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Joseph Bottum

The Novel as Protestant Art

A great metaphysical drama played out on the world's stage.

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Still, what are we to call the extended prose narratives of the ancient world—with the Romans giving us Petronius' Satyricon in the 1st century and Apuleius' Golden Ass in the 2nd? What about Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji (c. 1020) in Japan? What about the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms (c. 1500)? If the novel is a modern, Protestant-inflected thing, then we are left without much of a category for Longus' 2nd-century Greek Daphnis and Chloe, the 7th-century Sanskrit Dashakumaracharita, and Thomas Malory's 1470s compilation of medieval romances, Le Morte d'Arthur—along with such 17th-century work as Marie de La Fayette's The Princess of Clèves and Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote.

But it's exactly there, with a mention of the 1605 Don Quixote, that we begin to sense a change in those extended stories, a new and different world emerging, and Cervantes' work is always cited in this context: the first widely read book of fiction to be taken as modern. Before Don Quixote, we have novels with a sort of asterisk. Nod toward them as politely and judiciously as you want; they are nonetheless novels mostly by courtesy of their being works of extended prose fiction. After Don Quixote, we begin to have novels in the strictest sense anyone could want to give the word: book-length modern stories with a sense of spiritual development over the plot's timeline, characters with interior selves, a drive toward artistic unity, and an ambition for the book to be revelatory commentary on the human condition.

The history of literature is never tidy. For all that it is an art form produced by ostensible heroes, the novelist understood as solitary genius, every breakthrough in some aspect of the form proves to have predecessors—failed or unrecognized or unfocused attempts to achieve the new effect before authors and audience were ready to grasp it. One could find this fact, as we have, in the awkwardness of defining the novel as the art form of a particular era. Or one could find it in the question of what to do with Boccaccio, who predates Cervantes by 250 years. Indeed, we get the word novel from the Italian novella, which means new—the new style of shorter tales that the influential Boccaccio wrote in the Decameron.

For that matter, how are we to take Gargantua and Pantagruel, which Rabelais began publishing in France 70 years before Don Quixote appeared? In 2007, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera took to the pages of the New Yorker to insist that Rabelais belongs with Cervantes, and probably above him, as "the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel."

Most readers will understand what Kundera means. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a sprawling mess, true enough—a large, loose, baggy monster of a book, to use the phrase with which Henry James described Dickens' 1844 Martin Chuzzlewit. And in James' disparaging line we can hear the High Victorian goal of making the novel a tight and self-complete work of great art, as unified as a Beethoven symphony: symbol, plot, character, and diction all moving toward a single end. Rabelais had no such ambition, which tends to weaken Kundera's claiming of Gargantua and Pantagruel as the foundation of the modern novel. In his seminal 1965 study of the book, Mikhail Bakhtin identified the mad festival of Gargantua and Pantagruel as entirely premodern: a definitively Renaissance work by a bawdy Christian humanist very much in the line of Erasmus.

In this, I think, we have to side with Bakhtin. Only the thinnest account of Western literature would dismiss Gargantua and Pantagruel as merely a cul-de-sac and a curiosity. Nevertheless, there is a discernible difference between Cervantes and Rabelais, just as there is a difference between Cervantes and Boccaccio, for Don Quixote presents us with something new and distinct in the post-classical West: both more modern and more of what we recognize as a novel than anything that had come before.

Hearing an attempt to claim 'Don Quixote' as the very definition of the modern novel, we should shy a little. It's a long, improbable path from Cervantes' La Mancha to Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford.

I do not wish to hide the evaluation of Cervantes toward which I'm aiming. Hearing an attempt to dismiss Don Quixote as incidental to the history of the modern novel, we should leap to the book's defense. This is where the novel first emerges; this is one of the few truly great works of world literature, and without it we do not have much of what follows: No Cervantes, no Dickens. At the same time, hearing an attempt to claim Don Quixote as the very definition of the modern novel, we should shy a little. It's a long, improbable path from Cervantes' La Mancha to Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford, and the possibilities of books as diverse as Daniel Deronda, Là-bas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and The Glass Bead Game are not easily discerned in the pages of Don Quixote.

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