The Golden Ass of Apuleius, which I am in the process of translating, is like a telescope. Through this work of the mid-second century a.d., you can see a whole hemisphere and 4,000 years of literature, from the bards of pre-alphabetic Asia Minor in one direction to the New Orleans of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the other.
The Roman author (actually a cosmopolitan North African) was also an orator, with all the learning typical for that profession. He could whip out a homily based on Homer; spoof contemporary book fashions; stuff his narrative with incidents and personalities familiar from Plautus, Rome’s greatest purveyor of farce; and execute hit-and-runs on every other genre in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.
On the other side, the telescope shows a gentle stretch down into the Western future. Either The Golden Ass or Lucian’s True History is the earliest complete comic novel we have. In the fragmentary Satyricon of Petronius and the epitome of the original Greek donkey story, we can see precedents for Apuleius’s novel, but his undertaking still looks wildly odd when set beside either the Latin and Greek canon or mainstream “subliterary” works of the time.
There were romances in Greek, but Apuleius was up to something very different from bringing two beautiful, chaste lovers together in marriage after many tribulations. His narrator, Lucius, beds an eager slave girl near the beginning of the story. The affair is important only in leading to the book’s central crisis: Lucius is transformed into a donkey after he persuades his girlfriend to help him meddle in her mistress’s sorcery workshop. From that night on, he endures a donkey’s slavery and humiliation, relieved only by fragile rescues and species-inappropriate larks, until his miraculous deliverance.
Particularly in its ending, The Golden Ass is something new. Lucius finds a savior in the goddess Isis. Restored to his human form, he devotes his remaining life to her cult as a celibate priest. In the last of the novel’s eleven books, he tells of spending whole days in blissful contemplation of her image, and of spending his whole fortune on three posh initiation rites. Though the novel competes with or dismisses Christianity (there’s a portrait of a very nasty Christian), the themes of conversion and a personal relationship with the divine feel quite modern. Very much unlike the typical ancient Greek or Roman, Lucius is no longer a creature of his clan or city or property or profession. His homecoming is inward, his god is all-sufficient, and he confidently hopes for a privileged afterlife.
But Apuleius’s Latin is anything but cloistered: It reeks of the bazaar, the festival, and the dinner party. He combines the slang of Plautus, the sophistication of Cicero, the mannerisms of Seneca, poetic touches from epic and lyric — and some words found nowhere else. They are hapax legomena, “things said a single time” in all of existing literature.
Besides this, he seems unable to keep his squeezing, manipulating hands off any words, no matter how tender or inexperienced they are. For instance, postliminio, “by right of return,” normally described a legal state and was not very common. Apuleius turns it into a metaphor and throws it all over the place: In his text, it’s usually just Fancy-Pantsish for “back again.” Legal metaphors (like “to read someone the Riot Act”) are nothing unusual; but in every kind of expression, nobody is as excitable as Apuleius. He’s much like a 19-year-old boy on a date, for whom anything — that tuft of weeds! — or the girl’s statement that she wants to go home! — isn’t just itself but an opportunity.