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the Complete Review
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Atlas of the European Novel

Franco Moretti

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To purchase Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900

Title: Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900
Author: Franco Moretti
Genre: Literary Study
Written: 1997
Length: 197 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 - US
Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 - UK
Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 - Canada
Atlas du roman européen (1800-1900) - France
Atlas des europäischen Romans - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

C+ : fun idea, with many interesting bits, but tries to do far too much

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/6/1999 A.W.
The Independent A- 12/9/1999 Lilian Pizzichini
London Rev. of Books . 29/10/1998 Christopher Prendergast
The New Republic F 25/1/1999 Denis Donoghue
TLS . 11/9/1998 John Kerrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Auf 91 Karten zeigt er eindrucksvoll, wie inhaltliche und stilistische Optionen an den geographischen Standort gebunden sind." - A.W., Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Moretti's maps, then, make connections -- fascinating, illuminating connections -- which, if the reader is prepared to follow long, declamatory paragraphs that take a line of reasoning that sees no need for main verbs, will fulfil the need for an old-fashioned, materialist discourse." - Lilian Pizzichini, The Independent

  • "Moretti claims that these maps will "change the way we read novels." But not for the better, I'm afraid. There is a striking disproportion between the plots so elaborately mapped and the penury of the conclusions derived from the cartography. (...) It seems clear to me that Moretti has lost or given up whatever interest he had in literature." - Denis Donoghue, The New Republic

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Franco Moretti's book is based on some interesting ideas, foremost among them the application and use of geography in studying literature. The idea of creating a "literary atlas" grips Professor Moretti, and this book is a small attempt at doing so. Divided into two sections it looks at the geography of literature from within (geography in the texts themselves) and without (the geography of the actual books, i.e. their spread and dissemination), restricting itself basically to the European novel of the nineteenth century.
       With 91 maps it is richly illustrated -- a map or more for every point, it seems. Mapping out the plots of novels, Moretti shows that there is something to be gleaned from this cartographic exercise. The locales of Dickens' London, Austen's England, and Balzac's Paris can more clearly be understood if presented in the form of a map. The movement of characters, the locales of happy endings (and sad ones), the significance of various neighborhoods of Paris and London can, indeed, be revealing. Vladimir Nabokov and Arno Schmidt are among the many who have also said as much, explicating novels with the help of such maps.
       Unfortunately, Moretti has very many points to make and does not make them very clearly. Maps, such clear illustrations, can also easily mislead. Given the paucity of data used by Moretti, many of his conclusions are at least questionable and certainly less than entirely convincing -- or too obvious to warrant such cartographic proof.
       More interesting than the chapters on the fictional geography is the final chapter, Narrative markets, ca. 1850, which follows the trail of translation and the influence of foreign literatures, finding that much literature came from England and France, but little went there (much as little foreign literature is translated into English nowadays). Analyses of the foreign holdings of British and French libraries make for some interesting points, and conclusions we would like to agree with -- such as that British literary isolationism made for "a flatter, more boring literature." Aside from the fact that this is a dubious conclusion, the data itself is consistently suspect. Moretti acknowledges as much:

(...) we were sampling only three years per century, and basing our investigation almost entirely on the data reported by national bibliographies (that have been put together in the most different ways, and are often unreliable); in absolute terms, therefore, our findings have no definitive value. But when I saw that circulating libraries gave the same results -- well, I felt a surge of retrospective trust in our old study; in its indicative value, at least.
       Words to make the statisticians of the world cringe and recoil in horror, but then no one gives a damn about statistics and accuracy, certainly not literary minded folk, so truth be damned and smear the fudged results about. People will only remember the nice maps and charts, which look so damn convincing -- forget the flimsy data they are based upon.
       The charts of when translations of various works appeared are quite fascinating, but Moretti's maps are too simple of a reduction of complex issues. A chart of the translation of Mann's Buddenbrooks is a typical example (leaving aside the question what it is doing in a chapter entitled "Narrative markets, ca. 1850"): it shows Buddenbrooks to be "a widespread, immediate success in north-eastern, Hanseatic Europe; but until the Nobel in 1929 not a single translation west of the Rhine, or south of the Danube" (though in fact "New York 1924" suggests at least transatlantic success west of the Rhine). However, the politics, business, and culture of translation is much more complex than Moretti's single map suggests. To draw any sort of conclusions one would need far more examples -- and would have to examine the many other factors that play a role in the movement of literatures.
       Perhaps the most convincing figure is one showing the spread of Europe's "first international bestseller: Don Quixote." Spreading in three distinct waves, Moretti's maps would seem to support his idea of "three Europes", three fronts of literary activity. However, the situation is surely more complex than the maps indicating the date of first translation can show. Translations disappear from view, while foreign-language texts (or domestic adaptations) can exert enormous influence. It is these aspects of a literary text that are surely the most significant, and to suggest that Don Quixote exerted no influence in, for example, the Baltic states until it was translated into their languages (in the 1920s) -- as Moretti and his map suggests -- is ridiculous.
       There is a great deal of useful information in this book, but almost all of it must be taken with at least a few grains of salt. (Our favourite: Moretti's reliance on the Romanian national bibliography which "unfortunately stops, like Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, at the letter 'R'" -- not that that is something he lets himself be deterred by !) Taken as a starting point, and offering questions to pose and methodologies to consider, the book has a certain value. However, it offers little substantial insight (though considerable insight that is -- based on the airiest of data -- decidedly insubstantial).
       Moretti aims for the stars with his many maps, covering areas large and small. There is material here for dozens of books, and it would take much larger studies to do justice to any of the many points he tries to makes. Piling on many examples with little elaboration (as Moretti does) also makes a point of sorts, but not one that is particularly useful.

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Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900: Reviews: Franco Moretti: Other books by Franco Moretti under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Franco Moretti teaches English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

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