Book Review: Literature and Identity in The Golden Ass of Apuleius

James, Paula (2014). Book Review: Literature and Identity in The Golden Ass of Apuleius. Ancient Narrative, 11 pp. 229–236.


Benjamin Todd Lee’s translation of Graverini’s Le Metamorphosi di Apuleio. Letteratura e Identità (2007) is a clear and elegant rendering of a thought-provoking, literary and cultural commentary on Apuleius’ second century CE prose narrative, The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses). When dealing with the work of an accomplished and established scholar in Apuleian studies, a reviewer (or at least this reviewer) finds it productive to play the part of respondent and to engage with the ideas as creatively as possible. The book is refreshingly confident in its characterisation of our one complete Latin ‘novel’ and ranges over the core conundrums of the text. The power of G.’s approach lies in his ability to synthesize conflicting perspectives, to disentangle possible cultural motivators in the writing of the novel, and even, daringly, to speculate on an intended and actual readership in Apuleius’ own time. There is plenty of room for agreement and disagreement in G.’s propositions, but I am in sympathy with many of the assumptions and conclusions that feature in this book.

G. concedes that the novel “did not enjoy any great prestige, at least not in the most elite and conservative literary circles” (p. xii), but he goes on to argue that “Beyond the dialectic between pleasing entertainment and philosophical engagement, we must remember that the novel is, perhaps above all, a sophisticated literary product” (p. xiii—cf. James, 1987, pp. 2-3, 246-8 on Apuleius’ literary showmanship). G. flags up his intention to examine the satirical timbre of the narrative and suggests that this reinforces associations with “the transmission of a certain moral or philosophical message” (p. xiii). However, he differs from scholars who, in the light of the Isis finale, view the novel as a satire upon “religious fatuousness”.

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