks, and are eventually reunited and married.

Narrower in scope but much sexier, Hysmine and Hysminias was written in prose during the 1140s or '50s and is attributed to Eumathios Makrembolites. Modeled on the second-best of the ancient Greek novels, Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon (late second century), this one is the first-person account of how a young herald named Hysminias met and fell in love with a remarkably forward young woman named Hysmine. Struck by the similarity between their names, and delegated to the ceremony of washing his feet, Hysmine goes for it:

The maiden Hysmine, crouching down by my feet and talking hold of them, washes them in the water (this is an honour accorded to heralds); she holds them, she clasps them, she embraces them, she presses them, she kisses them silently and sneaks a kiss; eventually she scratches me with her fingernails and tickles me. (183)

Not surprisingly, Hysminias has an erotic dream that night about her, the first of many in this R-rated novel. Though they engage in some heavy petting, both agree to save themselves for marriage, which is disrupted when the girl's father announces he plans to give her to another. H and H run away, and they are predictably separated, sold into slavery, and eventually reunited, virginity still intact, for marriage. Makrembolites plays with literal versus figurative slavery--after Hysminias insults a portrait of Eros, the god makes him a slave of love--and pays lip service to the importance of chastity while filling his novel with lots of kissing, fondling, wet dreams, and a shipboard orgy. It is a knowing novel of sparkling sophistication.

Written around the same time, Aristandros and Kallithea by Constantine Manasses has not survived complete, only as a collection of excerpts made by medieval anthologists. Like Rhodanthe and Dosikles, it was written in verse-- which the Byzantine literati held in much higher esteem than prose--and it apparently had a similar storyline, as enumerated by the male protagonist:

Aristandros groaned, "Oh, woe is me, Kallithea; once more there are chains and prison, one more there is captivity, once more gaols and imprisonment, once more gloomy dungeons; we are bound, were are imprisoned, and the guard is ever alert; once more we are in captivity, once more we endure the yoke of slavery." (302)

And again, like Prodromos's novel, it seems to be a set of rhetorical showpieces stitched together, with a greater propensity for exotic imagery and extended metaphors. But since only about 50 pages of it survive, it is difficult to say more.

Niketas Eugenianos was a young friend and possibly a student of Theodore Prodromos, and around 1156 he published an homage/imitation of Rhodanthe and Dosikles entitled Drosilla and Charikles, meaning it is an imitation of an imitation of an ancient Greek novel. Like the earlier novel, it begins with a prologue that gives away the plot, and for the same reason Nabokov did in Laughter in the Dark: he wants the reader to pay attention not to what he says but how he says it; not to the story but to his artistry. Drosilla and Charikles is the most self-consciously literary of these Byzantine novels, weaving an intertextual web of references to Prodromos, Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, Theocritus, the Greek Anthology, and the biblical Song of Songs. As Jeffreys explains, "These texts are used with considerable subtlety to make statements about the characters' interaction, which depend on his audience's informed appreciation of the sources" (349).

That last point is important: the novel is generally considered a bourgeois genre intended for middle-class readers, but up until the eighteenth century, it was an aristocratic genre intended for the well-read elite. Its authors wrote not about what they knew but what they had read, and the purpose was not so much to comment on life as to play literary games with readers. Recent conservative literary critics blame Joyce and his postmodern followers for turning the novel into a vehicle for self-conscious literariness (intertextuality, metafictional gestures, pastiche, erudite allusions, nonlinear plotting, etc.) appreciable only by a "very small audience," as a character metafictionally states in William Gaddis' self-consciously literary novel The Recognitions. One value of Four Byzantine Novels is to show that the techniques and devices that characterize hyperliterary twentieth-century fiction are not new, nor a rejection of the novel's middle-class roots, but rather hark back to an earlier literary tradition when novels were written for the elite rather than for the masses.

Near the end of Eumathios Makrembolites' novel, Hysminias beseeches the gods "do not let an abyss of oblivion overwhelm our adventures" (268). Anyone interested in the historical development of fiction should be grateful to Elizabeth Jeffreys for rescuing these artful novels from the abyss of oblivion.


Independent Scholar

STEVEN MOORE is the author of the two-volume study The Novel, An Alternative History (2010, 2013). He is also the author/editor of several books on novelist William Gaddis, most recently The Letters of William Gaddis (2013).
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Author:Moore, Steven
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 11, 2016
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