"In this hapless state I looked myself over and saw that I was now no bird, but an ass...."
In this ancient picaresque adventure, Lucius, an insatiably curious young man, finds himself transformed into a donkey after his fascination with black magic and witchcraft goes awry. While trapped in his new body, he becomes the property of thieves, farmers, cooks, soldiers, and priests, and observes the hypocrisy and ineptitude of Imperial Roman society. The Golden Ass is considered the only novel to survive the Roman period, and the earliest novel to survive complete in the Western literary tradition. It is brimming with slapstick humor and sexual escapades, and foreshadows later works by Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, and Chaucer, upon whom it was a direct influence.
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Not Wiser…But Very Well Informed
That’s how Lucius, our hero, describes himself near the end of his odyssey in an ass’ shape. And the same can be said of anyone who has tagged along with him. In the course of this picaresque pastiche, we encounter all levels of humanity in the Greco-Roman world. Starting with the likeable rogue who serves as our narrator, we meet concupiscent wives, corrupt priests, malevolent witches, rapacious landlords, seduce-able servants, tight-fisted millionaires, profligate millionaires, even a legionary unable to defend himself from the fists of a poor old gardener. In his ass’ guise Lucius discovers that animals can be just as bad. C. S. Lewis wrote of, “…the peculiar quality of the [Golden Ass], that strange compound of picaresque novel, horror-comic mystagogue’s tract, pornography and stylistic experiment”, and he was about right.
In fact, it was Lewis who prompted me to listen to Apuleius. Last February I picked up his final novel, Till We Have Faces (1956), as a Daily Deal. Having learned that the book was written out of Lewis’ near-lifelong dissatisfaction with aspects of the story of Cupid and Psyche as told in The Golden Ass, I thought it would be a good idea to know that book first. Having just finished Till We Have Faces, it’s a course of action I can’t recommend too highly.
David Timson is, as always, spectacular. He doesn’t just read, he performs—and he has plenty to work with here. His Lucius is a charming, susceptible, morally obtuse young man who may—or may not—be a reformed character by the end; the final book has perplexed more adroit readers than me for the past 1,800 years.
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