By Alberto Manguel
Sunday, August 22, 2010; B06
An Alternative History
Beginnings to 1600
By Steven Moore
Continuum. 698 pp. $39.95
We tell stories to know the world. Stories teach us who we are and where we are. They allow us to ask why and to imagine ourselves as someone or somewhere else. Readers can bring to life the world that another person, perhaps centuries and oceans away, has put into words for them and make it their own. Every reader becomes a wanderer like Ulysses, a lost adolescent like Holden Caulfield, a murderer like Raskolnikov, a seducer-victim like Lolita, a justice-seeker like Don Quixote. Through the ages this distinctly human impulse to inhabit an imaginary world has taken on many forms before becoming what is known today as the modern novel.
Steven Moore, a former managing editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, has attempted to trace the roots of the modern novel to the first stories told around campfires in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Moore's survey is splendidly comprehensive and shows a true passion for his subject. Ranging from those early ancestors to the classics of Asian fiction, from the love stories of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the philosophical fables of the Enlightenment, and well into our time, the book displays Moore's impressive knowledge of the world of make-believe. Not only does he explore the delightful intricacies of such classics as Apuleius's "The Golden Ass" and the Sanskrit Panchatantra, but he guides us through the adventures of early Egyptian heroes (from which Agatha Christie, among others, drew inspiration), the love tribulations of the Greeks, the colossal enterprises of Indian demigods and the vast family sagas of Japan and China. The Arthurian legend, the Scandinavian epics and the picaresque tales of medieval Europe are also subjects of his keen analysis.
Moore makes deft connections between past and present, too. For instance, he tracks the lineage of a genre he calls "tranny classics" -- a group that includes Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" and Gore Vidal's "Myra Breckenbridge" -- back to a late 11th-century anonymous Japanese novel "The Changelings," a book whose gender-crossing protagonists seemed scandalous to generations of readers well into the 19th century.
As astute and thorough as this book is, however, it is based on a tenuous premise: That "the standard history of the novel" states that the form "was born in 18th-century England." This is not quite fair: A whole library of histories of the novel has traced the genre's origins to the same ancient sources that Moore discusses. Margaret Anne Doody's "The True History of the Novel" (1996) is perhaps the best known, but in the 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers was tracking the detective novel back to the Bible and the Greeks. In the 1890s, Spanish scholars searched for models of Don Quixote in ancient tales such as the Alexander Romance and the Kalilah and Dimnah story cycle.
Though it is true that the word "novel" did not come into common use in Europe until the 18th century, the thing itself thrived under many other names in the literatures of almost every country. When in the early 16th century the tag "novel" began to be used in English to describe a certain kind of narrative (a short history first and an extended tale afterwards), the split between fiction and reality became so ingrained in the collective psyche that less than two centuries later, in 1726, when Jonathan Swift published "Gulliver's Travels" as a "true account," a certain Irish bishop observed that "the book was full of improbable lies, and for his part he hardly believed a word of it." For the Irish bishop, a book had to be fiction or nonfiction: It could not be both.
Leaving aside the question of originality, Moore tells his story with erudition and wit, and in doing so restores to the reader of good fiction confidence in the craft. Ultimately, Moore's book is less a genealogical history of the novel than a reader's treasure trove. It is also a celebration of challenging novels such as "Finnegans Wake" and "The Death of Virgil." These books, Moore points out, "are admittedly not for everyone" (and he could add to the list the remote classics enshrined in the libraries of archeologist-scholars); "but they are for some of us." Exactly.
Reading, in the deepest, most difficult, ultimately satisfying sense is, and always was, the craft of an elite, but, in spite of what demagogues and anti-intellectuals would have us believe, an elite to which almost anyone can choose to belong.
Alberto Manguel is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "A Reader on Reading."