Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

May Books 25-26) The Golden Ass, by Apuleius (and Milo Manara's version)

I knew nothing about this book other than that it was very popular among the dead people whose libraries are catalogued on LibraryThing (including C.S. Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, T. E. Lawrence, William Faulkner, W.B. Yeats, Robert E. Howard, and Danilo Kiš). It turns out to be a very entertaining story of one Lucius, who witnesses (or hears about, or participates in) various fantastic escapades, most of them involving sex, mostly after he has been turned into a donkey, written some time around 160 AD and set in Thessaly (though the author lived in north Africa). The most famous bit is the story of Cupid and Psyche. It is apparently the only full novel to survive from classical times (which makes you think).

It was obviously a source for Bocaccio, who puts several incidents from it straight into the Decameron (and whose personal manuscript copy survives in Florence). It was also (from the list above) obviously popular in the early twentieth century, but skipped over by earlier celebrated bibliophiles - presumably too risqué for eighteenth and nineteenth century tastes.

It is less directly a source for Shakespeare. A lot of people see it as a direct source for A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I am not wholly convinced: Bottom is no Lucius to whom things just happen, but a glorious creation in his own right; only his head is transformed, as a result of a spell cast by someone else rather than a magic ointment administered by himself, and most crucially Titania's ridiculous infatuation with the semi-human Bottom has no real parallel - Lucius as donkey does become a sex object but the circumstances are completely different. Where I do see some direct influence on Shakespeare, it's the soap operas of fake poisons and sexual deception; Much Ado About Nothing seems to me the most Apuleian of Shakespeare plays, though there are bits of it in most of the middle period of comedies.

It occurred to me that with its multiple shifts of narrative voice and setting, The Golden Ass would make a great graphic novel. I was excited to discover that the Italian artist Milo Manara has done just that. Manara's version is probably a good way of getting people interested in the classics, but doesn't really do the original justice; he has stripped the narrative down to the most erotic parts of the original text, in a setting thronged with nubile and improbably nude young women. Rather oddly, he injects a couple of political reflections into Lucius' thought processes which I did not really find in the original. It's fun but not the real thing.
Tags: bookblog 2009, comics, writer: shakespeare

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