The Novel: An Alternative History Paperback – 1 May 2006
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The Novel: An Alternative History is a breathtaking achievement. Steve Moore isn't just incredibly well read, he's also funny, irreverent, argumentative and sometimes even downright mean. There's nothing dryly academic about his magnificent book--it's as personal as a love affair and just as thrilling. Like Edmund Wilson, Hugh Kenner or Randall Jarrell, Moore writes with real stylish dash, yet backs up what he says with the authority that only comes from vast knowledge. Ancient Greek novels, classics of Asian fiction, medieval romances, Renaissance allegories, Victorian triple-deckers, postmodern experiments--Moore knows them all. For readers, the result isn't just a history of the novel, it's also one of the all-time great literary carnival rides. --Michael Dirda, author of Classics for Pleasure and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism
About the Author
Steven Moore (Ph.D. Rutgers, 1988) is the author of several books and essays on modern literature. From 1988 to 1996 he was managing editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press, and for decades he has reviewed books for a variety of journals and newspapers, principally The Washington Post. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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in fact presents what can almost be described as a history of civilization itself. Going back beyond the 4th century BC, the book
covers ancient Greek and Roman literature and runs through to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Geographical
coverage is also extensive, with western, middle eastern and far eastern novels all given very thorough treatment. The breadth
of knowledge of the author, the depth of detail in his accounts of the selected novels and his astute, witty and often irreverent
comments on the books covered make this lengthy volume a highly entertaining read. I look forward very much to reading his second volume covering the years 1600 to the present.
What distinguishes Moore's book from all fo the rest is the tangible fluidity of his writing. This is the only nonfiction book I have read since Hughes which could qualify as literature. There simply is nothing I can compare it to short of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
A few recent examples of exceptional nonfiction which fall short of Moore's THE NOVEL might provide a perspective. Paul O'Keefe's A GENIUS FOR FAILURE (The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon), THE VERSE REVOLUTIONARIES ((Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists) by Helen Carr, and HOGARTH (A life and a World) by Jenny Uglow are all works which I would enthusiastically recommend as incomparable. But they lack the seamless melding of supple prose and literary sinew which makes Moore's two volumes absolutely indispensible for anyone who wishes to grasp the history and significance of fiction, readers as well as scholars and writers.
The sad as silly 'gatekeepers' can wail at their self-professed wall of stale dogma all they want, but it is in vain. Moore opens up the world of literature like no one else has ever had the chutzpah to do with a tangibly authoritatively as comprehensive perspective of literature which must needs be considered an essential component of the canon.
Having had to stomach the self-serving as orthdox views of a schlepping literary establishment which has been effete for so many decades, I am grateful for these two volumes which I will read and reread over the years no less than my adored Norton.
Moore's book, the first volume of two, takes a fresh, bold and thoroughly irreverent look at the great works of world literature before 1600. The novel, he says, did not begin, as many think, in 18th-century England, or even with Cervantes' Don Quixote in the early 17th. The earliest novels were probably fictional tales (from "mini-novels" to book-length efforts) written anonymously in ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom. By the 19th century BCE, all the elements of the novel were in place in Egypt: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, metafiction, even magical realism.
Moore gives us a new perspective on the early writings of many peoples, including the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Celts, Britons, Scandinavians, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Mesoamericans. Of particular interest is his analysis of the classic Arabic frame-tale collection, the Thousand and One Nights, Persian in origin but thoroughly Arab in its present form.
Moore extracts three extended narratives from this influential opus that qualify as separate novels: The Story of the Hunchback (a "cruel comedy" that takes Shahrazad a week and a half to narrate), The Story of Qamar al-Zaman (a "dark romance" forming the core of the Nights) and The Tale of King Umar ibn al-Nu'man (the Nights' longest narrative, taking Shahrazad a hundred nights to narrate).
More artistically refined Arabic works of the Middle Ages are highlighted as well, such as Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which may have influenced Robinson Crusoe, and the "hugely entertaining" Adventures of Sayf ben Dhi Yazan, which Moore calls "the most outlandishly imaginative tale in Arabic literature, outdoing even The Arabian Nights in magic and wonder."
[A version of this review appeared in Saudi Aramco World, Mar/Apr 2011.]