Saturday, August 03, 2013

The True Story of the Novel

Margaret Anne Doody: The True Story of the Novel (1996)]

The other day I was looking around a second-hand bookshop in Takapuna when I chanced upon a copy of this book, The True Story of the Novel, by Margaret Anne Doody. It cost me $16.

[Professor Margaret Anne Doody (University of Notre Dame)]

I guess I picked it up with a certain frisson, because it suddenly occurred to me that someone else might have finally written the book I'd been secretly planning myself for years: an alternative history of the novel, written in opposition to Ian Watt's classic (but somewhat reductionist) The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957). For years I'd been irritated by Watt's implication, codified into dogma by generations of lazy critics, that Samuel Richardson was somehow the "first novelist", and Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded(1740-41) thus the "first true novel."

Ian Watt: The Rise of the Novel (1957)

What of Daniel Defoe, you may ask? Surely he (at least) predates Richardson? After all, Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719. More to the point, what of earlier long prose fictions such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave (1688)?

Thomas Southerne: Oroonoko (1776)

Well, the received wisdom appears to be that works such as Defoe's and Behn's (and all the other novel-length narratives, going back all the way to the Latin and Greek writers of the early Christian era) were simply romances, rather than actual novels.

And what, you may ask, is the precise distinction between a "romance" and a "novel"? A novel - we're told - is basically realistic in focus, preoccupied with the psychology of its characters, and (as a form) is associated with the growth of individuality and self-consciousness in the early bourgeois era (roughly: from the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century onwards).

Unfortunately this doctrine makes little sense of works such as Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605 / 1615) which was written as a basically realist parody of chivalric romances, but which has nothing in paricular to do with any kind of bourgeois revolution, and is - in fact - contemporary with Shakespeare's experiments with psychology and self-consciousness (Hamlet (c.1603), for instance).

Nor does the distinction between "romance" and "novel" really work in languages other than English. In French, for example, the word roman means "novel" as well as "romance." In Spanish novela can means "short story", "novel" or "romance" (though the word romanza also exists, but stands basically for a "romance novel" - in the Mills & Boon sense - or else a libro de caballerías: romance of chivalry).

Don Quixote, mind you, however influential it is and continues to be on world literature, is not exactly a psychological novel in the modern sense. But psychology and self-consciousness certainly figure in prose fiction long before that. What of Lady Murasaki's masterpiece The Tale of Genji (c.1000), for instance?

Margaret Anne Doody: The True Story of the Novel (1996)]

Given my fascination for the subject, how did I avoid coming across Professor Doody's pioneering work before? It was, after all, published in 1996. And, leafing through its pages, I saw that she was far more well-informed than I on the fallacies in the existing model of the "rise of the novel." Not only was she a specialist on Richardson, having written and edited various critical books about him and his contemporaries, but she'd also taught herself Greek for the purpose of better understanding the classical novels which are the main focus of her study.

What's more, a brief glance at her index disclosed references to the Chinese and Japanese novels which I consider indispensable to any real discussion of the growth of the "novel" genre over the past two thousand years.

There isn't much about the Tale of Genji or the Red Chamber Dream (c. 1750) in her book, though, beyond the mere invocation of their names. A true scholar, Doody tries to avoid discussing in detail any work she is unable to read in the original.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. Was I disappointed to discover that I'd been gazumped? That this book had been sitting there on the shelves all the time I was gathering materials towards my own "true history" of the novel? Not really, no.

Actually, in a sense, it was more of a relief. What had put me off getting to work seriously on the project was precisely this question of linguistic competence. I can read a few European languages with reasonable fluency, but not Greek or even Latin. Nor do I speak any Oriental languages. I lack the Persian and Arabic (and even, possibly, Sanskrit) which would be required to chart that part of the novel's journey to world dominance. I did study Old Icelandic once, and could probably work my way through some of the sagas with a bit of help, but not with any real facility.

Professor Doody would know what I'm talking about. I'm sure that she's aware that her own alternative genealogy of the novel - from Greek and Latin novels, through medieval romances, to the eighteenth-century novel of sentiment - leaves out vast tracts of the story: the Indian and Persian frame-story, transplanted into Arabic in the form of the 1001 Nights; the late medieval Icelandic family sagas; the glorious tradition of the classic Chinese novel; and - last but not least - the sublime Genji and its successors in Japanese literature.

As she herself puts it, though: "Endeavouring to learn Greek took a while; I cannot say I have mastered it, I do not 'have' Greek, but I am no longer reliant on translators" [p.xviii]. Let those who have never tried to learn another language scoff at this statement. The idea of having to learn six or seven more difficult languages as a mere preliminary to a closer study even of the acknowledged prose masterpieces in these very separate (and complex) traditions would be enough to daunt a Burton, let alone an indifferent scholar such as myself! I salute Professor Doody for the immensity of the labour hidden behind this sentence, but I can't follow her example - not in any feasible universe known to me, at any rate.

Doody goes on to comment: "It is to be hoped that Chinese and Japanese writers will tell their own 'Story of the Novel' and explain the traditions and tropes of their own fiction. After all, there have been contacts between East and West through the millennia; if there had not, the West would have no novel, or a different one" [p.xix].

In any case, even the partial revisionism of Doody's own book, seeking to reinscribe the so-called "Classic Romance" into the mainstream of the history of the Western Novel, appears to have met with a good deal of resistance. In the notes to her final chapter, she outlines some of the more extreme reactions:
J. Paul Hunter in Before Novels [1990] expresses a sense that getting rid of the categories "Novel" and "Romance" would be "dangerous." He expresses a fear of a "new literary history built thoughtlessly on the rubble of the old" (4: my italics). A change in the categories would be a kind of bomb, reducing structures to leveled rubble and encouraging the mushrooming of jerry-built hutments. ...

When I gave a talk on the early novels and their influence on eighteenth-century literature at a meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in Providence, R.I., in April 1993, I was asked during the question period "why I wanted to bash everything down to one level?" I had not hitherto thought of my thesis in that way, but I could see that, to anyone used to the Rise of the Novel as a story of hierarchy and spatial erection, my narrative could seem like a loss of attributed eminence. I tried to reply that my own spatial metaphor was different - I saw it in terms of leaping over a paddock fence and escaping into a larger space. [p.529]

I think that that gives some idea of what Doody was up against when she published her book in the mid-nineties. Most professors have already written their "Rise of the Novel" lectures and course-notes, and few want to dust them off and reconsider them unless they absolutely have to.

I myself have noticed a glazing-over of the eyes among some of my colleagues when I suggest to them that any true understanding of the novel must take not simply Pamela, Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote into account, but also the four classic Chinese novels (The Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Journey to the West and the Red Chamber Dream), as well as the Genji - not to mention the Arabian Nights and the Sanskrit Ocean of the Streams of Story (both of which have a number of novel-length stories incorporated within them).

I can therefore sympathise with how Doody felt when she informed her scholarly audience that they couldn't really begin to comprehend the "bourgeois novel" they'd all devoted so much time to without a much more intimate knowledge of Apuleius, Chariton, Heliodorus, Longus, Lucian and Petronius. Goethe and Fielding knew these texts well - can their latter-day interpreters really afford not to?

Abraham Bloemaert: Charikleia and Theagenes (1625)

It's interesting, in this respect, to observe that the wikipedia article on the Genji remarks that it is "sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic." But even the Genji is long predated by Apuleius's Golden Ass - surely just as much of "a classic"? And, if you dispute Apuleius' status as a psychological novelist, what of Heliodorus? If you haven't ever read him, you really should.

There are various reasons for the neglect of Margaret Anne Doody's book, mind you. The explicitly feminist colouring of her analysis, useful though it is as a focus for her argument, gives other, more partisan critics an excuse to ignore or disprize it. What's more, the book is not of uniform merit throughout. Her clear and cogent account of the Ancient Novel in Part One, is followed by an equally persuasive historical section charting its influence up to (and including) the Eighteenth Century. After that, however, comes an 150-page attempt to identify the common tropes inherent in all novels, ancient and modern, which is inevitably more speculative, and which goes off at times into religiose musings which completely lack the persuasive solidity of the first two sections.

Part Three: Tropes of the Novel is extremely interesting, mind you. She breaks them down into seven basic clusters of event / description / plot construction:
  1. Breaking and Entering: "Novels often begin with a 'break' or a 'cut.' These, or analogous words - 'pierce,' 'sunder,' 'shatter,' etc. - are likely to be found in the first paragraphs." [p.309]

  2. Marshes, Shores and Muddy Margins: "Beaches and marshy margins are omnipresent in fiction ... The place between water and land functions most obviously and overtly as a threshold. Its presence signifies the necessity of passing from one state to another. It is liminality made visible and palpable." [p.321]

  3. Tomb, Cave and Labyrinth: "Taphos or taphros - tomb or trench, sepulchre or grave. The place of sepulture can be envisaged as miniature house of the dead ... or as the pit, the ditch. The place of sepulture gapes for novel characters, and they not uncommonly find themselves in the hole. The matter may be treated any number of ways by novelists: it may indeed form the stuff of comedy ..." [p.338]

  4. Jim Henson: Labyrinth (1986)

  5. Eros: "Eros (or Cupid) as a trope of fiction is a multiple and subtle signifier, even when introduced in apparently incidental embellishment. He stands, usually, outside the story proper, yet to come upon him is to encounter him, an experience always important for the reader, whether the character is conscious of Eros or not. The encounter itself fulfills the trope." [p.359]

  6. Marta Dahlig: Eros & Psyche

  7. Ekphrasis: Looking at the Picture: "Although other kinds of creative and created things may be invoked over and over again within any given novel, the visual image has a special place and a peculiar status ... It reminds us of the visible world, and thus of the sensible universe, but it also speaks of stasis, and artifice - of things out of nature. It transforms us into powerful gazers ..." [p.387]

  8. Nicolas Poussin: Et in Arcadia Ego (c.1637)

  9. Ekphrasis: Dreams and Food: "A novel customarily contain both tropic Moment (or Stations): the Art-work in ekphrasis, and the Dream. Both are tropes of contemplation. The Artwork helps us with recognition of our familiar cultural world, our public images, historically valuable modes of imaginative apprehension ... The Dream is not only a greater challenge to our powers of interpretation, but also a disturber of all sorts of systems of separation, or taxonomies. In the Dream .. we make contact with imagination, and with the imaginative element in all consciousness." [pp.406-7]
    ... "Whereas dreams issue (supposedly) from the deep 'interior' of the character, enabling us to posit a vivid and complex psychic life, and hence a human reality 'within' the character, food disappears 'into' the supposed physical interior of the character, persuading us that a character has a solid physical life." [p.421]

  10. Alice Rutherford: My Boyfriend Dreams of Food (2012)

  11. The Goddess: "The Novel as a genre ... has an innate desire to allude to the female deity, or rather, to allude to Divinity as Feminine. The multitude of references to goddesses in the ancient novels represents no peculiar aberration. Nor does the emphatic appearance of a goddess in any individual work of fiction indicate a peculiar swerve from Novel into "Romance." [p.439]

  12. Milo Manara: The Golden Ass (2007)

For myself, I find this kind of thing almost entirely unpersuasive. There's really no way in which so sweeping a hypothesis - a set of tropes which seems to include virtually everything in the heavens above and the earth below - could ever be subjected to empirical testing. For every piece of evidence adduced, another contradictory one could easily be supplied.

It's rather a nice poetic notion to encapsulate the totality of the "novel" over the ages in such a way, but it would probably have been better to publish this section separately - it lacks the authority of Doody's assault on the "received wisdom" about the novel, and therefore has the effect of opening her up to attack as just another universalising crank.

My own ideas on the subject are rather simpler. It seems to me that long prose fictions have, in each of the novel traditions I've looked into myself, have developed out of other, prior genres: Historiography, above all; Biography; Autobiography (particularly in the form of "Confessions" of various types); and from the extension of the folktale into the form of the Frame narrative (as evidenced by the Arabian Nights or Boccaccio's Decameron).

The lines inevitably become a bit blurred in places, but it's possible to distinguish at least seven distinct traditions of extended prose fiction (which I would call "novels", though not everyone would agree with me) within world literature:

  1. The Eastern Frame-story [c.1st millennium BCE to 18th century CE]:
    • The Jātaka Tales (c.4th century BCE)
    • The Panchatantra (c.3rd century BCE)
    • The Book of Sindibad [Syntipas] (c.1st century BCE)
    • Alf Layla wa Layla [1001 Nights] (c.8th-14th century)
    • Śivadāsa: Vetala Panchavimshati [25 Tales of the Vampire] (c.11th century)
    • Somadeva: Kathā-sarit-sāgara [Ocean of the Streams of Story] (c.11th century)
    • Narayan: Hitopadesha (c.12th century)

  2. Alexander Romance (c.17th century)

  3. The Greek and Roman Novel [c.1st century BCE to 4th century CE]:
    • Pseudo-Callisthenes: The Alexander Romance (c.360-328 BCE)
    • Petronius: Satyricon (c.27–66)
    • Chariton: Callirhoe (mid-1st century)
    • Achilles Tatius: Leucippe and Clitophon (early 2nd century)
    • Apuleius: The Golden Ass (c.125–c.180)
    • Longus: Daphnis and Chloe (2nd century)
    • Heliodorus of Emesa: Aethiopica (3rd century)

  4. Lady Murasaki (c.978 – c.1014/1025)

  5. The Japanese Monogatari [c.9th-18th century CE]:
    • Konjaku Monogatarishū [Anthology of Tales from the Past] (c.9th-12th century)
    • Taketori Monogatari [The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter] (10th century)
    • Ochikubo Monogatari [The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo] (late 10th century)
    • Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari [The Tale of Genji] (c.1000)
    • Heike Monogatari [The Tale of the Heike] (12th century)
    • Ihara Saikaku: Kōshoku Ichidai Onna [The Life of an Amorous Woman] (1686)
    • Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari [Tales of Moonlight and Rain] (1776)

  6. Ramon Llull (c.1232-1315)

  7. The Medieval and Renaissance Romance [c.12th-16th century CE]:
    • Ramon Llull: Blanquerna (1283)
    • Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo: Amadis de Gaula (1304 / 1508)
    • Giovanni Boccaccio: Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-44)
    • Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)
    • Joanot Martorell: Tirant lo Blanch (1490)
    • Francesco Colonna: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream] (1499)
    • François Rabelais: La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (1532-64)

  8. Íslendingasögur (13th century)

  9. The Sagas of Icelanders [c.13th-14th century CE]:
    • Snorri Sturluson (attrib.): Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar [Egil's Saga] (c.1240)
    • Brennu-Njáls saga [Njal's Saga] (late 13th century)
    • Eyrbyggja saga [Saga of the People of Eyri] (c.13th century)
    • Gísla saga Súrssonar [Gisli's Saga] (c.13th century)
    • Grettis saga [Grettir's Saga] (c.13th-14th century)
    • Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða [Hranfnkel's Saga] (c.13th-14th century)
    • Laxdæla saga [Saga of the People of Laxárdalr] (c.13th century)

  10. The Three Kingdoms: The Peach Garden Oath (1591)

  11. The Chinese Novel [c.14th-18th century CE]:
    • Luo Guanzhong: Sānguó Yǎnyì [The Three Kingdoms] (c.1400)
    • Shi Nai'an: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn [The Water Margin] (late 14th century)
    • Xu Zhonglin: Fengshen Yanyi [Creation of the Gods] (c.1550s)
    • Wu Cheng'en: Xī Yóu Jì [Journey to the West] (1592)
    • Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng: Jīn Píng Méi [The Golden Lotus] (1618)
    • Wu Jingzi: Rúlínwàishǐ [The Scholars] (1750)
    • Cao Xue Qin: Hóng Lóu Mèng [The Red Chamber Dream] (late 18th century)

  12. Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote (1605)

  13. The Modern Novel [c.17th century CE to the present]:
    • Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605 & 1615)
    • Madame de La Fayette: La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
    • Aphra Behn: Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-87)
    • Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (1719)
    • L'Abbé Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)
    • Samuel Richardson: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)
    • Henry Fielding: An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741)

All in all, I think it's time to forget about mercantile capitalism and bourgeois individualism leading to the rise of the novel as we know it. If you want to read Pamela, do so for its own sake, not because it's the first anything. We may have only a fraction of the novels which were actually written during antiquity, but even so it's pretty obvious that Petronius and Apuleius were writing at the end of a long process of development, not the beginning ...

Samuel Richardson: Pamela (1740)


Katherine Dolan said...

Does that you're going to go ahead and write your version then? Dibs on first ed.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Katherine,

Watch this space! I'm planning to provide a skeleton version of my "theory" (for what it's worth) right here on the blog ...

best, jack

Richard said...

I still think that the "rise of capitalism" (or various historical developments) etc etc are part of a kind of "progression", although the clearly the idea of it being toward something better is fraught. Evolution doesn't, in the objective sense, produce "better things" just living things that are better adapted etc but I think it is useful way of working off. (Human beings like SOME order as it assists in understanding, but this "ordering" is problematic. So, a compromise of some kind. That is if you start with these two books about the novel (and any relevant others), then you can show where that model does and does not work.

The glazed over look is understandable to a point.
It means a lot of reading. It may not imply "prejudice," or (certain persons!) wanting say Nabokov to be the be all and end all! For there is "inertia", and energy: not everyone has the time or energy to read everything on the Arabian nights etc!

It is also of course, hard to throw out old ideas learned as a student and then repeated (& some or many of those ideas are still valid in fact).

But or and: I don't think you need to worry about learning all those languages - Pound got away with it - you have already a great knowledge, wide reading, resources, and understanding.

Your role would be to get people interested or more enthusiastic in such as (say) Japanese or ancient Greek novels (others who know these languages could write chapters for you study if need be): and by getting them into those other cultures (most people such as myself can really only read any of these books in translation): this makes them more enthusiastic.

Doody's book looks fascinating, a good find! It doesn't matter if she is "wrong" in parts or whatever, she has stimulated your (and no doubt others) to read more of these (more esoteric books).

Even this post has made me want to check out The Red Chamber (I have an edition of it in one of those very small Penguin Books). I agree re Apuleius and Petronius. Haven't seen many of the others.

I've only just started reading (or buying to read) more Japanese and Chinese novels.

I pulled The Okagami (from sale) the other day - how does that fit into the picture Jack?

Katherine Dolan said...

Yay! Looking forward to it

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I was just reading the other day a recent essay by Jonathan Franzen (about Robinson Crusoe - among other things [you can find it, if you're curious, at:]), where he more-or-less repeats word for word the whole Ian Watt dogma ... I really do think it's time this one was laid to rest. The novel did not "begin" at the turn of the eighteenth century - it's a genre almost as old as prose itself, and the proof is now abundantly obvious: in translation as well as in the original languages.

The Ōkagami which you mention is a case in point. It's an historical fiction, but one still on the cusp between strict historiography and true fiction. It's moving from the one to the other. Examples of just this "transitional stage" can be found in Icelandic writing, Chinese writing, and European writing, and it's a very crucial part of this parallel development of the novel tradition which has occurred largely independently in so many diverse geographically quite separate cultures ...

Richard said...

Hi Jack

Irecall you mentioned Franzen before. I have a book by him. He is highly regarded.

I see what you are saying but if you are going write 'The True Story of the Novel' you clearly have a philosophic problem. You have to define "a novel" or "the novel".

I got that story more or less at school and in truth I haven't read Richardson. I have read Robinson Crusoe. Harold Bloom has his canon of writers.

I would argue with Bloom and Franzen but I share the impulse to order things. It depends on the thinking.

Apart from Doody, and a few others, who else? I looked at the library list (literature Subject) and mostly the subject seems, inevitably to be fragmented or limited.

I have books on the modern novel, postmodernism in lit. and such as 'The World and the Book' by Josipovici, which I got partly as I like those Paladin Books...but [Apparently he writes of a 'tradition of the anti-novel']

I haven't read it, it looks interesting with wide ref. to many writers and ideas, but there is (it seems) no ref. to Chinese or other "traditions".

I think that one thing we owe Pound, and others of his kind, is his attempt to take us through the 'tradition' but to dig up lesser celebrated writer and to see that there is or can be seen to be a kind of simultaneity; so he uses Greek, Latin, (and many other languages) and Chinese.

I have 2 books by Nobel prize winners who are 1. Japanese and 2. Chinese.

This is how things have changed since Watts and Josipovici and it is disappointing to hear that Franzen is stuck in this hierarchical loop: someone needs to write another book, perhaps something that assumes no "development" anywhere (and everyone likes to feel they are part of a kind of significant history and in many cases that their country or culture is where it all began).

A book of literature in several volumes with contributions from all round the world, including the ideas of transition and change.

Oppenheimer was partly there - he had several languages - and could quote the Muhabaratta. Even old Possum took an interest in that.

Some interesting issues raised here. Most of the kind of people who contribute or support say Jacket2 would be "on your side"...

My own theory is that literature cant be easily put into categories, so that theoretically we are dealing with one work, one thing, called say T. T is all kinds of writing and all kinds of art etc We divide these things up for convenience.

That aside you (or we) might have to (provisionally) define "novel"
or "literature" or "art" in order to get on with some kind of discussion which would alert such as Franzen to his literary myopia.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

WEell, of course you have to have a clear definition of what you mean by "the novel" before you can talk about the origins of the genre. But do we really have to go into some endless recessive set of dictionary definitions for "literature," "art" etc. before we can even begin to discuss it? I would contend not. Mainly because such definitions inevitably raise more problems than they solve ... The choice of title for my post is simply borrowed from Doody's book, though -- I would never have selected anything so grandiose if I'd been starting from scratch ...

Richard said...

No I agree, impossible to spend hours arguing such a "truth" of what is a novel or even literature of any kind: such a "search", taken to its ultimate, would lead nowhere, but some discussion of this question would help explain how the Franzen or Hunter models are inadequate.

I see you have a page of classic Chinese novels.

I started 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' and I am enjoying it. It seems indeed as if it could have been written by a modern or postmodernist or contemporary writer. Or indeed written at any time.

I think the great writers, novelists or other, transcend and incorporate their and our time.

But I now want to get the rest of it! One thing about your biblomania and various enthusiasms Jack they are influential.

I'm often "deaf" to music or even movies, but wherever I see anything to do with books I am always interested. "It [they] haunt[ed] me like a passion."

PS What do you think of Scott's foray into films and books about Zombies?!!