The Novel: An Alternative History
by Steven Moore
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson
The best book published this year might be a book about books -- specifically, Gaddis scholar Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600. Moore opens with a lengthy defense of innovative, imaginative, non-mainstream, literary fiction: art for art's sake. It's tempting to quote his thirty-seven-page introduction in full -- taking on Dale Peck, B.R. Myers, and Jonathan Franzen, it's brilliant, funny, informative, thoughtful, demanding, and more than anything, radiates an excitement for the novel and literature. "For some people," he writes, "resentment rather than modesty is the ego's way of protecting itself; play them some unconventional music and they dismiss it as noise, show them some nonrepresentational art and they claim their kid could do as well. You know the type." Moore pretty much lays out his thesis when he writes, "I remain convinced that negative reactions to unconventional modern fiction can be blamed partly on ignorance of the novel's long, colorful, and decidedly unconventional history." And with that, he launches into review after review, beginning with "The Tale of Sinuhe" (20th century BCE, Egypt) up through The Plum in the Golden Vase (Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng, 16th century CE, China).
You might expect a heavily footnoted 700-page history of the novel up to 1600 to be anything but readable, gripping, and enjoyable, but The Novel is all of those things -- immensely so. After suggesting and rejecting definitions for "novel" (including his own, "the novel is essentially a delivery system for aesthetic bliss"), Moore finally concedes that he'd "rather let authors show me what a novel can be than to impose a definition on them." He then proceeds to the earliest Egyptian novel prototypes, which bring us "sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, formal strategies, rhetorical devices, even parody, pornography, metafiction, and magic realism," and by 1700 BCE in Mesopotamia, we find the "first author for whom we actually have a name: Ipiq-Aya."
Moore moves chronologically and by region, giving the novel a deserved amount of credit for the development of our society. In addition to the religious stuff (which he sees as the downfall of civilization), he takes the time to point out things like: "Can you imagine a Jane Austen heroine declining an invitation to dance because she's having her period? Can you imagine how much saner our society would be if she had?" and "[Satyricon is] the first novel in which the size of a male character's genitals is noted, a detail you hardly ever get in George Eliot's novels." Moore has seemingly read everything, and for every book he discusses, he includes all the various translations and offers his take on each, generally recommending those he considers best (and taking translators to task for laziness, and prudishness along the way). If copies of a novel no longer exist, or it has never been translated into English, that doesn't stop him -- several books are written about using secondary sources or from clues about them mentioned in other novels from the same region. He even takes a moment to bring up untranslatable Incan novels written in arrangements of beads on knotted strings, of which the final products look like mop heads.
Many of the books Moore discusses will be unfamiliar to even the most well-read people. There's a 7,000-page novel entitled Perceforest (author unknown) -- it's unavailable in a complete English translation, but apparently has a section in which the protagonist is "turned into a bear, taking part in several ursine adventures, and then being turned back again and thinking it was all just a weird dream"; then there's Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, "an Arabic Robinson Crusoe written in Granada in the 11th century"; Diego de San Pedro's Prison of Love, "a delicate music-box of a novel"; Francisco Delicado's "vigorously vulgar" work Portrait of Lozana, "a sprawling carnival of a novel with 125 speaking parts representing everyone from aristocrats to a talking donkey"; a virtually unknown Cervantes pastoral entitled Primera parte de la Galatea, which hasn't had an English translation since 1867 (a "fusty" Victorian rendition); Euphues' Golden Legacy: found after his death in his cell at Silexedra; Gunadhya's Brihatkatha, "thousands of pages long and written in the language of goblins!" -- its origins are in The Ocean of Story, of which the "1,800-page abridgement is indeed shorter than the lost original"; The Adventures of Antar, which is 6,000 pages long; The Changelings, "the world's first transgender novel"; and a novel with the blistering title Upamitibhavapancakatha. Additionally, Moore discusses multiple novels narrated by parrots (and one by a talking goose), such as Seventy Tales of the Parrot, "another contribution to the select list of great psittacine fiction." He discusses novels by writers with names like Snorri Sturluson, Eustathius Makrembolites, Giovanfrancesco Straparola, and Tsang Nyön Heruka: The Mad Yogi of Tsang, who later calls himself "The Yogi Who Wanders in Cemeteries," a "peripatetic . . . religious madman" who is "also reported to have exorcised a zombie." There's a section on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a long novel consisting almost exclusively of descriptions of architecture -- which Moore dubs "a grand synthesis of almost everything that came before it" and "a colossal landmark in innovation fiction." He discusses well-known works such as The Decameron and The Arabian Nights and The Tale of Genji and Gargantua and Pantagruel, including a list of "children" of G&P, everything from Barthelemy Aneau's Alector, or The Cock to McCourt's Now Voyagers.
Moore dispels the myth that "realist" works like Robinson Crusoe and Pamela were the first novels by comparing them to earlier Chinese novels, which highlight "how many details are missing from them, especially concerning physical/sexual matters, how quaintly unrealistic they are, displaying a faux-realism at best." He notes that the first English novel is William Baldwin's Beware the Cat (1553), which, interestingly, is where the belief that a cat has nine lives originates; elsewhere in England, "Deloney more or less invents the crime novel" with his book Thomas of Reading, or The Six Worthy Yeoman of the West. (The first crime novel, but not "the world's first detective stories": those appeared in China during the Tang and Song dynasties.) He notes that the reason so many of these books he's discussing are so innovative is because "at this time, there was still no such thing as a conventional novel."
The discussions are by no means all praise: Moore notes many times that like today, many ancient books' popularity were "inverse in proportion to [their] artistry," and says things like, "ultimately [Barlaam and Josaphat] resembles many best-sellers of our own time: formulaic trash." Moore reserves a particular hostility for religious novels and texts (even though he finds things to praise in many of them): the sections on Ancient Hebrew and Christian Fiction (namely, the books that would eventually be jammed together to form the Bible -- i.e., the "grim, god-ridden legends of the Jews") -- is fascinating and informational in terms of both the history of these books and of the incredible insight into their fictional/literary qualities. Additionally, his anti-religious sentiments are just as sharp (though funnier) than those of Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ Myers, etc. For instance, he unleashes this Sorrentino-like blast: "But none of that alleviates the tedium of the 500-page novel; it's a sobering study of religious extremism, a scary look at what a Christian utopia might look like, but I suspect even a Christian fundamentalist -- moving her lips as her finger slowly traces the words on the page -- would find it too religiose." See also his admission that "I'm going a little heavy on the scholarly citations in this section because I want to emphasize that my objections to the veracity of the gospels are not a cranky personal bias but are shared by an army of scholars who know more about early Christianity than you or I ever will." His description of the novel Yusuf and Zulaikah sums up many of the texts: "Fear of/obsession with sex? Check. Disgust with the body and life itself? Check. Uncritical acceptance of a 'sacred' text? Check. Confusion of subjectivity with objectivity? Check. Self-absorption mistaken for selflessness? Check. Displacement of eros onto a paternal (and in this case homoerotic) fantasy figure? Check. Yep, it's the usual religious bullshit." This isn't just willy-nilly god-bashing, however: Moore's making the point that most of the "holy books" were written as fiction, borrowing heavily from earlier fictions; he writes that the "inability of other ancient peoples to recognize their own sacred tales as fictions would prove to be the true original sin." Think of all the killing and suffering done throughout history in the name of holy writ, and when you realize that they were essentially fighting over fiction, it's a sobering thought.
There are several passages in which Moore begins with an idea present in an ancient text and traces it through history to a 2009 novel, showing that even aspects of fiction that feel fresh to us now are evident in the earliest stories. Moore's enthusiasm for literature is indisputable; his irreverence and excitement and sense of humor and erudition make The Novel essential reading for readers and writers alike. Two things can't be stressed enough here: the depth of the research and the readability of the work itself. Volume One of Moore's "alternative history" is an indispensible work of scholarship. Volume Two will begin with Don Quixote and end where it ends. In the meantime, there's a huge list of ancient fiction to catch up on.