The Golden Ass – Apuleius (Penguin Classics 1998) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

Fancying a bit of a literary challenge the other day I took down my copy of “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall.  I know this gets updated fairly regularly I have a 2006 edition with “A Clockwork Orange” on the cover.  I thought it might be fun if, occasionally, I worked through some of the titles suggested.  I thought I’d start by seeing what the first five listed books were and discounting any I might have read start by choosing one of this five.  What I’d forgotten is that this book is presented chronologically rather than alphabetically which meant that I was faced with five rather daunting tomes:

Aesop’s Fables

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Chaireas and Kallirhoe- Chariton

Aithiopika- Heliodorus

The Golden Ass – Apuleius

Not being at all experienced with classic literature I almost gave my plan up at this point but I decided to bite the bullet and downloaded the Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass” which is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety and was written around 260 AD.  This version is helmed by E J Kenney who provides rather a dry introduction which didn’t really set the work in the context I was looking forward to and gets bogged down in technical details but the actual text is lively and nowhere near as difficult to read as I was expecting.

Lucius is fascinated by witchcraft and his meddling in it leads him to be turned into an ass.  Before he can get to the antidote to the spell (roses) he is abducted by a group of thieves and is passed from owner to owner facing all kinds of ill-treatment on the way but hears many stories most of which feature others whose lives have been transformed by Fate and Fortune.  So, there are a lot of stories within stories, a device familiar to anyone who has read much early literature.  It’s probably best described as a picaresque novel.  Mid-way through you get a longer tale, told by an old woman to placate a young girl who has also been abducted by the thieves and this marks the first appearance in English (or it did when it was first published in the 15th Century) of Cupid and Psyche, a tale of the Gods’ interference in the life of mortals where Cupid, on a task from Venus to disrupt the life of a beautiful girl instead becomes her lover.  Many of the other inserted tales are more knockabout, cuckolded husbands, plots of revenge, some which end well and some which do not with the tale reverting back to the plight of the unfortunate donkey.

Much has been made of the last section and the change of tone as Lucius is restored to human form and becomes a devotee of Isis, the Mother Goddess.  This has proven enigmatic to many scholars.  I do have a thing about reading the notes as I go along which did slow me down considerably here but all in all I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting.  A couple of times I even laughed out loud.  I found myself wanting to know more about the context and background of this work.  Apuleius lived in North Africa and travelled widely in Greece and Italy and used Latin to rework Greek texts. (The bulk of this novel is from an earlier work by Lucian Of Patrae).  It did make a great change from chasing recent and forthcoming publications to discover this oldest surviving novel which has certainly stood the test of time.

I read the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass”

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