The Picaresque Writer: What a Reading of Apuleius' Metamorphoses Can Tell about Lazarillo de Tormes (and Vice Versa)
Keywords:Latin literature, Roman literature, Spanish literature, Metamorphoses, picaresque novel, narrator, comical novel
The article explores the characteristics of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses which might have been incorporated into the Spanish picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes. Several parallels, especially at the surface level, have often been pointed out by critics: the first-person narrator giving a retrospective account of his life and service under various masters, Fortune as propelling the action, etc. Indeed, Lazarillo in many aspects echoes the Metamorphoses, which was by no means its only source of inspiration, at the same time revealing or suggesting other possible interpretations of its source.
After a brief introduction of both works, the article sheds some light on a problem regarding the interpretation of Book 11 of the Metamorphoses. The prevailing tone of the last book and, consequently, of the Metamorphoses as a whole is humorous rather than purely religious, which is due to such disruptive, if not downright comic, features as false conclusions (three consecutive initiations in place of an expected single one); Lucius’ naivety in interpreting the prophecies; the issue of the money needed for the initiations; the judgement of his ultimate profession in the forum as a lawyer; his surprising pride in displaying his baldness as a pastophor in spite of his previous rhetorically elaborate praise of hair; the presence of the corrupted priests of the Cybele cult slightly earlier, in Book 10; and, finally, Lucius’ indiscretions, resulting in his breaking the pledge of secrecy to which he is bound as a cult member, allegedly solely for the sake of the readers.
Yet despite the comedy and irony of the Metamorphoses, one cannot, and should not, completely disregard the presence of religious and philosophical themes. Thus it could be argued that the author/narrator remains to a certain degree true to the idea of dulce et utile, disguised as Isthmos Ephyrea in the prologue.
The article continues by bringing to light the relationship between the oral and written aspects of both novels, and the true intentions of the narrators, which are mere reflections of the real authors at work. Both novels conclude with the protagonists being, by Fortune or God, assigned a profession that is oral by nature, but through the final product of their narration, the book, both display their writing abilities and, above all, their literary ambitions.
In the case of Lazarillo, one can speak of a ‘social’ transgression into the world of literature, which was not open to such daring literary attempts of an insignificant nobody. Even more disturbing is the fact that there is no substantial evidence of Lázaro’s formal education or literary formation; as a speaker he seems to have been formed under various masters, while his writing abilities leave one key question unanswered: when did he learn to write?
The transgression, alongside with a transition from an oral form to a written one, closely resembles theVita Aesopi, where Aesop gives legitimacy to a folkloric and oral literary genre, fables, by writing them down in a book, and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, where the actor-narrator transfers the oral accounts of fables, speeches etc. to the novel.
The first-person narrative gives the narrators of both the Metamorphoses and Lazarillo complete control over the narration itself, enabling them to depict their former selves as victims of Fortuna and other comparable forces. The actors are, furthermore, victimized by the regular recurrence of such narrative elements as laughter, beating, hunger.
When confronted with a first-person narrative, the reader must at all times discern between the real author and the narrator-actor. The hidden identity of Apuleius’ Quis ille and the anonymity of Lazarillofurther blur the issues of Who is speaking? and Who to? The narrative levels merge, and the distinction between author and narrator becomes unclear. Both narrators transcend the barriers of fiction by writing a real book. The consistent and clear flow of narration reveals the literary ambitions of the actor-narrator in relation to the intradiegetic reader, which merely reflect the literary ambitions of the real author in relation to the extradiegetic reader, the reader with the book in his hand.
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