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The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 , by Steven Moore

The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 - Steven Moore


In The Novel: An Alternative History (2010) Steven Moore (b. 1951) is trying to make a polemical point: the insistence by many readers and certain literary critics that novelists conform to standards and conventions for the novel established in Europe in the 19th century is unnecessarily limiting and ignores the actual development of the novel through different times and cultures, a veritable Oceanus of a development of which the putative canonical novel is just one rivulet. To prove his point, Moore takes the reader on a guided world tour of  more than three millennia's worth of fictional prose writing.   


To be honest, Moore's polemics are completely unnecessary for me. For many years, my readings of serious fiction have been located well outside of the primary Western canon of the 19th and 20th centuries, and I have become as unconcerned with the proscriptions of the aesthetics underlying the Western fictional mainstream as I am with the proscriptions against shellfish in Leviticus. As far as I am concerned, writers can pull out all the stops on the nearly infinitely-stopped organ of literature they want and let it roar! Some of Moore's other polemical points about what he considers to be the uniquely disadvantaged novel, which I think are secondary to his project, are overstated; he seems to overlook how many of his assertions about the novel (which is "the only" and "no other") have parallels in other arts - I am thinking, in particular, of music and the cinema.


But no matter, for one can just ignore his polemical introduction and take the tour anyway, which is the real contribution of this text. For there are few with the temerity to try to give an overview of the world's fictional writing from the very beginnings until 1600 CE. Particularly since, as he freely admits, he is limited to reading in English. 


Unlike some of the other reviewers, I am not disturbed by his very generous construal of the notion of the novel. He declines to define the novel and prefers to make an empirical examination of what exists instead of making an a priori definition and looking at what fits the definition. I find nothing objectionable there. Moore's primary point is that the Oceanus of the novel is so vast that locating its shores is difficult, in fact, futile, since the nature of the novel is to innovate and extend itself.


Though it is evident that Moore has done a great deal of research, I expect that experts in each of the literatures and ages treated in this book will have many nits to pick. Even I have some, and I'm no expert.(*) No matter, for he provides a lengthy bibliography of (translated) primary and secondary literature for anyone to deepen their understanding (and to modify Moore's presentation) of all of the literatures handled. 


Whether his presentation is unimpeachable or not, Moore provides an initial orientation, a starting point for entering all of these literatures, an orientation that is certainly tendentious but is nonetheless motivational. And his eager enthusiasm for essentially all of these literatures is endearing and empowering. Clearly, most readers don't share his encyclopedic interest in the literature of every time and every place. OK, but again no matter, for you can jump over the literatures which don't seem to appeal to you to get to the next one that does - the chapters are really quite independent of each other. But perhaps his enthusiasm for a literature which never interested you before will turn out to be infectious. He certainly convinced me to read some of the medieval Gaelic yarns, to mention one example...  


Although there is a great deal of plot summarization in this book, Moore offers much more: potted histories of each of the literatures, a brief comparison of the qualities of different translations of the same work and of competing secondary texts, and, for the works he considers more significant, a more detailed examination of the art of the piece, whether it be its structure, its rhetorical elements, its language (not so much there, though, since he is reading all in translation), its themes, etc., drawing out the reasons why he considers it to be of particular significance.


Personally, I am quite grateful for his chapter on Indian literature, about which I knew little more than nothing, and his chapters on Arabic and Persian literature supplement my recent tentative explorations in those literatures nicely. In fact, I found remarks of interest on nearly every page of this book.


Moore does try a bit too hard to ingratiate himself with blue side remarks, colloquial exclamations, even allusions to Seinfeld and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (!), among others, presumably with the intent to invigorate the reader's flagging attention. Misdirected effort, in my view - and the references to contemporary popular culture will assure that the book is not one for the ages. But no matter...


One needn't be so novel-besotted as Moore clearly is to benefit from this book, though I would advise a long, leisurely read with many pauses for enjoying other books, perhaps even books he has enthusiastically recommended. That's what I did.


(*)  In the chapters on Japanese and Chinese literature, where I do have some previous experience, I observed some nits crawling around. There are also some probably deliberate omissions of matters I consider significant in his section on medieval Byzantine novels, to mention another. No matter, see above.