Thursday, October 24, 2013

The True Story of the Novel (4): The Medieval and Renaissance Romance

Well, an interesting thing has happened. Since I set out to write my own version of the "True Story of the Novel," I've discovered that the job has actually already been done: in a manner far more comprehensive than Margaret Anne Doody's somewhat idiosyncratic account, too:

So who is this Steven Moore, and what is the nature of his "alternative history" of the novel?

Steven Moore (1951- )

Well, clearly he likes pictures of naked girls lying round reading books (more on this subject here); he's also (apparently) an authority on the works of Ronald Firbank and William Gaddis, and has published extensively on both authors. The views on the novel and prose fiction in general he outlines in his introduction to volume one of his massive masterwork are certainly pretty congenial to me, at any rate:
"Be wily, be twisty, be elaborate," the narrator is advised in Vikram Chandra's fabulous Red Earth and Pouring Rain. "Forsake grim shortness and hustle. Let us luxuriate in your curlicues" ... Give me fat novels stuffed with learning and rare words, lashed with purple prose and black humor; novels patterned after myths, the Tarot, the Stations of the Cross, a chessboard, a dictionary, an almanac, the genetic code, a game of golf, a night at the movies; novels with unusual layouts, paginated backward, or with sentences running off the edges, or printed in different colors, a novel on yellow paper, a wordless novel in woodcuts, a novel in first chapters, a novel in the form of an anthology, Internet postings, or an auction catalog; huge novels that occupy a single day, slim novels that cover a lifetime; novels with footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, star charts, fold-out maps, or with a reading comprehension test or Q&A supplement at the end; novels peppered with songs, poems, lists, excommunications; novels whose chapters can be read in different sequences, or that have 150 possible endings; novels that are all dialogue, all footnotes, all contributors' notes, or one long paragraph; novels that begin and end midsentence, novels in fragments, novels with stories within stories; towers of babble, slang, shoptalk, technical terms, sweet nothings; give me many-layered novels that erect a great wall of words for protection against the demons of delusion and irrationality at loose in the world ... [p.19]

So is there any real need for me to persevere with my own series of posts on the subject? Possibly not, but there is a certain encyclopedic exhaustiveness about Moore's approach to the subject which might encourage more pointed discussions of particular parts of the story ("all the novels described in the preceding paragraph are real, by the way," he explains in a footnote to the passage quoted above).

In any case, with Moore as one's bedrock, it all of a sudden becomes much easier to substantiate the claim that there really are a lot of interesting and often exceedingly tricksy pre-modern fictions out there which are certainly hard to characterise as anything but "novels" - in the various ways we have learned to interpret that portmanteau word over the past couple of centuries of reading and producing them on an industrial scale ...

Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)

... in a discussion of the digressive nature of French prose romance, [Eugène] Vinaver characterises it in terms of "the technique of tapestry. Just as in a tapestry each thread alternates with an endless variety of others, so in the early prose romances of the Arthurian group numerous seemingly independent episodes or 'motifs' are interwoven in a manner which makes it possible for each episode to be set aside at any moment and resumed later" (1990, 1: lxvi). Vinaver goes on to explain that the most convenient way of representing this interweaving is to designate each strand or motif by a letter, giving various examples in the discussion of the "Tale of King Arthur" in his introduction (1990, 1: lxviii-lxi).

By comparison with the French romancers, then [according to Vinaver], in Malory’s version of the story "The order of events is not a1 b c1 a2 c2 , but a1 a2 b c1 c2; the three threads of the narrative are unravelled and straightened out so as to form in each case a consistent and self-contained set of adventures" (Vinaver, 1990, 1:lxx). Vinaver sees this as "closely approximating to the conventional modern technique of exposition" (1990, 1: lxxi).

Leaving to one side, for the moment, the question of what exactly is the "conventional modern technique of exposition," it's probably useful here to start off with some remarks on the subject matter of most of the medieval - and even Renaissance - writers we'll be discussing.

The 12th-century French poet Jean Bodel remarked, in his Chanson de Saisnes:
Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant

There are only 3 subjects ["matters"] which no man should lack:
That of France, of Britain, and of Rome the Great.

Or, as Wikipedia explains it:
The Matter of Britain is a name given collectively to the body of literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and its legendary kings, particularly King Arthur. Together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology, it was one of the three great literary cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature.

(I guess, parenthetically, this was what made it difficult for me to understand why the Landfall Online reviewer of my recent book Celanie: Poems and Drawings after Paul Celan (2012: with artist Emma Smith), Andrew Paul Wood, should question my translation of the title of Celan's poem "Matière de Bretagne" as "Matter of Britain." It's hard for me to think of any more obvious way of drawing attention to the poem's indebtedness to, in particular, the Tristan legend. I suppose that I could have left it in French, as he suggests, but that seemed a bit of a cop-out - as well as unnecessary. Why not leave the whole poem in its original language, for that matter? Any translation is an interpretation: even so obvious a substitution as this).

I've arranged the romances and novels of chivalry I own myself under the nationalities of their various authors, but you'll note that there's a gradual temporal shift from works about the courts of King Arthur and Charlemagne into the more learned and eccentric novels of Renaissance figures such as François Rabelais and Francesco Colonna. One could choose any of these great proto-Cervantine figures as the centre of this post, but I have decided to stay with the mysterious Sir Thomas Malory, partly because Moore is content to see him more as a translator and transmitter of the Arthurian legend than a pioneer of the modern novel.



  1. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100–1155)
  2. Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405–1471)
  3. William Caxton (c.1415/22–1492)
  4. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    Geoffrey of Monmouth [Galfridus Monemutensis] (c.1100–1155)

  1. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. 1966. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  2. Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405–1471)

  3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Ed. William Caxton. 1485. Introduction by Sir John Rhys. 1906. 2 vols. Everyman’s Library, 45 & 46. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1953.

  4. Vinaver, Eugène, ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vols. 1947. 3rd ed. rev. P. J. C. Field. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

  5. Malory, Sir Thomas. Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 1954. Second ed. Oxford Standard Authors. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

  6. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. 1485. Ed. Janet Cowan. Introduction by John Lawlor. 1969. 2 vols. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  7. The Romance of Lancelot & Guinevere, Taken from Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. Illustrated by Lettice Sandford. London: The Folio Society, 1953.

  8. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. 1894. Ware, Hertfordshire: Omega Books., 1988.

  9. Pollard, Alfred W., ed. The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Abridged from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. 1917. New York: Weathervane Books, n.d.

  10. William Caxton (c.1415/22–1492)

  11. Caxton, William, trans. The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete. The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts III & IV. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. 1880-1881. Early English Text Society, Extra Series Nos 36 & 37. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

  12. Caxton, William, trans. The History of Reynard the Fox. Ed. N. F. Blake. Early English Text Society, No. 263. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  13. Blake, N. F., ed. Caxton's Own Prose. The Language Library. Ed. Eric Partridge & Simeon Potter. London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1973.

  14. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  15. Ashe, Geoffrey. King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. 1957. Fontana Books. London: Collins, 1973.

  16. Ashe, Geoffrey. From Caesar to Arthur. London: Collins, 1960.

  17. Ashe, Geoffrey. Land to the West: St Brendan’s Voyage to America. London: Collins, 1962.

  18. Ashe, Geoffrey, Leslie Alcock, C. A Ralegh Radford, & Philip Rahtz. The Quest for Arthur’s Britain. Ed. Geoffrey Ashe. 1968. London: Paladin, 1973.

  19. Ashe, Geoffrey. All About King Arthur. 1969. London: Carousel Books, 1973.

  20. Ashe, Geoffrey. Camelot and the Vision of Albion. 1971. St. Albans, Herts: Panther, 1975.

  21. Ashe, Geoffrey. Avalonian Quest. 1982. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1984.

  22. Ashe, Geoffrey, in association with Debrett’s Peerage. The Discovery of King Arthur. London: Guild Publishing, 1985.

  23. Ashe, Geoffrey. The Landscape of King Arthur. With Photographs by Simon McBride. London: Webb & Bower (Publishers) Limited, in association with Michael Joseph Limited, 1987.

  24. Ashe, Geoffrey. Mythology of the British Isles. 1990. London: Methuen London, 1992.

  25. Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, & Henry Lincoln. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. 1982. London: Corgi Books, 1988.

  26. Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend. 2004. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.

  27. Stewart, R. J. & John Matthews, ed. Merlin through the Ages: A Chronological Anthology and Source Book. Foreword by David Spangler. A Blandford Book. London: Cassell plc, 1995.

  28. Treharne, R. F. The Glastonbury Legends. 1967. Abacus. London: Sphere Books, Ltd., 1975.

  29. Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual to Romance. 1920. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.

I've been reading Arthurian romances, ancient and modern, for most of my life. I'm not quite sure what the fascination is, but certainly - when it comes to Malory's Morte d'Arthur, I think it has a lot to do with the sheer precision and elegance of his writing. The discovery of the Winchester Ms. of his "works" in the 1930s revolutionised study of his book (certain parenthetical marks make it probable that this was the actual copy used by Caxton for printing his own edited version in the 1480s). The editor of the standard edition, Eugène Vinaver, made no secret of his preference for the "inter-laced" compexity of Malory's French sources, however.

Steven Moore seconds him in this. They do have the advantage of having read far more widely than I have in French romance, but I feel that this may have the effect of blinding them to some of the more interesting innovations in Malory's work. Whether or not he himself saw his translations as constituting a single book of the adventures of King Arthur and his principal knights, Caxton certainly had no great difficulty in editing the various parts of his manuscript into precisely that.

That could be coincidental, but given the heroic efforts made by the French chroniclers to cobble together a complete version of the whole story in the early 13th century (the so-called "prose vulgate"), it doesn't seem too implausible to attribute a similar ambition to their English follower. Malory's disentanglement of the start-stop, tapestry thread method of narration employed by his French originals is also unlikely to be coincidental. Vinaver sees this as a disastrous over-simplification of the splendid originals, but the intensely readable nature of Malory's book - even for modern readers - does suggest that the appetite for such complex fictions was in decline (not to mention the ruinous expense of finding copies of each separate manuscript section of the massive French vulgate).

Malory's book was also one of the first secular texts to be printed in England, and its compactness and affordability meant that it set a pattern for most of the prose romances which would follow it. The French, it is true, maintained an appetite for monstrous novels of a couple of thousand pages each well into the seventeenth century, but in England the single-volumed masterwork was to dominate: Malory (1485), Sidney's Arcadia (1593), Spenser's Faerie Queene (1596) - Shakespeare's First Folio (1623), for that matter ...



  1. François Rabelais (c.1494–1553)
  2. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    François Rabelais (c.1494–1553)

  1. Rabelais, François. Œuvres: Les Cinq Livres de F. Rabelais, avec notes et glossaire. 2 vols. Paris: Ernest Flammarion, Éditeur, 1909.

  2. Rabelais, François. Oeuvres Complètes: Tome illustrée. Ed. Pierre Jourda. 1962. 2 vols. Classiques Garnier. Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères, 1967.

  3. Rabelais, François. The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in Physick. Containing Five Books of the Lives, Heroick Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Sonne Pantagruel. Trans. Sir Thomas Urquhart & Peter Anthony Motteux. 1653-94. Illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. 1931. London: the Navarre Society, 1948.

  4. Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel. 1564. Trans. J. M. Cohen. 1955. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  5. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  6. Bédier, Joseph. Tristan and Iseult. Trans. Hilaire Belloc. 1913. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1961.

  7. Bédier, Joseph. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Trans. Hilaire Belloc & Paul Rosenfeld. 1945. Vintage Books. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. / Random House, Inc., 1965.

  8. Béroul. The Romance of Tristan & The Tale of Tristan’s Madness. Translated together for the First Time. Trans. Alan S. Fedrick. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  9. Bryant, Nigel, trans. The High Book of the Grail: A Translation of the Thirteenth Century Romance of Perlesvaus. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, Ltd. / Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.

  10. Cable, James, trans. The Death of King Arthur (Le Mort du Roi Artus). 1971. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  11. Corless, Corin, trans. Lancelot of the Lake. Introduction by Elspeth Kennedy. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  12. Einhard, & Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  13. Evans, Sebastian, trans. The High History of the Holy Graal. 1898. Everyman’s Library, 445. 1910. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1936.

  14. Krailsheimer, A. J., ed. Three Sixteenth-Century Conteurs. Clarendon French Series. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

  15. Lacroix, Daniel, & Philippe Walter, trans. Tristan et Iseut: Les poèmes français / La saga norroise. Lettres gothiques. Le Livre de Poche. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1989.

  16. Louis, René. Tristan et Iseult: Renouvelé en français moderne d’après les textes du XIIe et XIIIe siècle. Le Livre de Poche. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1972.

  17. Mason, Eugene, trans. Aucassin & Nicolette & Other Medieval Romances and Legends. Everyman’s Library. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., n.d.

  18. Matarasso, Pauline M., trans. The Quest of the Holy Grail. 1969. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  19. Mosès, François, trans. Lancelot du Lac. Roman français du XIIIe siècle: d’après l’édition d’Elspeth Kennedy. Préface de Michel Zink. Lettres gothiques. Le Livre de Poche. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1991.

  20. Périers, Bonaventure des, Noel du Fail, Marguerite d’Angoulême. Contes. Ed. Paul Porteau. Conteurs du XVIe Siècle. Cent Romans Français, 12. Paris: Éditions Stock, Delamain & Boutelleau, 1948.

  21. Robbins, Russell Hope, trans. The Hundred Tales: Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Illustrated by Alexander Dobkin. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1960.

  22. Sayers, Dorothy L., trans. The Song of Roland. 1957. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

  23. Skeels, Dell. The Romance of Perceval in Prose: A Translation of the E Manuscript of the Didot Perceval. 1961. Washington Paperbacks WP-10. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1966.

  24. Sommer, H. Oskar, ed. The Vulgate Version of The Arthurian Romances, Edited from Manuscripts in the British Museum. 8 vols. Washington, D. C., 1909-1916.

  25. Whitehead, F., ed. La Chanson de Roland. 1942. Blackwell’s French Texts. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957.

The distinction between "English" and "French" literature is a difficult one to make in this period. As late as the fourteenth century, a poet such as John Gower could write with equal facility in English, French and Latin, bequeathing us a long poem in each language. "Bretagne" - which can mean either Brittany or Britain in French (though the latter is generally referred to as Grand Bretagne) - is the central region of the Arthurian tales, but the overlap with Celtic, especially Welsh, traditions does make the precise geography of these stories exceptionally hard to pin down.

With the advent of Rabelais in the early sixteenth century, though, a distinctly new and wholly French voice begins to be heard in European writing. Rabelais is a satirist and a polymath. His works, repeatedly condemned for their obscenity and criminal facetiousness, have delighted non-pompous readers ever since (all the way down to H. G. Wells's Mr Polly in 1910 and Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels in 1981). While strictly impossible to translate, the classic version made by Urquhart & Motteux in the seventeenth century was itself a great influence on writers such as Smollett and Sterne. There have been numerous attempts since, some better than others.



  1. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
  2. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)
  3. Francesco Colonna (c.1433-1527)
  4. Gianfrancesco Straparola (c.1480-c.1557)
  5. Pietro Aretino (1492-1556)
  6. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)

  1. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron / Filocolo / Ameto / Fiammetta. Ed. Enrico Bianchi, Carlo Salinari & Natalino Sapegno. La Letteratura Italiana: Storia e Testi, 8. Milano: Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1952.

  2. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Il Decameron. 1350-53. Ed. Carlo Salinari. 1963. 2 vols. Universale Laterza, 26-27. 1966. Torino: Editori Laterza, 1975.

  3. Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. 1350-53. Trans. J. M. Rigg. 1903. Introduction and Illustrations by Louis Chalon. 1921. 2 vols. London: Privately Printed for the Navarre Society Limited, n.d.

  4. Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. 1350-53. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. Penguin Classics. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  5. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Elegia de Madonna Fiammetta. Ed. Carlo Salinari & Natalino Sapegno. 1952. Classici Ricciardi 10. Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1976.

  6. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Amorous Fiammetta: Revised from the Only English Translation. 1343-44. Trans. Bartholomew Yong. 1587. Introduction by Edward Hutton. London: Privately Printed for the Navarre Society, 1926.

  7. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Filocolo: Scelta. Ed. Carlo Salinari & Natalino Sapegno. 1952. Classici Ricciardi 27. Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1976.

  8. Boccaccio, Giovanni. Corbaccio. Ed. Giorgio Ricci. Introduzione di Natalino Sapegno. 1952 & 1965. Classici Ricciardi 44. Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1977.

  9. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)

  10. Poggio Bracciolini, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetiae. Translated by Bernhardt J. Hurwood. New York & London; Award Books & Tandem Books, 1968.

  11. Francesco Colonna (c.1433-1527)

  12. Colonna, Francesco. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream. The Entire Text Translated for the First Time into English with an Introduction by Joscelyn Godwin with the Original Woodcut Illustrations. 1499. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

  13. Caldwell, Ian, & Dustin Thomason. The Rule of Four. New York: The Dial Press, 2004.

  14. Godwin, Joscelyn. The Real Rule of Four. 2004. London: Arrow Books, 2005.

  15. Giovanni Francesco [Gianfrancesco] Straparola [Caravaggio] (c.1480-c.1557)

  16. Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Most Delectable Nights of Straparola. London: Richard K. Champion / Luxor Press, 1965.

  17. Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Merry Nights of Straparola. Trans. W. G. Waters. Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2004.

  18. Pietro Aretino (1492-1556)

  19. Aretino, Pietro. Sisters, Wives and Courtesans: Unexpurgated. Trans. Robert Eglesfield. New York: Belmont Books, 1967.

  20. Rosenthal, Raymond, trans. Aretino’s Dialogues. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972.

  21. Romano, Giulio, Marc-Antonio Raimondi, Pietro Aretino, & Count Jean-Frédéric-Maximilien de Waldeck. I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures. An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance. Ed. & trans. Lynne Lawler. 1984. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1988.

  22. Aretino, Pietro. Selected Letters. Trans. George Bull. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  23. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  24. Swan, Charles, trans. Gesta Romanorum. 1824. Ed. Wynnard Hooper. The York Library. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905.

  25. Komroff, Manuel, ed. Tales of the Monks from the Gesta Romanorum. 1928. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1947

I suppose that Boccaccio must continue to be celebrated as the founder of Italian fiction (in verse and prose), and - indeed - one of the principal architects of the European narrative tradition. And he is great, and he is still very readable. Margaret Doody casts him as the hero of her entire story.

One of the things I like most about Steven Moore, though, is his inclination to snout around for obscurer and stranger men of letters. He celebrates Francesco Colonna's mad Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream (1499) with unmistakable enthusiasm, and even goes so far as to point out the greatness of Pietro Aretino as a stylist as well as a smut-merchant. I first read Aretino in a scruffy little paperback abridgement of his classic Dialogues of Sisters, Wives and Courtesans, and was struck at once by his complete unflappability as a narrator - not to mention the modernity of his imagination.

Ramon Llull (c.1232-1315)


  1. Joanot Martorell (1413-1468)
  2. Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (c.1450–1504)
  3. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    Joanot Martorell (1413-1468) &
    Martí Joan de Galba (d.1490)

  1. Martorell, Joanot, & Martí Joan de Galba. Tirant lo Blanc. Trans. David H. Rosenthal. 1984. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1985.

  2. Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo [Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo] (c.1450–1504)

  3. Amadís de Gaula. 1508. Introducción de Arturo Souto. 1969. “Sepan Cuantos …”, 131. Ciudad de México: Editorial Porrúa, S. A., 1975.

  4. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  5. Alpert, Michael, trans. Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes (Anon.) / The Swindler (El Buscón), Francisco de Quevedo. 1554 & 1626. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  6. Kennedy, Judith M., ed. A Critical Edition of Yong’s Translation of George of Montemayor’s Diana [1559]& Gil Polo’s Enamoured Diana [1564]. 1598. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.

  7. Yates, Frances A. Lull and Bruno. Collected Essays, Volume 1. 3 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

I have to confess to not having read widely in the Spanish part of the medieval narrative tradition. Even Ramon Llull is known to me principally through the various essays and attempts at interpretation of Frances Yates.

Judging by the famous inquisition held over Don Quixote's library of romances in chapter 6 of Cervantes' novel, though, I haven't missed all that much:
“No,” said the niece, “there’s no reason to pardon any of them because all of them have done damage. It’d be best to toss them all out the window onto the patio and make a pile of them there, and set fire to them; or take them to the corral and make a fire there so the smoke won’t bother anyone.”

Once again, however, Steven Moore has been there and done that. He's well up in the field, and is equipped to give length plot summaries of even the most turgid descendants of the Amadis tradition. It's a Herculean task he's undertaken, and my hat is off to him ...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wallace Stevens Meets the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang

This poem - under the title "Library Dreaming: Wallace Stevens Meets the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang" - is now available in the freely downloadable anthology The Ultimate Reader of Love for the Book: An Anthology of Writers Deeply Concerned about Massive Book Disposals occurring at the National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa (the wellsprings of knowledge). Ed. William (Bill) Direen. ISSN 1953-1427. NZ: Phantom Billstickers, 2021: 34.

Wallace Stevens: Saved by Florida Cowboys (1931)

Let be be finale of seem
– 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream'

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Who’s to say it couldn’t have happened?
the young Wallace Stevens
born in 1879
in Reading, Pennsylvania
might well have travelled out west
sometime before going to Harvard
in the Fall of ’97

Butch Cassidy (1866-1908)

It wasn’t till 1896
on his release
from Wyoming State Prison
that Butch Cassidy
put together the Wild Bunch
(Stevens was 17)

The Wild Bunch (Fort Worth, Texas, 1900)
l-to-r: : Harry A. Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid; Will Carver; Ben Kilpatrick, aka the Tall Texan; Harvey Logan, aka Kid Curry; & Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy.

It wasn’t till 1901
that he and Etta Place & the Sundance Kid
left for South America
(Stevens was 22)

It wasn’t till 1908
he was shot down
in San Vicente, Bolivia
(Stevens was 29)

It wasn’t till 1916
that he moved to Hartford
becoming Vice President
of the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company
in 1934

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The True Story of the Novel (3): The Japanese Monogatari

Royall Tyler, trans.: The Tale of Genji (2001)

Is this novel, the greatest in Japanese literature, sentimental? I suppose one might say so, though more in an eighteenth-century sense, where "sentimental" merely means something that evokes strong sentiments in a reader: feelings of pathos, for the most part (hence the equally devalued term "pathetic").

In Japan it's called mono no aware:
literally "the pathos of things" ... also translated as "an empathy toward things", or "a sensitivity to ephemera" ... a term for the awareness of impermanence ... or transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.

The wikipedia article on the subject goes on to specify:
The term was coined in the 18th century by the Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga and was originally a concept used in his literary criticism of The Tale of Genji, later applied to other seminal Japanese works including the Man'yōshū.

I suppose that it all comes down to that Virgilian tag lacrimae rerum [the sorrow - literally "tears" - of things]. Virgil's Aeneas sees a painting of the fall of Troy shortly after being shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, and rejoices at this proof that the inhabitants of the new land feel "the pity of things" [Aeneid, I: 461-2]:

Sunt hic etiam praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt

[... Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.]

Edward G. Seidensticker, trans.: The Tale of Genji (1976)

The first time I picked up a copy of The Tale of Genji was in Scotland in 1981: in a little bookshop in St. Andrews, if I remember rightly. It was a Penguin edition of Edward Seidensticker's translation (still my favourite - possibly for that reason), and I could see at once that it was a very strange world I was entering.

Virtually everything seemed drenched in tears most of the time: pieces of writing paper with wistful verses on them, the silk sleeves of kimonos, the pillows they all propped themselves on. Nothing much seemed to happen, except long conversations through screens about the precise nature of one's feelings for shadowy lovers whom most of the characters had never actually seen in daylight.

Ivan Morris: The World of the Shining Prince (1964)

It was, in fact, the "world of the shining prince" (one of the many epithets for the novel's central protagonist Genji). I read and reread Ivan Morris's book to get some insight into the complicated mores of Heian society, as well as some larger sense of the precedents for the Genji's complicated plotting and unrivalled psychological insight. And certainly there were Japanese novels and romances before Lady Murasaki's - just as there was blank verse drama before Shakespeare. But there's still no real way of accounting for a work of genius on this scale when it comes along.

While I certainly do recommend Morris's book (along with his various translations of other classic Heian works of literature: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (1967), and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh Century Japan (1971)), it's true to say that the real pioneering work here - for English readers, at any rate - was done by the amazing Arthur Waley, first complete translator of the Genji (1935) and partial translator of the Pillow Book (1928).

Arthur Waley, trans.: The Tale of Genji (6 vols: 1925-33)

A pioneer can't always get everything right, though - and there is a certain Proustian languour to Waley's Genji which is (apparently) not quite true to the original.

Or so says Edward Seidensticker. My favourite book about the Genji is definitely his translator's diary Genji Days. Among other things, it contains extensive reflections on the differences between his version and Waley's - and interesting comments, at one point, on the discovery that he's translated the same short poem completely differently in two different places! So allusive and complex is Heian Japanese that this, it seems, is quite easy to do.

It's the contextual detail which is most fascinating - and, in the final analysis, most rewarding, though. He writes about Yukio Mishima and his Sea of Fertility tetralogy; he talks of his last evening with Yasunari Kawabata, whom he also translated, just before the latter's suicide (which Seidensticker sees as a personal betrayal ... I'm still not quite sure why).

But it's this engagement with (then) contemporary Japanese literature which gives him his greatest insights into Lady Murasaki and her curious mixture of emotional realism and extreme intricacies of sentiment, I suspect. The sense of a continuum is strong, however hidden its details must remain to this linguistically ignorant foreigner.

Edward G. Seidensticker: Genji Days (1977)

I'd like to write more about this motley collection of books I've assembled in an attempt to put flesh on my ongoing obsession with The Tale of Genji. There's a famous passage in Murasaki's diary where she mentions a chance remark by the Emperor (she was a lady-in-waiting at court for at least part of her life) after some chapters from her work-in-progress were read out loud to him and his courtiers:
"She must have been reading the Chronicles of Japan."

This earned her the nickname "Our Lady of the Chronicles" - and she was accused of flaunting her learning by teaching the Empress Shōshi Chinese literature. The diary continues, "How utterly ridiculous! Would I, who hesitate to reveal my learning to my women at home, ever think of doing so at court?"

Nevertheless, it's interesting to note that the one obvious precedent for so coordinated and complex a piece of prose was immediately assumed to be a work of history rather than one of fiction: The Nihongi (listed below), rather than The Tales of Ise or the Tale of Flowering Fortunes ...

Classical Japanese Prose:
  1. Kojiki (early 8th century)
  2. Nihongi (720)
  3. Kagerō Nikki (c.974)
  4. Ochikubo Monogatari (late 10th century)
  5. Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017)
  6. Murasaki Shikibu (c.973-c.1014/25)
  7. Sarashina Nikki (c.1058)
  8. Lady Daibu (c.1157-c.1235)
  9. Heike Monogatari (12th century)
  10. Lady Nijo (1258–c.1307)
  11. Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283–c.1350)
  12. Miyamoto Musashi (c.1584–1645)
  13. Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)
  14. Ueda Akinari (1734-1809)
  15. Jippensha Ikku (1765–1831)
  16. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    Kojiki (early 8th century)

  1. Chamberlain, Basil Hall, trans. The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters. 1882. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1988.

  2. Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki. Princeton & Tokyo: University of Princeton and University of Tokyo Press, 1969.

  3. Nihongi [Nihon Shoki] (720)

  4. Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A. D. 697. Translated from the Original Chinese and Japanese by W. G. Aston. 1896. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1988.

  5. Kagerō Nikki (c.974)

  6. Seidensticker, Edward, trans. The Gossamer Years (Kagerō Nikki): The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan. 1964. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981.

  7. Ochikubo Monogatari (late 10th century)

  8. Whitehouse, Wilfrid, & Eizo Yanagisawa, trans. Ochikubo Monogatari: The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo. A Tenth-Century Japanese Novel. 1934. London: Arena, 1985.

  9. Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017)

  10. Waley, Arthur, trans. The Pillow-Book of Sei Shōnagon. 1928. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1960.

  11. Morris, Ivan, trans. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon: Introduction & Translation. Vol. 1 of 2. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

  12. Morris, Ivan, trans. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon: A Companion Volume. Vol. 2 of 2. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

  13. Morris, Ivan, trans. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. 1967. Abridged Ed. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  14. Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book. Trans. Meredith McKinney. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.

  15. Murasaki Shikibu [Lady Murasaki] (c.973-c.1014/25)

  16. Murasaki, Lady. The Tale of Genji: A Novel in Six Parts. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1935. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957.

  17. Murasaki, Lady. The Tale of Genji: A Novel in Six Parts. Volume One: Part 1. The Tale of Genji; Part 2. The Sacred Tree; Part 3. A Wreath of Cloud. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1935. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1965.

  18. Murasaki, Lady. The Tale of Genji: A Novel in Six Parts. Volume Two: Part 4. Blue Trousers; Part 5. The Lady of the Boat; Part 6. The Bridge of Dreams. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1935. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973.

  19. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward Seidensticker. 1976. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  20. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward Seidensticker. 1976. 2 vols. Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1997.

  21. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Royall Tyler. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 2001.

  22. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Royall Tyler. 2001. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.

  23. Bowring, Richard, trans. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. 1982. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

  24. Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

  25. Dalby, Liza. The Tale of Murasaki. 2000. London: Vintage, 2001.

  26. Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. 1964. Peregrine Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  27. Seidensticker, Edward G. Genji Days. 1977. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International, 1983.

  28. Sarashina Nikki [The Sarashina Diary] (c.1058)

  29. Morris, Ivan, trans. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh Century Japan. 1971. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  30. Lady Kenreimon-in Ukyo no Daibu (c.1157-c.1235)

  31. Harries, Phillip Tudor, trans. The Poetic Memoirs of Lady Daibu. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

  32. Heike Monogatari [The Tale of the Heike] (12th century)

  33. The Tale of the Heike: Heike Monogatari. Trans. Hiroshi Kitagawa & Bruce T. Tsuchida. Foreword by Edward Seidensticker. 2 vols. 1975. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1978.

  34. The Tale of the Heike: Heike Monogatari. Trans. Hiroshi Kitagawa & Bruce T. Tsuchida. Foreword by Edward Seidensticker. 1975. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1981.

  35. The Tale of the Heike. Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. 1988. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

  36. The Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. Viking Penguin. London: Penguin, 2012.

  37. Tyler, Royall, trans. Before Heike and After: Hōgen, Heiji, Jōkyūki. 2012. Lexington, KY: An Arthur Nettleton Book, 2013.

  38. Lady Nijo [Go-Fukakusain no Nijo] (1258–c.1307)

  39. Brazell, Karen, trans. The Confessions of Lady Nijō. 1304-7, 1975. London: Zenith, 1983.

  40. Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283–c.1350)

  41. Kenko. Essays in Idleness. Trans. G. B. Sansom. Ed. Noel Pinnington. Wordsworth Classic of World Literature. Ware Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1998.

  42. Miyamoto Musashi (c.1584–1645)

  43. Tokitsu Kenji. Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings. 2000. Trans. Sherab Chödzin Kohn. Art captions by Stephen Addiss. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.

  44. Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693)

  45. Ihara Saikaku. Five Japanese Love Stories (Koshoku gonin onna). Trans. William Theodore de Bary. London: The Folio Society, 1958.

  46. Ihara Saikaku. Five Women Who Loved Love. Trans. Wm Theodore de Bary. 1956. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.

  47. Ihara Saikaku. The Life of an Amorous Woman and Other Writings. Ed. & trans. Ivan Morris. London: Chapman & Hall, 1963.

  48. Ihara Saikaku. The Life of an Amorous Man. Trans. Kenji Hamada. Illustrations by Masakuza Kuwata. 1963. Boston, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2001.

  49. Ueda Akinari [Ueda Shūsei] (1734-1809)

  50. Ueda Akinari. Ugetsu Monogatari: Tales of Moonlight and Rain. A Complete English Version of Eighteenth-Century Japanese Collection of Tales of the Supernatural. 1768. Trans. Leon Zolbrod. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1974.

  51. Sadakazu Shigeta ['Jippensha Ikku'] (1765–1831)

  52. Ikku Jippensha. Shanks’ Mare, or Hizakurige: Being a Translation of the Tokaido Volumes of Japan’s Great Comic Novel of Travel and Ribaldry. 1802-20. Trans. Thomas Satchell. 1960. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1976.

  53. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  54. Omori, Annie Shepley & Kochi Doi, trans. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan: The Sarashina Diary; Diary of Murasaki Shikibu & Diary of Izumi Shikibu. Introduction by Amy Lowell. 1935. Tokyo: Kenkyushu Ltd., 1961.

  55. The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike: Being Two Thirteenth-Century Japanese Classics, The “Hōjōki”and Selections from the “Heike Monogatari.” Trans. A. L. Sadler. 1928. Tokyo & Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1972.

Hiroshige: Murasaki Shikibu (1880)

The fact of the matter is, though, that I don't think anyone I've ever recommended the Genji to has succeeded in getting to the end. Which is a pity, as the end, the last 12 or so chapters (the so-called "Uji Chapters"), after the shining Genji has died and his rather futile nephew Kaoru has taken centre-stage, are probably the best and most original in the whole book.

Why is that? Is it just that the book is so long, and so little is happening most of the time except for people passing poems through screens and paying calls on one another? The same could be said of Henry James or Edith Wharton, and people read them.

Or do they? Whether I'm alone in having a taste for long, delicately phrased, poetic novels or not - and if I am, I have to say that I think I'm the clear winner in this competition: you just don't know what you're missing, as the middle-aged pervert Genji buys a young girl (the character known as Murasaki) and then raises her to be his perfect sexual companion: a situation Lady Murasaki treats as brutally and insightfully as Nabokov himself; or as Kaoru embodies the "superflous man": Goncharov's Oblomov or Lermontov's Hero of Our Time Pechorin 800 years before their time - whether I am or not, all I can say is that reading this novel over and over again, in each of the three complete English translations, has been one of the great experiences of my life.

You can find some notes on the latest translation of the Genji by Royall Tyler (who's recently completed one of the later, and to me far less approachable, Tale of Heike as well), here.

"A sad tale's best for winter," says the doomed child Mamillius in Shakespeare's late masterpiece The Winter's Tale. My father died just a month ago today. it's books like The Tale of Genji - in particular its revelation that here (as in other places) "there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind" - that get you through at such times.

It's therefore hard for me to entertain seriously the suggestion that it isn't among the greatest novels ever written, perhaps the very greatest of all, but perhaps I'm wrong. Speaking strictly for myself (you understand), I'd trade a haybale of copies of Clarissa for just one of the Genji Monogatari ...