- Nox Philologiae: Aulus Gellius and the Fantasy of the Roman Library
When long ago I had the good fortune to read the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius through - which, like most others, I did while working on something else - I found myself thinking what a good musical comedy it [End Page 276] would make, with its nerdy, Athens-bound scholars on board ship, stargazing, or weathering a storm: just right for a dance number. Erik Gunderson's book has finally given me the chance to bring this up because, by choosing to read Gellius's book cover-to-cover, as literature, he puts its ludic nature on show. Pervasively quotable, full of witty, on-target translations, the book returns to the lucidity and stylistic charm of Gunderson's early essays. It is a pleasure to read.
Gellius wrote in the mid-100s CE as part of the culturalmovement known as the Second Sophistic, in which erudition and its performance came to the fore as cultural capital. Gunderson has structured the book to play with the nesting-box effect of Gellus's writing practice: the Attic Nights is a collection of chapters in which Gellius is sometimesthe effaced author, sometimesthe narrator, and sometimes a character, participating in discussions of other writers' writings or of other writers' discussions of other writers' writings: Gellius readsVarro reading Plautus. The Oxford text of Gellius has two prefaces, the editor's and Gellius's; Gunderson's book thus has three. There is a double title page, in one of which the author is Gunderson; the 'real' title page lists Gunderson as the editor, with a note claiming that the book is a reprint of an old dusty book now to be found only in antiquarian bookshops. Like Gellius's, Gunderson's table of contents has its own chapter. The index is placed in the middle of the book, recalling Melville's catalogue of whales, but with jokes tucked into it ('Erewhon, deest'); here, when the index mixes real with fictional names, this is significant. The Nights are the winter nights Gellius spent studying in Greece, to me recalling the epigraph to Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean: 'a winter's dream, when longest are the nights' - itself drawn from Gellius's contemporary, Lucian.
The Borges of 'Pierre Menard,' of Babel's library, of 'Tlön, Uqbar,' haunts these pages. Readers of A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale will like this book, as will fans of Pater, of Walter Benjamin on collecting, of Aubrey's Brief Lives; this scrapbook is about scrapbooks, 'the traces left behind by a life of letters,' the vocabulary museum. Much amplifying Louis Montrose's axiom on the textuality of history, Gunderson reminds us of how much of what we know about Latin literature is what Gellius says, flattening the rabbit of literary history into the antiquarian's collapsible top hat. And after the rabbit we go, falling through the layers of 'derivative authority.'
Are we antiquarians? Like Gellius, we make a narrative out of bits and notes; Gunderson treats himself, his fellow classicists, Gellius's ancient readers, Gellius, and the writers Gellius reads as successive practitioners. The gains toward an understanding of Gellius are considerable: Gunderson's Gellius compares himself to Aristophanes; Gunderson sees him as festivus ('sociable and witty'), like Athenaeus or Macrobius or even Plato, making conversation at a dinner party. Yet intellectual and class-based one-upmanship informs these dinners, with their [End Page 277] showing-off party games; one takes place at the villa of Herodes Atticus, a billionaire, as any readerwouldhave known(1.2).The 'scenographyof authority' sets Gellius's tales in country estates, libraries, carriages, bookshops, where Gellius and his friends belittle any hapless grammaticus - paid teacher - who falls in their way. Gunderson marks their 'cruel laughter.' Sound familiar?
Apart from the mass of typographical errors, today almost too common to require comment, the chief blemish on this beautifully made book is the surprisingly 'mean-spirited,' even 'nasty' excursus on the work of Gunderson...