Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fjordman: What was the First Novel?

Fjordman’s latest essay, “What was the First Novel?”, has been published at Atlas Shrugs. Some excerpts are below:

As I’ve demonstrated in my review of it, Human Accomplishment is for the most part an excellent book. However, there is a long debate about what constitutes the “first novel,” both globally and within the European tradition. Murray claims that nothing quite like the European novel developed independently in China, Japan or India until the late nineteenth century when Asians began to adopt it from the Western model.

China and Japan (but not India) had produced works that portrayed common people and gave detailed descriptions of social life, for instance Jin Ping Mei or The Plum in the Golden Vase from the late Ming Dynasty (printed in the early 1600s, but based on slightly older written manuscripts), which is sexually very explicit. It still contained elements of the supernatural and the plots were more episodic than in the Western form of the novel. Murray considers this to be true even of Cao Xueqin or Cao Zhan’s (ca. 1715-1763) Dream of the Red Chamber, by universal acclaim one of the great masterpieces of Chinese literature.
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The Tale of Genji, attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu or Lady Murasaki (ca. 978-ca. 1014) is by some observers considered the world’s first novel, but Murray believes that the term should indicate something more than a long fictional prose narrative. Japanese literature could achieve great beauty, rivalling anything in the European tradition, but the literary energy was usually directed toward poetry and drama. The drama existed in ancient Greece and in India as well, where the playwright Kalidasa (fifth century AD) was one of the greatest writers of Sanskrit literature, yet at Charles Murray states:

“Perhaps the best evidence that the Western novel never really had a counterpart in China, Japan, and India before their contact with the West comes from the commentary of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian intellectuals after contact with the West. In each case, it was recognized that the Western novel was something unlike anything in their own tradition. The emergence of the novel is important for many reasons, but the most salient is the way in which the novel added a new dimension not just for creating beauty, but for seeking out truths. Writers since Homer had been trying to get at the truth of the human condition in it psychological dimensions, and the greatest writers succeeded spectacularly well even in ancient times. But there was hardly anything at all in the fictional literatures of the world about humans as social creatures. The novel made that inquiry possible, and in so doing made literature a partner with the social and behavioral sciences in understanding how humans and human societies work.”

Read the rest at Atlas Shrugs.


Dymphna said...

i always thought the 'real' first novels were written by Jane Austen.

One never tires of reading her. It's not the plots, or her preoccupations with maintaining the rigid class structure. Her greatest gift was her delineation of character. Each is so finely drawn.

Just to show you the power of reading aloud, when the future Baron rode with me, he'd be forced to listen to whatever tape of her stories I had on. The perfectly spoken English, the wonderful characters -- all of it ensnared him. And he was only ten years old at the time.

I think if more kids were exposed to that kind of thing -- i.e., a captive audience for a car ride -- we'd have more literate students. The main ingredient, besides a good book, is an excellent reader. Someone who really performs the work. It's a real art.

laine said...

I agree about the usefulness of book tapes or now discs on car trips. I've always got one on the go even while running errands. It helps make being stuck in traffic less of a waste of time.

And they can be borrowed from the library for free, so what's not to like?