07 May 2007

The Novel

“The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.”
– Milan Kundera

Just like architecture and music, literature and its chief proponent, the novel, have evolved over the years to represent our culture. And, therefore, much of literary history is the history of the novel. The Western culture has been quick to attest this and a great deal is written about the history of the novel, with its beginnings in Europe.

The East, forever the reticent kin of the West, has kept a low profile in this matter, although its history and literature date back thousands of years before Western culture came to be known as Western culture. I have no doubt the East’s literary history is far richer than what the West can ever offer, but, sadly, there isn’t a great deal that one can read up today about literary history in the East, or in my country, India, for that matter.

So, for the layman in India, the books on literary history that can be found in the bookstores are those written by Western authors recording their own culture. For the novel, that means a journey of 400-odd years, covering three continents: Europe (including old Russia), America (mainly the United States), and Latin America.

Authors who are likely to come up for discussion would include Cervantes, Fielding, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Joyce (from Europe); Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James, Conrad, Faulkner and Hemingway (from America); Fuentes and García Márquez (from Latin America). There are many more, of course. The list is long.

In each work of the authors listed above, we’ll find a style unique to its period, perhaps even leading the novel out of its previous mode. For, the history of the novel is the history of its form, its tradition, its progress from one period to another, its understanding – and representation – of reality in the realm of the author’s imagination. All laid out before us in quaint cultural settings, with lively and idiosyncratic characters running through its pages.

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