The True Story of the Novel

 
9780002558020: The True Story of the Novel

Twentieth-century historians and critics defending the novel have emphasized its role as superseding something else, as a sort of legitimate usurper that deposed the Epic, a replacement of myth, or religious narrative. To say that the Age of Early Christianity was really also the Age of the Novel rumples such historical tidiness––but so it was. From the outset of her discussion, Doody rejects the conventional Anglo-Saxon distinction between Romance and Novel. This eighteenth-century distinction, she maintains, served both to keep the foreign––dark-skinned peoples, strange speakers, Muslims, and others––largely out of literature, and to obscure the diverse nature of the novel itself.

This deeply informed and truly comparative work is staggering in its breadth. Doody treats not only recognized classics, but also works of usually unacknowledged subgenres––new readings of novels like The Pickwick Papers, Puddn’head Wilson, L’Assommoir, Death in Venice, and Beloved  are accompanied by insights into Death on the Nile or The Wind in the Willows. Non-Western writers like Chinua Achebe and Witi Ihimaera are also included. In her last section, Doody goes on to show that Chinese and Japanese novels, early and late, bear a strong and not incidental affinity to their Western counterparts. Collectively, these readings offer the basis for a serious reassessment of the history and the nature of the novel.

The True Story of the Novel marks the beginning of the twenty-first century’s understanding of fiction and of culture. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in literature.

 

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Review:

Margaret Anne Doody has undertaken an ambitious project: the complete study of the evolution of the novel. Doody, who runs a comparative studies program at Vanderbilt University, traces the origins of the form from prehistoric times through Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In addition to its comprehensiveness, its soundness, and its intelligent, authoritative voice, the value of the work is in its contention that the English didn't invent the novel. ":One of the most successful literary lies," she says, "is that the English claim to have invented the novel." Her contention borders on revolutionary in the field, and it should set some minds free. She refers to the debunking of this convention in literature as "leaping over a paddock fence and escaping into a larger space."

From Kirkus Reviews:

A massively erudite, groundbreaking revision of the novel's historical development. Traditionally, Anglo-American criticism located the rise of the novel in 18th-century England and the troika of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. The realism that characterized their books--Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, etc.--was declared to be the hallmark of a new and wonderful genre: the novel. The thousands of prose fictions that had come before were dismissed as mere romances or that bland entity, ``extended prose works.'' Doody's (Comparative Literature/Vanderbilt Univ.; Frances Burney, 1988, etc.) goal is nothing less than to restore these slighted works, particularly those from the classical world, to the novel's fold, to their proper and primary place in the Western canon. Starting in 100 b.c. with the oldest surviving novel, the Greek Chaireas and Kallirroe by Chariton, Doody convincingly demonstrates the underlying realism of these neglected novels as, point by point, from questions of character and voice to literary self- consciousness, she demolishes the previous quibbling barriers. She also demonstrates how the classical novels, particularly Apuleius's The Golden Ass, continued to influence more modern novels (her ability to cross-reference is truly breathtaking). Taking a few too many pages from Jung, Doody then goes on to elaborate the deep mythic structures--from dreams to death to goddess worship--that all novels share; apart from further proving her continuity thesis, most of this feels overlong and out of place. We will probably never know what really was the first novel, but Doody, building on the work of others, argues cogently for the form's religious beginnings--a ritual diary of an initiate's path to spiritual gnosis. In her view, the modern novel is not that different: ``We make a not unimportant spiritual and political as well as personal move when we open a novel and become initiates, entering upon the marshy margins of becoming.'' Despite some minor imperfections, a major, even seminal work. (8 color, 39 b&w illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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