- Four Byzantine Novels by Elizabeth Jeffreys, trans.
This wonderful book presents for the first time to a modern readership four important yet seldom known novels, dating back to twelfth-century Constantinople: Theodore Prodromos’s Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Eumathios Makrembolites’s Hysmine and Hysminias, Constantine Manasses’s Aristandros [End Page 308] and Kallithea, and Niketas Eugenianos’s Drosilla and Charikles. Until very recently, these texts have been largely overlooked, and Elizabeth Jeffreys’s much-needed edition and study is a landmark contribution that will make them available to a wider audience and have a lasting impact on literary scholarship.
This beautifully edited volume does important work in filling in some of the missing links in understanding between late Antique and Early Renaissance prose fiction writing, between the work of Heliodorus or Achilles Tatius and that of Cervantes or Rabelais. Jeffreys’s excellent translation and helpful footnoting bring the old texts back to life not only for the Byzantine Studies specialist, but also for scholars in related disciplines (such as Romance Literatures, and Medieval and Early Modern Studies), and indeed to anyone with a serious interest in the history and development of narrative genres.
For all four novels, Jeffreys notes the influence of post-classical rhetoric in the constitution of narrative strategy and of fictional writing. This essential feature was passed on to Renaissance authors such as Cervantes, but has to date received very little critical attention. Equally important features are pastiche and digression, both of which betray a conscious effort to expand basic narrative plots (love and adventure, separation and reunion) into multi-layered, atomized, non-linear narratives. It is easy to see why these texts would have fascinated Baroque Europe, a culture obsessed with the production of meaning and reader engagement through textual commentary and interpretation. In a manner that is consistent with these formal concerns, erotic vicissitude is often appropriated for ideological comment, and the frequent use of fantasy and fantastic elements (such as the retelling of mythical legends, or the description of dreams) becomes a crafty narrative device for plot development and narrative denouement.
That these texts have been allowed to remain largely ignored for centuries is a sad reminder of just how narrow the limits of the modern literary canon can be, and further proof of their damaging effect on a fabulous literary legacy. We have much to thank Professor Jeffreys for, but still much more is left to do. This essential volume is both a small joyous triumph and a great step forward in the right direction. [End Page 309]
The University of Queensland