[24 January 2014]
In his 2010 book, The Novel: An Alternative History Beginnings to 1600 Steven Moore traced back the history of the most popular literary form by going to its very origins (most literature programs and histories usually pick up around the 1700s, time by which most historians feel like the form had reached its official genesis). Moore, however, is a meticulous researcher who went back in time to reveal that the novel was much older and in fact, shockingly, not a European creation. What other historians thought of as proto-novels, Moore argues, were in fact fully formed works that deserved the attention granted to bonafide classics such as Don Quixote.
The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, spans two centuries of the world’s most popular literary form and introduces readers to an entirely new way of thinking about literature. Moore acknowledges that the first installment was a little bit more liberal in its inclusion of things that resembled novels, and in this volume’s introduction reassures us that this will be a tighter version, particularly because the time he covers gives us some of the most famous novels in history, most of which almost everyone will be familiar with.
The first chapter throws us right into Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which Moore assured us was written with such mastery of the form because the author was very familiar with the form of the novel (making a case for the revelations of his first installment). Cervantes was an avid reader who admired Bocaccio and was jealous of the success of Guzmán of Alfarache, a novel by Mateo Alemán that had achieved uncomparable commercial success.
Moore reminds us that Don Quixote wasn’t always a single work, but rather two volumes separated by more than a decade, he also expresses that it’s the book with the most references to other works in history, meaning that Cervantes not only delivered the ultimate novel, but was also dangling in the art of literary criticism centuries before it was “invented”. “The picaresque genre Cervantes parodied was in full swing at the beginning of the 17th century” he writes, “propelled by the extraordinary success of Mateo Aleman’s Guzmán of Alfarache.
Moore’s research and his knowledge seem so vast, that he might have been able to write an entire book on the intricate brilliance of Cervantes’ work alone, but he also is interested in discovering what, if any, connections exist between works of such iconic value and other works that were being produced around the same time. After exploring Spanish literature he ventures into German, Latin and French, delivering valuable information on works both well known and those obscure to people outside the world of academia.
Moore derives true pleasure out of re-creating worlds that would otherwise seem unreachable to modern readers. He uses his knowledge of literature to develop layered landscapes of specific times in history and deftly gives us the context to understand why authors were writing the things they were writing.
He’s also quite generous and seems intent on having his readers discover the more obscure books along with him. When discussing Chinese literature he mentions the example of 18th century novel Yesou puyan, which isn’t only the longest novel in the country’s history (“a dragon of a novel” he calls it), but is extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality. Moore suggests that this work is like a cross between the works of Samuel Richardson and the Marquis de Sade, which give people unfamiliar with Yesou puyan a whole new way to imagine if this book would appeal.
Each of the works mentioned in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800 include a plot description and a short mention of the historical context during which the work was published. Moore is fully aware that passing times as well as translation and edited versions, make some quotes end up being misplaced, so he makes a point out of explaining how he acquired the references he mentions.
Perhaps because it’s easier to research, the English novel takes up most of this volume, as Moore explores some familiar works (like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling which he calls one of the greatest novels of all time), with lesser known titles including the very first English novel written by a woman (Countess of Montgomery’s Urania) which Moore suggests “has more value than being a feminist landmark”, but also happens to be one of the greatest works of its era.
After his geographical observations, Moore turns to thematic similarities and in the latter half of the chapter on the English novel (which is practically half the book) he discusses works according to how they fit within some parameters he’s determined, including modern romances, politics and something he calls “Quixotic quests” in which he discusses The Fool of Quality a pedagogical novel by Henry Brooke in which the author created a fresh dynamic with the reader, involving him in the very creation of what would occur in latter chapters.
If there is a flaw in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800—if it can even be called a “flaw”—it’s unintentional, since it sometimes makes you feel both inadequate and mildly existential (when will I have time to read all these great works?). Yet readers can feel that Moore has empathy with this problem, as he seems to have struggled trying to decide what to include and what to leave out, as well. His passion for literature and the joy he receives from preserving its history are felt in every single page of this work. Volume three can’t come soon enough.