The Satyricon of Petronius, as everyone knows, is an “open” novel, like the novels of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Céline, and unlike the closed, tightly closed novels of Flaubert and Manzoni. An open novel—a series of events and adventures without a beginning, middle, or end; without a story, an internal structure. One could add whole chapters to the Satyricon, as to the novels of Miller and Céline, and not damage it at all. Unfortunately, in the Satyricon’s case, whole chapters have disappeared, to its serious impairment, so that today we have only the conclusion of a long, saga-like novel of antiquity. Yet the fact is that even with these amputations the meaning of the work is not lost. But just try to amputate part of a novel by Flaubert and see what you have left.
What is the reason, though, for this open, serial construction, that is, a novel told in episodes or segments barely tied together? We believe that it was that Petronius, like Miller and Céline, reflects in his work a world that is also “open”—the world of the Roman decadence, bereft of rigorous social structures, respected moral conventions, reigning intellectual patterns; but, in recompense, rich in the unexpected, in novelties, absurdities, incongruences, and surprises. Closed novels reflect closed milieux: salons, houses, palaces; open novels, like that of Petronius, the open milieu par excellence—the street. In the salons, houses, and palaces we encounter the castes, classes, professional groups; in the street, the crowd.
It is obvious that Petronius was only partly aware of all this. As the refined and cultivated man of letters, he was in his novel simply using a genre that had by then most likely attained a definitive maturity: the satire or picaresque novel of ancient times, which in fact demanded that the narration pass with ease and agility, without order or logic, from episode to episode, from subject to subject, with the sole apparent aim of amusing the reader.
Of course, such a novel can only be comic. The scale of values lies shattered on the ground; not only does the writer not believe in anything but he also does not feel any yearning or desire to believe. Standing just above his contemptible characters, he establishes a distance of derision between himself and them, in the very way that the people in certain groups or, better, certain cliques mock each other, even cruelly and harshly, without the mockery implying any real moral differences.
Petronius is superior to his characters in only one respect: that of culture or, more precisely, good literature. It is understood that Petronius, even in his cynicism, always preserves his detached and scintillating gentility; but this aristocratic trait is chiefly expressed in the dazzling stylistic virtuosity which ranges with an incomparable adroitness and freedom from low tones to high, from the courtly to the dialectal, from dialogue to description, from magniloquence to realism, and so on. Hand in hand with this stylistic skill so ingrained in Petronius, the elegant…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.