Sentences — June 30, 2008, 5:13 pm

Cannot Be Confined Too Fine

“Athletes and people who take an interest in the care of the body do not confine their attentions to physical exercise and attaining a good condition,” begins a novel that recently arrived on my desk:

They take thought also for relaxation at appropriate intervals; indeed, they consider it the most important element in training. Similarly, in my opinion, literary people should after extended reading of serious authors relax mentally, to refresh themselves against subsequent exertions. They will find this interlude agreeable if they choose as company such works as not only afford wit, charm, and distraction pure and simple, but also provoke some degree of cultured reflection.

The writing seems, at times, idiomatically odd (“They take thought also for relaxation”), if not outright clunky (“as company such works as not only”). And yet, in my reading at least, sense trumps style and my interest is held as A True Story, unfolds. “I trust,” its writer continues:

the present work will be found to inspire such reflection. My readers will be attracted not merely by the novelty of the subject, the appeal of the general design, and the conviction of verisimilitude with which I compound elaborate prevarications, but also by the humorous allusions in every part of my story to various poets, historians and philosophers of former times who have concocted long, fantastic yarns—writers I should mention by name did I not think their identities would be obvious to you as you read.”

ancientgreeknovels Matters of curious diction aside (“I compound elaborate prevarications”), the writer is beginning his story not with that most famous species of beginning—the invocation of a muse—but that other, equally old incipit: the boast, in this case that a muse need not apply, our author having it very well under control, or so he claims.

My best sense is that our author is right, not that he would care, very dead as he is, along with his language, not to say his civilization. The author is Lucian (120-180), a Syrian from Samosata, a city on the Euphrates. We know little about Lucian, but are sure he was not a native Greek speaker, however well-versed he was in Greek literature. Thus he was able to produce, among other charming works, this novella-length piece of prose that plays, entertainingly, with storytelling form.

As its translator, the late B.P. Reardon, a noted scholar of the Greek novel, explains in his foreword to A True Story in his necessary omnibus, Collected Ancient Greek Novels (University of California Press), “The claim of this piece to inclusion in the present volume may be thought tenuous, but the novel, or romance—prose fiction—cannot be confined too fine, in antiquity or any other age.”

I must confess to loving that line, “cannot be confined too fine,” when we talk about the novel. We readers forget, sometimes, that Cervantes and Defoe and Flaubert were notable not for being pioneers of the novel but in it. Each narrowed, profitably, richly and, ultimately, briefly, our idea of what a novel could be. The novel cannot be confined too fine, save by novelists themselves, whose job it is to confine themselves to one idea of the novel—or, in the case of the most adventuresome practitioners, one idea of the novel at a time—in careers that try many species of confinement.

Though they share a single author, and may be accused of having indifferentiable styles, the narrowings we call Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada, and Transparent Things are as different as novels can be. The novel is, after all, nothing if not a history of its incompatibilities, and it began, as with most of our rest, in Greek.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Age at death last March of the sturgeon Nikita, Khrushchev’s gift to Norway, after an accidental immersion in salt water:

38

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today