Lucius Apuleius (125 – 180 ) is famous for his Metamorphoses, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, which is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety. It was adapted from an earlier Greek work, now lost. Apuleius wrote many other works, unfortunately quite a few also lost to history. Besides poetry and fiction, he wrote essays on a wide range of topics, including politics, agriculture, medicine, natural history, astronomy, music, and arithmetic.
The Golden Ass holds a significant place in the Western Canon. Even if the rest of The Golden Ass was not as wonderfully comedic, witty and hilariously irreverent as it is, it would still be considered a great work simply due to the tremendous influence of Cupid and Psyche, one of the tales from this work which subsequently has propagated across the classical arts (poetry, drama, painting, sculpture,etc) throughout the nearly two millennia since written.
The Golden Ass can be described as an early example of what was to be called an episodic picaresque novel, an influential style that particularly flourished in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such as in the example of Cupid and Psyche mentioned earlier, The Golden Ass contains several off-shoot short stories told by characters within the main text; some more or less standalone, others interplaying with the main plot, all entertaining. With a plot the revolves around the protagonist having been transformed into an ass, and the trails and tribulations he then encounters on his road to salvation, the work is devilishly funny and a joy to read.
The Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of the The Golden Ass is to my mind a masterly designed book, one of the many greats from the early LEC years. The binding is, imaginatively enough, ass hide (the skin of a donkey colt). Like Apuleius’ writing itself in The Golden Ass, it is remarkably smooth, as soft and creamy as any binding I have come across. For illustrations, the LEC turned to a well known architect who had not previously illustrated a book before, Percival Goodman. The illustrations make use of long, flowing lines, suggestive in nature to old Greek friezes. The Monthly Letter says “They have wit….a coursing life in them; just as the book is ribald and vivacious, so these pictures are ribald and vivacious.” Selecting a typeface to work well with this type of illustration was not easy, and designer John S. Fass turned to a typeface called Della Robbia, which had been created by T.M. Cleland (another name familiar to LEC collectors). The result works very well. The Monthly Letter tells us that Della Robbia has “a single monotone ink quality which would form into straight sharp lines across the page through having ascenders and descenders shortened to the line.”
Fass took some risks with this design, the totality of which really paid off. LEC collectors may know that Fass was the proprietor of Harbor Press, through which he was responsible for some other well thought of LEC editions such Undine by F. De La Motte Fouqué (1930), Typee by Herman Melville (1935) and The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde (1937). My only nitpick with this edition, and it is minor, is that I think the title header on the top of each page is too close to the text block itself (see Sample Illustration #1 with Text for an example).
Significant credit also must go to George Macy for selecting Jack Lindsay to do a new translation of The Golden Ass rather than just using the perfectly adequate original translation from William Adlington, from 1556. The son of artist Norman Lindsay, Jack Lindsay founded the Fanfrolico Press in the 1920’s (Fanfrolico produced some very fine editions, such as the 1926 edition of Lysistrata reviewed here, and the 1927 edition of The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius reviewed here), and was a well established and successful translator of many classic works. Lindsay’s work, in this case, is fantastic and it is hard to imagine improving on it, though in fairness I have not read the Robert Graves translation, nor two recent translations by Joel C. Relihan and Sarah Ruden.
All in all, The Golden Ass is a classic work that all should have in their library, and this LEC edition is an excellent choice to fit that role, as it is unique and very well done. The price today on this really varies, from well below $100 up to hundreds of dollars. A word of warning — many for sale say ‘very good’ or ‘near fine’ but I would ask for plenty of pictures, as I am quite skeptical of many of the claims. Though not overly delicate, this 82 year old book is prone to sunning and discoloration. This is one edition where it is well worth being patient and finding one with the cover and spine in at least close to fine condition, as the binding is a large part of this editions charm.
About the Edition
- Translation by Jack Lindsay, done for this edition
- 100 illustrations, line drawings in pen, by Percival Goodman, his first illustrated book (a well known architect at the time)
- Designed and printed by John S. Fass at The Harbor Press
- Typeface called Della Robbia, issued by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, created by T.M. Cleland
- Mr Fass printed initials in vermilion, and used a rather dressy German initial just issued at the Klingspor Foundry in Germany
- Dull-white paper, smooth and thin, somewhat opaque, from the Worthy Paper Company
- Bound with ass hide (the skin of a donkey colt), finished in its natural tannage. Creamy in color, soft, title stamped in pure gold, slipcase of gold paper
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Percival Goodman
- 424 pages, 6″ x 10″
Pictures of the Edition
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