Which book is the world’s earliest novel? That question will probably never be definitively answered, but Callirhoe may have the best claim of any tex...moreWhich book is the world’s earliest novel? That question will probably never be definitively answered, but Callirhoe may have the best claim of any text out there. Callirhoe is one of seven novels surviving more or less intact from western antiquity: two Roman ones (The Golden Ass and the Satyricon) and five in Greek*. There are other texts hovering around the margins that could be added to this list, most of them very fragmentary, but the seven listed here are the big ones. The brilliant Satyricon is quite probably the oldest, dating from 65 AD or so, but that peculiar combination of prose, poetry, and mayhem won’t strike many modern readers as a true "novel".
Callirhoe, on the other hand, is a novel as we understand the form today: it’s a fiction story in prose with a clear beginning, middle and end. The dates of all the early novels are very fuzzy, but Callirhoe was probably composed around the beginning of the second century AD, which could well make it the oldest of the seven (Satyricon excepted). Not only is it possibly the world’s oldest novel, but it might be the oldest example of historical fiction. The story is set around 400 BC and features real historical figures from that era, including Hermocrates of Syracuse and Artaxerxes II of Persia. The book is a romance between two young Greek lovers who are separated shortly after marriage, and describes their wild adventures as they fight to reunite with each other.
”Callirhoe” by Raymond Auguste Quinsac Monvoisin (1823)
The plot is entertaining and filled with action. In a relatively short amount of space, Callirhoe crams in kidnapping, slave trading, a character being buried alive, an attempted crucifixion, a trial, and battles on land and sea. In addition to the leading lights of Sicily, the kings of Persia and Egypt wander onto the stage. Narrative setpieces include Sicily, Turkey, Syria, Babylon, and more. The quick pace and the sheer insanity of all that befalls the two lovers makes Callirhoe a fun read, and unlike some writers of his era the author of Callirhoe manages to tie things off with a satisfying and fulfilling ending.
That said, this is not the pinnacle of ancient literature. The prose, at least in my translation, was nothing to write home about. More disconcerting for modern readers is the one-dimensional nature of virtually every character in the novel. Character development was simply not part of the formula for most ancient fiction writers, and this aspect of the book will seem very old fashioned to most modern eyes, especially when combined with the ancient author’s love of rhetoric and rhetorical flourishes. Personally, I really missed the humor that made the Satyricon such a favorite of mine; this romance is all melodrama without a laugh in sight.
Still, Callirhoe is a fun story and a quick read. I would recommend this book to readers interested in Greco-Roman literature, or readers interested in learning more about the development of the novel. Interest in the five Greek novels has picked up in recent years, with a number of fresh new translations hitting the market (I recommend the Penguin version for interested readers), and it’s nice to see these overlooked classics getting the attention they deserve. 3 stars.
*Callirhoe, Leucippe and Clitophon, Ephesian Tales, Daphnis and Chloe, and Ethiopian Tales.(less)
Every legend has a beginning. For Agent 007, that came in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale.
Now, I’ve been a fan of the various Bond movies for y...moreEvery legend has a beginning. For Agent 007, that came in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale.
Now, I’ve been a fan of the various Bond movies for years, but I’d never tackled one of the novels until now. Casino Royale is the first of 14 Bond novels and story collections that Fleming produced, and it’s a little rough around the edges (as one might expect from a rookie novelist). The prose is not bad by any means, but it’s nothing fancy. More puzzling is the structure. I remember watching the movie version of this story and wondering why it was put together the way it was; as it turns out, the movie was pretty faithful to its source material. In a nutshell, the action in the casino and the faceoff with the villain all take place in the second third of the book, leaving the final third to a rather meandering final act that felt a bit anticlimactic. I didn’t hate this, but it definitely felt a little “off,” and I can easily see it bothering some readers. Speaking of bothering readers, it will be no surprise to most that James is not a card-carrying member of NOW, but the 1950s version takes things uncomfortably far:
“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men?”
Say it ain’t so, James. So, with all of this nitpicking, why the four-star grade?
In one word: style. I thought this book was as cool as a chilled martini, and found it great fun to read. The clothes…the booze…the cars…the caviar…all fantastic. It reminded me a bit of the show Mad Men in this respect. The scenes at the baccarat table were suspenseful and well crafted, and Fleming does a great job of explaining what for many readers will be an obscure game (in the film, they changed it to Texas Hold ‘Em) so the action at the table is easy to follow. Le Chiffre is a good, sinister villain, and Bond (ice cold in his original incarnation) is a compelling hero.
Overall this was a very fun spy thriller with some great moments. At under 200 pages this is a quick breezy read, and fans of the movies will be interested to see how 007 was portrayed 60 years ago when he first hit the scene. As I noted above (and other reviewers have pointed out before me), this is a cold, almost cruel 007, from his pontifications on the role of the modern woman to the book’s gut-punch of a final line: (view spoiler)["The bitch is dead now" (hide spoiler)] Oof. Maybe not the man you’d want dating your sister, but he’s a hell of a lot of fun to read about. 4 stars, recommended!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)