Before Fiction

Before Fiction: The Ancien Regime of the Novel

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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    Before Fiction
    Book Description:

    Fiction has become nearly synonymous with literature itself, as if Homer and Dante and Pynchon were all engaged in the same basic activity. But one difficulty with this view is simply that a literature trafficking in openly invented characters is a quite recent development. Novelists before the nineteenth century ceaselessly asserted that their novels were true stories, and before that, poets routinely took their basic plots and heroes from the past. We have grown accustomed to thinking of the history of literature and the novel as a progression from the ideal to the real. Yet paradoxically, the modern triumph of realism is also the triumph of a literature that has shed all pretense to literalness. Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel offers a new understanding of the early history of the genre in England and France, one in which writers were not slowly discovering a type of fictionality we now take for granted but rather following a distinct set of practices and rationales. Nicholas D. Paige reinterprets Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, Diderot's La Religieuse, and other French texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in light of the period's preoccupation with literal truth. Paige argues that novels like these occupied a place before fiction, a pseudofactual realm that in no way leads to modern realism. The book provides an alternate way of looking at a familiar history, and in its very idiom and methodology charts a new course for how we should study the novel and think about the evolution of cultural forms.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0510-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: The Three Regimes of the Novel
    (pp. 1-34)

    Gottlob Frege’s essay “On Sense and Reference,” published in 1892, stands at the beginning of modern philosophical interest in fictionality—that is, in the truth status of fictional propositions. Poetry—roughly, what we now call literature—had of course long been seen as a special kind of deceit that, at least for poetry’s many defenders, led mysteriously back to the truth. “The truest poetry is the most feigning,” says Shakespeare’s Touchstone; “The novel establishes its birthright as a lie that is the foundation of truth,” writes Carlos Fuentes much more recently; and indeed, the literary ground since the Greeks is...

  5. Chapter 1 The Impossible Princess (Lafayette)
    (pp. 35-61)

    La Princesse de Clèves’ claims to the title “the first modern novel” are many. The historical romances that had been the glory of the previous French prose tradition were labyrinthine and interminable; Lafayette’s work is compact and linear. It replaces heroic actions and hyperbolic passions with stifled feelings, confused thoughts, wavering intentions; it is thus psychological. Its heroine’s inimitability, famously lauded in the text’s closing sentence, signals the triumph of originality and individuality over conformity and the authority of the past; it is therefore an allegory of modernity itself. We can add to these arguments a trait that has been...

  6. Chapter 2 Quixote Circa 1670 (Subligny)
    (pp. 62-89)

    Subligny’s La Fausse Clélie, a modest success in the years Lafayette was at work on La Princesse de Clèves and for some years after, is long forgotten.¹ On first inspection, it might not seem worth resurrecting. Its protagonist, Juliette d’Arviane, is subject to moments of madness during which she thinks she is the heroine of Scudéry’s famed historical romance Clélie, histoire romaine (1654–60). What could be clearer? Like Cervantes taking on chivalric romance, like Cervantes’s emulator Sorel attacking pastoral in Le Berger extravagant (1627), Subligny ridicules—now with a gendered twist—the heroic romances that had refused to leave...

  7. Chapter 3 How to Read a Mind (Crébillon)
    (pp. 90-114)

    Fielding pauses in the course of Joseph Andrews (1742) to correct readers who may think they possess the real-life keys to his characters: “I declare here once and for all, I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species.” The lawyer met in a coach is not a satirical reference to “some little obscure fellow,” but the type of the selfish man, present “these four thousand years” though he may exercise different professions, worship another deity, or live in some far-off country.¹ Having little relation to the pseudofactual pretense of the true story or found document, Fielding’s...

  8. Chapter 4 The Aesthetics of Sentiment (Rousseau)
    (pp. 115-138)

    In 1762, preparing for a new edition of his hugely successful Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Rousseau wrote to warn his publisher, Marc-Michel Rey, not to make any slip-ups on the title page: “if you want to put revised and corrected, don’t add by the author: you must know very well that I’m not admitting to that role, only to that of the editor.”¹ Indeed, how could Rey not have known very well, since Rousseau had published not one but two prefaces for the novel, and in each he explicitly refused to relinquish the title of editor. On the...

  9. Chapter 5 The Demon of Reality (Diderot)
    (pp. 139-170)

    In 1857—the annus mirabilis of realism that saw the appearance of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du mal—novelist and critic Champfleury pressed Diderot into service as a precursor of Balzac, Sue, and Hugo, one of a handful of writers who, possessed by a benevolent “demon of Reality,” refused tribute to the elevated style that dominated poetic creation at the time.¹ Champfleury’s genealogy of realism pointed all the way back to Homer, who “observed and described with precision the mores of his time,” and it is hard not to think of the later syntheses of Erich Auerbach or M....

  10. Chapter 6 Beyond Belief (Cazotte)
    (pp. 171-197)

    In his famous essay on the uncanny, Freud does not attempt to provide a literary history of this effect of “dread and creeping horror,” but he gives enough examples to allow us to sketch one out.¹ He finds the uncanny in the stories of Hoffmann and Schnitzler, and even in a Strand magazine piece in which carved crocodiles come to life. He does not find it in “Homer’s jovial world of gods,” nor in Dante and Shakespeare, whose works nonetheless abound in spiritual entities. Fairy tales, meanwhile, are “crammed with instantaneous wish-fulfillments”; “and yet,” writes Freud, “I cannot think of...

  11. Conclusion: On Narrators Natural and Unnatural
    (pp. 198-206)

    In 1876, Dostoyevsky published “A Gentle Creature,” a short story in which a man keeping watch over the body of his dead wife recounts their life together. The author subtitled the work “A Fantastic Story,” explaining in his preface that the epithet alluded not to narrative content but to narrative mode: since the husband never actually put pen to paper, we must imagine that his monologue has been transcribed by a “supposed stenographer noting everything down.”¹ Fantastic, indeed, this invisible writer. Of course, it has now been well over a century that the novel has accustomed us to such “absolutely...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 207-254)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-276)
  14. Index
    (pp. 277-284)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 285-285)