August 31st, 2008


Make it ancient!

I'm delighted to say that it looks as though we've found an English-language publisher for The Book of Jokes -- no details until the deal is done, but they're American and have a great list. The book -- my first novel -- will come out (in French, German and English) in the autumn of 2009.

Utter silliness, obscenity, bravado, ridiculous plot twists, bawdy humour and magical episodes -- The Book of Jokes isn't exactly in the tradition of Tolstoy, George Eliot and Dostoyevsky. If I had to trace the ancestral line it is in, it'd probably be more like: Lucian, Apuleius, Aesop, Ovid, Chaucer, Boccacio, La Fontaine, Rabelais, Goldoni, Moliere, Voltaire, Sterne, Kierkegaard, The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Kafka, Cocteau, Dario Fo, Donald Barthelme, Nicholson Baker, Tao Lin.

This is a tradition of farcical metamorphosis, and it begins two thousand years ago. British novelist Tibor Fischer gives an excellent introduction to its beginnings in this radio programme (which I've mp3ed, because the BBC has a tendency to whisk these things away after a few days) about Chariton and Apuleius, first and second century novelists from the extended Greek and Roman diaspora:

The Ancient Novel BBC Radio 4 (23.4MB stereo mp3 file).

Far from being innovative in the Modernist "make it new" tradition, I'd say my Book of Jokes is trying to "make it ancient". It's trying to divert inventively, chaining together funny stories (by other, often nameless, authors; old riffs told in new ways) and digressing all over the place. Lector, intende: laetaberis says Apuleius in the prologue to The Golden Ass: "Lend me your ear, reader: you shall enjoy yourself". Which is what it's all about.

As Fischer says, the oldest known novel (if we don't include things like the Odyssey) is Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, written in Aphrodisias (in modern-day Turkey) in the first century AD. A historical romance of sorts -- and frankly a bit glitzy and trashy -- this interests me less than the one the Carthaginian Lucius Apuleius (known as "Africanus", because Carthage was, of course, in Africa) wrote a century or so later: The Golden Ass (or The Metamorphoses). Lucian (one of the main sources for information on Momus, the ludicrous god I'm named after) wrote his own version at about the same time, Lucios or The Ass.

The plot is basically that Lucius, trying to change himself into a bird, gets stuck as an ass (yes, Shakespeare did use this in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and spends most of the novel tagging along with deities, trying to get changed back into human form. There are set pieces like the marriage of Cupid and Psyche and an extraordinary account of the cult of the goddess Isis which is now one of the main sources of information on this vanished religion. (Another writer, Fischer reminds us, was scribbling down the Book of Revelation at about the same time.)

You can read the whole of the Golden Ass (or get your computer to read it -- mine has the voice of Lawrence Olivier) here. It's the 1566 edition, so the language is pretty Shakespearean. It's a ripping yarn -- or do I mean a farcical set of metamorphoses?