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 ...


Richard said...

Jack have you seen the Rabellais illustrated by Heath Robinson? My friend Jim has that. I read the edition in English everyone seems to get hold of. It is certainly a great event. I must reread it. I also have heard a lot about Bahktin's book of Rabellais but so far haven't been able to afford it or get it.

I see there is one illustrated by Dore.

Mallory is or could be important if one reads David Jones ('In Parenthesis', although I didn't find that "difficult" and I "got" the connections between the 'now' of WWI and the Roman Empire and more or less ignored his Welsh stuff. 'Anathemata' I abandoned (perhaps to resume another day)...

But some of the novels you have written about are so vast! I had 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' from the library but it is too long. It is good though, what I read of it. I may tackle Malory one day...

I'm currently reading Coetzee, he titles one book on the title of a poem by Cafavy 'Waiting for the Barbarians' but I started with 'Elizabeth Costello'

But in line with Rabellais we have also Swift and Sterne (even Pope). I had part of a line: "...these Sternian rambunklings..."! Rabellais name echoed (somewhat) in the "rambunklings')...

But Rabellais is "crazy" (in the good sense"... inspiring in any case. The long story of us, our existence, and the novel? I seem to (more or less) prefer prose to poetry, although that varies, but more so than I did. Also there is not so much good poetry in s/h shops.

Boccaccio. Yes I enjoyed vol 1. Stopped there for some reason. Your saga on the novel is fascinating. Reading here I feel as if I am getting free lessons in literature and literary history, while Scott teaches me about NZ history and events in Tonga etc (and some literature and art)...

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Yes indeed -- I have a copy of the illustrated Rabelais you mention, and it's a very fine production.

I've been reading some Coetzee myself, lately: his autobiographical trilogy, which is a bit on the arid side but very interesting as a supplement to the novels. It's only the Life & Times of Michael K - or, an maybe Foe - which really gripped me, but there's a great deal to be learned from him, I think.

Richard said...

I want to read 'Foe' (which I haven't a copy of). I have 'The Life and Times' and I read 'Waiting for the Barbarians' and 'Elizabeth Costello' - both are brilliant. But I don't know his autobiographical trilogy. I toyed with the idea of writing a novel and got books on how to etc but in the end decided it was all too much like hard work. I went back to copying things out of books which I really enjoy. It seems strange but as I read I do this. It makes me think of - when I was a boy - how I used tracing paper to copy maps I just loved the magic of that. I didn't care what the country was: I think I just liked the shapes of the places. The shapes of the places for me seemed significant. They had a significance for me, but what it was I don't know. I also loved painting by numbers more than doing water colours or "creative" things.

Ay University I used to copy various US poets (Bernstein was one) and make an "analysis" which consisted in having lines linking things etc but once Michelle Leggott asked in the diary we all kept what it was about copying (.."serious question"..."): where I think I differ from a 2000s student versed in theory etc is that I have no idea to this day why. But I appreciated the question.

Now novels: why do we value them? What is a novel? (And many related questions)...are surely inherent in your "project" to give some direction to the novel, one of one of our highest art forms (poetry as poetry is perhaps more direct and more intense but the boundaries are hard to define); is Finnegan's Wake a huge poem or a novel and so on...

But 'Foe' for me as I liked Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' (I couldn't agree with Elizabeth Bishop that it was "terrible" [I suppose she meant it was somehow "politically incorrect" in her own days' terms] but if you treat it as a "ripping yarn" it is great. But then perhaps 'Gulliver's Travels' [which surely is influenced by Sterne and Rabellais etc (Petronious? Juvenal?)] is "deeper". Bishop's poetry is incredibly good though. Her poem based on Crusoe is strange as is one of her prose pieces in which (as I - rather unclearly - recall it) the whole thing is dominated by a continuous scream, something like a literary version of Munch's (much traveled) work.

Richard said...

Re this - do you mean you have Dore or one by Heath Robinson? BTW it's sad to think there are people who don't know about Heath Robinson, Edward Lear, Thurber and all the other trivia we The Immortal Cognoscenti can boast of knowing about!!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Yes, it's the Heath Robinson Rabelais I mean -- I do have some books of selected Dore illustrations, though, which include some of the ones from Gargantua and Pantagruel.

By the by, did you ever complete your project to annotate the allusions in Leggott's DIA -- I know you undertook it at some stage, but I'd just be interested to hear how far you got with it ...

best, jack

Richard said...

I thought you'd never ask!

I spent a lot of time looking at that particular book. It was after I heard Michelle read it at The Shakespeare (I think she read from that). I started working on a book of Lisa Samuels (this year) in a similar way. (Her work is similarly ingenious & intense at the language level and also uses puns (more so perhaps), word play and so on, but I think the poetry in DIA keeps more lyricality.)...I got diverted as usual: but recall I did that before I had a computer, I don't think I even typed it, I think I hand wrote the annotations, which were rather indications of some of the posibilities than elucidations as such. My problem is inertia and concentration: that said what you saw were the things I did for Scott's 'Salt' I should have worked more on those. I may do. I think it was more my method of working per se rather than anything very original. I suspected she had followed the method I saw in one version of E. Browning's "Sonnets to the Portuguese" [in particular in an edition from The Peter Pauper Press illust. by Mary Jane Gorton] as that was 14 lines per poem and double spaced. DIA "quotes" from E. Browning's Sonnets, even perhaps a "Dear" and I also picked up an allusion via Pound who took it from Ben Jonson. The main poem in there is a great poem - [I haven't spent much time on the other books]. There is quite a great structure, a kind of "fugal" movement: a near ebullience, almost joyfulness interacting with some darkness (so it is not just 'lovely images' it is thoughtful etc) but I wasn't too much into those complexities or any theoretical stuff as such. After all the great poems have that 'primary intensity' first and foremost as Eliot's best do and I think that poem has that deep inherent "poeticalness" as I think of it. It is also a phenomena that when I focus on work like that (as with some of the language poets, and Stein and when I studied Brunton's strange and brilliant poem 'Moonshine' and wrote about it)): it is then that I see and experience more and more. But there has to be something deeply THERE. For example I have read some poets published by VUP and some of them (not all by any means)and others of other presses who are well known and put a little on a pedestal, who are simply not very good: but I tend to reserve judgement, I respect that someone else sees things of value. But there is no question for me re DIA and Ted Jenner likes that book also. He also knows (and likes a lot) Harlow and Wedde - both great poets of their kind. We have many great writers in NZ - Cattan's book arrived just now via The Book Depository. But I should expand some of my critical things: there are some of your books, Scott's and others (I like recent work by Michael Steven). I had some stuff "annoying me" but I will get onto some of those projects again. Be good to be paid to work on them all!

Richard said...

But you've got me thinking Jack!