Thursday 28 August 2008

History of the Novel

People used to assume that the novel emerged at the end of the European Renaissance with Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (the first part published in 1605 and the second in 1615). As Margaret Anne Doody (1997) shows, however, in The true story of the novel (see our list of books on the psychology of fiction by clicking here), the novel is much older. Greek novels have survived from 100 BCE. But even this history is parochial. A parallel tradition of prose fiction exists in the East, although because of the fragility of bamboo-based materials for writing on, fewer ancient works have survived there than in the West. One notable example of an early novel, written about 1000 years ago, is Murasaki Shikubu’s The Tale of Genji (translated by Royall Tyler, Penguin, 2001; see also William Puette's, 1983, The tale of Genji: A reader's guide. Rutland, VT: Tuttle).

The tale of Genji is a thoroughly psychological novel, written by a woman who was the daughter of the court scholar in what is now Kyoto, in Japan. The introduction to the English version tells us that her name is a pseudonym: Murasaki is the name she gives to her novel's heroine, and Shikibu is the name of a post once held by her father. She was far more learned in the Chinese classics than was thought proper for women, and she suffered the loss, in turn, of three people to whom she was very close. "I wish I could be more adaptable and live more gaily in the present world," she wrote in her diary, "had I not an extraordinary sorrow." Without benefit of reading either Roman Jakobson or Jacques Lacan, Shikibu has superbly depicted the phenomenon of the metonymic chain: the idea that sexual desire is always a quest, never quite fulfilled, a displacement along a chain of substitutions (metonyms) from the union with one's original object of attachment. Shikubu's story is of Genji's yearning for his lost mother, and his finding principally reminders, images, parts …

Here is the novel's first sentence:
In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.
This someone is Genji’s mother, Kiritsubo. The novel then opens out into a series of Genji's love affairs. The first is with Fujitsubo, whom Genji's father (The Emperor) has taken as a mistress after Kiritsubo died. Being a Consort of the Emperor, she is, properly speaking unattainable, but Genji does attain her, at least partly. He has affairs with many other women. Most importantly he falls in love with Murasaki, who reminds him of Fujitsubo and, of course, of his mother, Kiritsubo. The tale of Genji, one might say then, is the perfectly metonymic novel. For modern readers, it does go on a bit (1000 pages), perhaps a hint that the metonymic chain can be quite extended; I am afraid I have not reached the end. But it is beautifully written and poignant. It enables one to enter an ancient feudal society utterly different from anything that exists today, dedicated to aesthetics, principally in poetry and music, in which the cardinal virtue was sensitivity to the pathos of life, especially as expressed in the arts. It is also insightful about something that may be a universal of human experience.

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