The Original Great Gatsby: Petronius’ Satyricon
In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the ancient Roman novel that inspired James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald
Today is Bloomsday. James Joyce’s vast modernist masterpiece, Ulysses (1922), is set in Dublin on a single day, 16 June 1904. Since at least the 1950s, devotees of Joyce’s novel have marked the 16th of June each year by reading the book, getting drunk on Guinness, or – in the case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – getting married on that day. I’d like to mark Bloomsday by paying homage to ancient Rome’s equivalent to Joyce’s 1920s novel, and an underappreciated work of classical literature that almost certainly influenced him.
Three of the most important works of western literature from the 1920s, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, all tip a wink to a remarkable work of literature from classical Rome that has survived only as fragments. Depending on your view, it’s either one of the first novels ever written, or a scandalous piece of trashy pornography. Its title – Satyricon, meaning ‘satyr-like adventures’ – provides a clue to the bawdiness on offer.
The book’s author, Petronius, is equally curious. He was at the court of the Emperor Nero (where he held the rather splendid title elegantiae arbiter or ‘Arbiter of Elegance’) in the first century. The historian Tacitus reported that Nero thought nothing charming unless Petronius approved of it first. Unfortunately, this high opinion didn’t last: Nero ended up thinking that the most charming thing Petronius could do was kill himself. It appears that a scheming rival named Tigellinus, jealous of Petronius’ high standing, contrived to convince Nero that his trusty Arbiter of Elegance was a traitor. Nero eventually ordered his former favourite’s death. Petronius chose to execute the sentence himself, opening up a vein in his wrists and slowly allowing himself to bleed to death while he nattered away to his friends about poetry and shared a light meal. Even his own death was turned into art.
The title of his novel, the Satyricon, carries a double meaning: it refers to the bawdy satyrs of Greek myth (they of the giant strap-on penises), but it also suggests the book’s satirical flavour. Specifically, the Satyricon is Menippean satire (a form of satire which mocks general attitudes rather than specific individuals or institutions), a sprawling melange of drunkenness, debauchery, heated discussions about art and education, and visits to the lavatory. The portion of the book that has survived – probably something like less than a tenth of the entire work, and perhaps far less – follows the book’s narrator, a former gladiator named Encolpius, and his lover, a teenage servant-boy called Giton. Much of this surviving fragment focuses on the lavish feast put on by Trimalchio, an obscenely wealthy former slave. ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ (along with ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’) was one of Fitzgerald’s discarded titles for the novel that became, at the eleventh hour, The Great Gatsby.
Is the Satyricon great art or lurid pornography? That interminable debate begins, in many ways, with Petronius’ novel – indeed, if it can be called a ‘novel’ either. It’s certainly remarkably modern in all sorts of ways, not least for its focus on the real, everyday lives of Roman people (before Petronius, classical poetry and drama tended to depict human beings idealistically rather than realistically). As Steven Moore notes in The Novel: An Alternative History, Petronius’ book shares much with James Joyce’s modern masterpiece, Ulysses: the loose reworking of the plot of Homer’s Odyssey, the scurrilous obscenity, the diversity of literary style and the engagement with previous works of literature. But Petronius was writing nearly two millennia before Joyce, whose Ulysses was published in 1922. T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, also published in 1922, takes its epigraph from Petronius’ work.
Petronius’ novel is one of the first ever narratives in which the narrator is also one of the characters in the story, rather than the general detached narrator of the romances and epics produced up until this time. For this and a myriad other reasons it represents a decisive moment in the development of fiction. Oxford World’s Classics has an affordable modern translation of this decidedly modern classical novel – or what’s left of it, anyway: The Satyricon (Oxford World’s Classics).
The above article is a revised version of an excerpt from Oliver Tearle’s The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.