The cover may entice. It’s of a young woman happily reading a book while lying nude on her bed. No men disturb her bedroom pursuit of pleasure. She is liberated from confining garments demanded by convention and climate. It’s unlikely she’s reading a conduct book, so perhaps she’s spending time with an it-narrative, an Oriental tale, or another species of novel devised between 1600 and 1800. She looks engrossed. Maybe the conversation she’s having with the text is better than sex, than drugs, than leaving a calling card at someone’s estate. She could be newly bathed. Her hair is neatly arranged, most likely done by a handmaiden who may read entirely different matter, such as sentimental fiction or heroic romances.The length and weight of the thing will detract some; the subtitle may ward off those who either dislike the notion that there’s an alternative history to what they were taught or grumble at anything to do with those particular centuries.
Why spend time discussing Der Bücherwurm (The Bookworm, 1906), by Hermann Fenner-Behmer (1866-1913)? It’s there for a reason that’s beyond the titillation factor (though sex, and avoidance of sex, are components of the writing of this time). It expresses certain features of the second volume of Steven Moore’s refashioning of literary history. While his book does not require a bed for support, it is the kind one wants to relax with in comfort. One can pick it up and read a few pages at a time or try a pell-mell approach that enables you to better appreciate the labor and the ardor behind it. Everything in the book is as organized as the room in the painting, and, to use a word Moore likes, is imbued with a “fresh” perspective towards the material. There is an air about the presentation that differs from the embattled atmosphere found in volume one, where Moore had to combat antagonists collectively referred to as MPF (“[B.R.] Myers, Peck, Franzen, and readers like them”). There are enemies in this book but they’re not individualized. They only trouble him now and then so, much like the young woman, he continues reading.
As in The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600, Moore’s Preface provides a brief sketch of the difference between that 2010 publication and The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800.
Since this volume picks up where the previous one left off, I’ll ask the reader to refer to that volume’s truculent introduction for my premises and methodology. For reasons explained there, I cast my net fairly wide into the ocean of story for the first volume and dragged in “anything that remotely resembled a novel,” but promised to tighten the net in the next volume. However, I decided it was too soon to focus only on unconventional, experimental novels, as I had planned…. The novel settled into a norm during this early-modern period, and as a result, this volume examines more “normal” novels than the previous one did, all the better to contrast and appreciate the deviations from the norm.
There’s much to praise in this approach, especially for non-specialists in one area (period, genre, country, language), as we rarely get to see the context from which significant books emerge. Seeing dross—such as the captivity novels US literature started off with (Mary Rowlandson’s A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson ) or early Gothic works by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)—helps us understand more fully the value of Adventures of Jonathan Corncob, Loyal American Refugee (an anonymous work that came out in London in 1787) and The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis (1775-1818). Thanks to Moore’s broad and deep literary knowledge, we can follow his arguments as to how this or that novel sharply differed in form or quality from its kin. One part of his reading method suggests how he both can locate and appreciate works within a tradition, for many are new to him (most will be new to the general reader). In the course of several pages devoted to the French writer Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763)—who looks worthy of greater accessibility in modern, unabridged, English translations, as Moore suggests—we read this remark, set in the context of Marivaux’s unfinished The Life of Marianne, Countess of ***** (1731-1741):
But [Marianne] is trying both to capture all the thoughts that were racing through her mind at the time and to articulate in hindsight things her 15-year-old self only intuited. The combination of self-analysis and sociological observation is almost Proustian; since the 500-page novel occupies only two months, had Marivaux continued at that pace he might have written a novel as long as Proust’s. The radical change in narrative time strikes anyone who reads French novels in historical sequence, as I’ve been doing…
On a smaller scale, we could undertake a project to what James Smythe is doing at The Guardian, “Rereading Stephen King,” which he started in May 2012. It could be rewarding (or depressing) and tiring to track any novelist (or poet, or dramatist) as they move along in their career. Moore doesn’t make a big thing of his process but its virtue is apparent, and it does mean the next book (or the one after that) could be, using a phrase he favors, a “game-changing masterpiece.” He’s ready to be delighted thanks to reading the more abundant “normal” works.
Almost halfway through The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800 Moore describes “the longest novel in Chinese literature” (486), Yesou puyan (c. 1780, not translated), whose title in English might be “The Humble Words of an Old Rustic”: “Like an unthinkable collaboration between Samuel Richardson and the Marquis de Sade—Clarissa meets Justine—Yesou puyan combines high moral seriousness with a perverse fascination with deviant sex.” (487) As elsewhere, based on commentary he’s read about this novel and his own familiarity with Chinese writing of them, Moore can link the unfamiliar with the better known to bring two works together. In the first volume (and his other writings, on William Gaddis for instance, who gets many mentions in here) we saw the evidence behind his arguments and opinions and were faced with the issue of trust. Or, really, the question: Has he earned a position of authority? (Or: Who’s he to say so?)
Any reviewer of this volume must own up to a certain incompetency. To argue adequately against the case Moore makes, as Denis Donoghue attempted to do in The Wall Street Journal when volume one came out, would mean reading everything mentioned, and few people today have the time or interest in doing so. Donoghue didn’t. Instead, he took a patronizing tone that, apart from showing reliance on what he has an investment in, dismissed the literary efforts of most countries (the Other can produce sagas but not novels would be one way of summarizing his remarks). Rather than take the opportunity to engage the book, Donoghue chided Moore for moving the location of the goalposts by insisting that a work of fiction can come in any form. “He brushes aside the standard distinctions between novels, romances and confessions,” Donoghue huffed, completely missing the point that taxonomists—proto-Donoghues and proto-Ian Watts—long ago invented the categories that many now regard as fixed molds into which all writing must be made to fit. These border police of literature have counterparts in all art forms.*
As Moore wrote in The Guardian around the time the first volume came out:
What most people mean by a novel is the “conventional” novel, or “modern,” or “realistic” novel. But I’m more interested in the noun than its qualifying adjectives. While I regard a novel as any book-length work of fiction – a definition endorsed by Webster’s dictionary and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – most literature professors want to limit the term to realistic fictions set in identifiable sociocultural contexts, especially ones that make psychological probes into human nature. While that definition might exclude a few of the titles above, it describes most of the others to a T. (The Tale of Genji is a realistic novel that displays more psychological insight than almost any European novel before the twentieth century.) But unfortunately, the first editors of many of these early novels labeled them “romances” or “sagas” or satires, folk epics, tales, pastorals, legends, picaresques, and other terms, which allowed literature professors to ignore them. Or I should say, those professors who are aware of them: I suspect most professors have never even heard of The Tale of Lady Ochikubo or The Golden Lotus, so their status as novels is a non-issue for them.
For his catholic tastes, those professors are enemies to be tilted at (most vigorously in 2010) and time will tell if this is Quixotic. For readers, when Moore writes, “Just as Joyce adapted the myth of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca to structure his huge novel, Cao Xueqin [in A Dream of Red Mansions, 1792] encloses his story within an elaborate Buddhist fairy tale. (Bear with me on this.),” we are willing to go along on this ride due to the ample proofs of learning shown over close to 1,800 pages. (That’s not to be confused with blind adherence. Throughout both volumes Moore objects to what other scholars have said, and it’s likely they do the same with him, in the healthy spirit of debate.) As in volume one, he quotes scholars specializing in certain literary periods who also classify (or not) certain books as novels. Closer in time to the works referred to, with more of them in print, an interested reader can more easily check and challenge what we’re being told in this latest book.
It’s worth listing the contents of the second volume to give an idea of the geographical spread of the novel form. Chapter 1, The European Novel, contains sections on Spanish, German, and Latin fiction (specifically, Neo-Latin). Chapter 2 is devoted to The French Novel. Chapter 3, The Eastern Novel, deals with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Persian, and Indian fiction. Chapter 4 concentrates on The English Novel (along with various subsections dealing with particular genres), while Chapter 5 is about The American Novel, though what that is requires some pages to determine. A bibliography, and a chronological index of the novels, concludes the book. (It would have been helpful to have a short glossary of genre terms.)
In each chapter, we are given the plot summary of each novel, the date of its publication (and/or composition), the name of the author and the dates of birth and death (where known), the literary milieu in which the novel lands (sometimes bringing in politics, religion, or social concerns), and what edition is quoted from and available (often there are only summaries of books, or severe abridgements, for works not in English). From there, Moore describes how, or if, the particular book contributed to the stylistic or social progress of the novel. Often he can look down the road and pick out descendants from this or that author (e.g., linking Goethe with David Foster Wallace), and with as much ease looks back in time to retrieve the names of literary ancestors.
Readers will come across unfamiliar names from every country considered. As the English novel is better known, it may be worthwhile to indicate some neglected foreign writers, often those who experiment with form, who sound deserving of recovery. In the US, both Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816) with Modern Chivalry (“published in installments between 1792 and 1815”)—popular when it came out, it “has never regained its rightful place as the first great American novel”—and Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810), “the most daring and significant American novelist of this period,” are talked about with an infectious excitement. An English novel that could be singled out is Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621; part 1 republished in 1995, part 2 first published in 2000), by Mary Wroth (1587–1653?), niece of Sir Philip Sidney, author of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1593). Something of a continuation of Sidney’s work, this novel is “the first known English novel by a woman, but also one of the most significant novels of the 17th century. It is also one of the least known…” (One of the useful aspects of this work is the reclamation of many female authors from obscurity, and here, as elsewhere, Moore builds on the work of specialists credited in the footnotes, as well as his own studies.)
Apart from Marivaux, other French authors promise, if translated (or re-translated for modern editions and audiences), to reveal their role in the growth of the novel while providing entertainment. Among them are Honoré d’Urfé (1568-1625), whose Astrea (1607) “melds several traditional genres of fiction into something new...” Both author and work (there were sequels) became touchstones for future European writers. Of greater interest are the works of Charles Sorel (1597?-1674), especially The Comical History of Francion (1622 or 1623), “a ‘comic novel’: a new genre that Sorel felt was needed to supplant the overly serious French fiction of the time” (182). Moore explains his contribution to French fiction—forecasting elements of modern writing—and judges that “of all the French novelists of the 17th century he is the one most deserving of rehabilitation in the 21st.” It would be good to see more of Sorel in print so we could refute, agree or refine that conclusion.
German fiction has shadowy figures English readers deserve to know. Johann Fischart (1546-1591) is one who, in the eyes of some critics, serves as “an important link between linguistic innovators of the Renaissance like Colonna and Rabelais and modern ones like James Joyce and Germany’s own Arno Schmidt.” Other German writers of note are Hans Grimmelshausen (1622?-1676) for The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668), where “the modern German novel begins… a boisterous Oktoberfest of genres bumping bellies”; Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) and his Anton Reiser: A Psychological Novel (1785-1790); Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), author of the epistolary novel William Lovell (1795-1796), “the greatest German example of that genre in the 18th century”; Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), whose Lucinde (1799) is classified as “perhaps the most daringly experimental novel of the 18th century, even more so than Tristram Shandy”; and Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), “the true German [Laurence] Sterne, not by way of rank imitation but from a similar desire to adapt the genre of the novel to his own idiosyncratic needs,” as in The Invisible Lodge (1793).
From the East, Moore gets most excited by what China produced, such asThe Tower of Myriad Mirrors (1641), a work of dreams, shattered egos, and “self-reflexivity.” The very elements that give it the “aura” of the postmodern kept the book, and its author, Tung Yueh (1620-1686), obscure until the last century. The old genre of the detective novel (“popular since the Tang dynasty—predating by a millennium Edgar Allan Poe” ) is seen rising to greater prominence in the 17th century. Japan offers The Life of an Amorous Man (1682) by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), “the first Far Eastern novel in which the characters don’t seem like prisoners of their culture, but free agents,” and the mostly untranslated novels of Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848). With only one novel in English to examine, A Captive Love (1808), and based on its qualities, Moore considers “the unavailability of his major works in English all the more frustrating.” Other authors and novels are singled out for our attention, but these few examples illustrate what dreadful gaps we have in our knowledge of the literature of other places and earlier times.
In deciding the literary merits of books from another language, Moore has to rely on what has been rendered into English, in whole or in part. In The English Novel he expresses relief to be “free at last from the Tyranny of scurvy Translators” (541). He calls the translator of Flowers in the Mirror (1818; rev. ed. 1828), Lin Tai-yi, “condescending” for removing about two-thirds from the original work by Li Ruzhen (1763-1830) in her 1965 abridgement. He can also be complimentary, for example when he says of Peter H. Lee that he “has done more than anyone to make classic Korean literature available to English-speaking audiences.” In the case of Richter’s The Invisible Lodge, Moore refers to Charles Brooks’s “heroically faithful translation…” (135, fn. 132). Naturally, he advocates for updated translations, such as in the case of Marivaux’s The Life of Marianne, Countess of *****: “It’s an outrage that such an important novel isn’t available in a modern translation.” It’s at such time that translators and publishers merge into one common enemy.
From Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) to The Female American (1767) by Unca Eliza Winkfield, societal and personal circumstances put almost every novel, and therefore almost every writer, in either an antagonistic or advocatory position when it came to religious matters. As shown by the large umbrella under which novels from various millennia have been brought together, Moore’s reading tastes are ecumenical. He is on the side of the oppressed (amply shown by comments on works that artistically champion equal rights for women and the poor, and that are against slavery), and is tolerant of a variety of philosophical approaches. Yet one drawback to this volume, like its predecessor, is the contempt shown religious belief. What Moore won’t put up with is the very real and persistent desire in many people (and cultures, and nations)—in the two centuries under consideration and in today’s population—to believe in some form of God. His position is legitimate, yet on this matter the language throughout the book lacks measure: Christianity “brainwashes” its adherents; there is the “gloom of Buddhism”; “Though Iranian writers were as hobbled by Islam as Tibetans by Buddhism…”; and Confucianism, while not a religion, is “idiocy.” We might ask: What prompts this? Is it, as Curtis White puts it in The Science Delusion, “the clash between the Christian evangelical and the scientist” that makes his prose as intemperate and hostile in the instances where he lashes out as that of those he is fighting? They’re not the potential audience for his book, and those who agree with Moore may find the constant pasting of a hollow opponent boring. Surely in a book of over 1,000 pages the last thing Moore wants to encourage is fatigue.
Aside from that, which may amount to no more than a cavil, as one reads deeper in The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800 there is the frankly terrible realization that English-only readers have missed out on so much worthwhile writing from two hundred creative years. A new line of (alternative) classics could be drawn from this book and its predecessor, replacing the tired wares seen repeatedly in stores, especially at Christmas. But what publisher now would sweep clear its list and replace familiar titles with the ones Moore laments aren’t available in English? If there is one daring enough to present a truly panoramic set of works from Ancient Egypt to early nineteenth-century America, the logical choice as general editor is at hand. (He ought to be allowed to select the cover images for such a set of works, considering the evocative image chosen for his own work.) We have only ourselves to blame if, armed with this latest encyclopedic work from Steven Moore, we let books from other cultures and times drop out of sight.
Canadian author Jeff Bursey’s short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies; his reviews and academic articles have appeared in various print and online venues. In 2010, Enfield & Wizenty published his innovative political satire Verbatim: A Novel. He can be seen reading on YouTube and can be reached via www.jeffbursey.com.
* In the new volume Moore roughs up Donoghue by classifying him as “a blinkered, conservative critic” for claiming, in his study Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (1969), that “Swift ‘is not Flaubert or James. He is not, in the sense implied by those names, a novelist at all…” Broad-minded readers will groan. On the same page, in a footnote—and bless Moore for choosing footnotes over endnotes, and making them as numerous and as long as he wants—he asks: “But why not measure him by Rabelaisian standards, or Petronian, Sternean, or Joycean standards, not to mention Cao Xueqinean? Who made James the gold standard?” Mold-makers did. John Tytell drafts James into his review of The Letters of William Gaddis, in the pages of American Book Review (March/April 2013, Vol. 34 No. 3, pp. 10-11), and faults Gaddis for not being Jamesian. It’s sometimes the case that grad students teaching their first classes bring James up everywhere they can, as those before them would invoke Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Bowles, Zora Neale Hurston, Gertrude Stein—in short, whoever they were exposed to in grad studies. This is the academic equivalent of someone who takes the advice of the last person to speak with them.