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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary theory

Theory of the Novel

Guido Mazzoni

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To purchase Theory of the Novel

Title: Theory of the Novel
Author: Guido Mazzoni
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 376 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Theory of the Novel - US
Theory of the Novel - UK
Theory of the Novel - Canada
Teoria del romanzo - Italia
  • Italian title: Teoria del romanzo
  • Translated by Zakiya Hanafi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid literary-historical study of the (Western) novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In Theory of the Novel Guido Mazzoni considers what the novel has become, and how it came to be that way. For him, the novel is:

the genre in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever
       In charting the evolution of the form to its present-day state, Mazzoni offers an excellent history of the form. In the European tradition, the novel -- as we know it -- is a relatively recent phenomenon. The nomenclature has shifted, too -- complicated by the existence of two basic families of terms to refer to forms of prose-writing of recent centuries: "one group includes le roman, der Roman, and il romanzo; the other the novel and la novela". (The difficulties of the overlap are apparent already in the title of Mazzoni's book: Teoria del romanzo in the original, Theory of the Novel in the English). As he notes, in the mid-sixteenth century, 'the novel' still referred to a much more "narrowly defined, specific literary form" -- while by 1800 it had come to refer to what we now understand as the novel.
       The prose-works of the times, approaching 1800, still fit specific categories, the allegorical or edifying purpose remaining in the forefront -- the novel as exemplary, presenting an idealized version of behavior, for example. For Mazzoni it is then the move to the personal that accelerated in the late eighteenth century -- the stories of individuals, the common man living the common (or sometimes uncommon) life -- that mark the true break, and where the novel found itself as form:
The novel became important mainly because it told serious stories about the lives of people like us in the middle station of life -- private individuals immersed in the prose of the everyday
       Mazzoni also sees the "centrality of existential realism" as defining for the novel -- and at the core of its (continued) success, beginning around 1800 and carrying through until today. So too only some modern experimentalism has managed to establish itself: as he notes:
Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Joyce, and Musil transformed European narrative far more deeply than Sarraute, Beckett, Claude Simon, Uwe Johnson, or Perec. This is not because their innovations were more radical, but because these earlier techniques came to be part of the shared narrative vocabulary.
       Mazzoni acknowledges the post-World War II rise of the "global novel", as: "Europe and the United States began to steadily (and not just occasionally) absorb works coming from Eastern and colonial cultures". Beyond this, and mention of a few contemporary authors, Theory of the Novel is, however, very much focused on the Western, and specifically European novel; there are even relatively few mentions of classical American authors (Henry James the one -- in this case very predictable -- exception). Understandably the great classical Chinese novels -- or The Tale of Genji -- do not comfortably fit his historical model; given their relative literary isolation (locally significant, but with essentially no readers beyond the Far East until relatively recent times) they long also only influenced the evolution of the genre locally. Nevertheless, they seem worthy of at least some mention in relation to their European counterparts.
       More interesting, and more valuable, would have been the discussion of specific cases of the development of the novel elsewhere, notably the explosive rise of the novel in Japan starting around 1900 (much of it grounded in a European tradition that was creatively appropriated) -- in many ways validating his theses--, as well the evolution of the form in (colonial and then post-colonial) Latin America -- always closely tied to European traditions yet also with distinctly local differences (culminating in the magical realism that Mazzoni does mention).
       Still, what Mazzoni does focus on he presents impressively well. His account of the major shifts in the evolution of the form itself makes for a good history of the novel, and its rise in significance and stature is convincingly explained. Charting various transitional milestones -- such as the mid-sixteenth century resurgence of classical Greek novels, which were translated into the major European languages at the time -- and following a variety of European literatures that adapted to and adopted the new forms at different paces (English, French, German, and Italian, in particular), Mazzoni leads the readers to a better understanding of how the novel became what it is, and why it has and continues to enjoy such success.
       Only occasionally over-reaching -- his defense of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, understandable perhaps because it is a novel so very much grounded as what he sees the form's most powerful and lasting qualities, founders somewhat given that novel's other weaknesses (one can perhaps understand his embrace of the novel in the moment -- a 'perfect' example, he might well have thought when it came out -- but given more distance he might have realized it's not the best of examples) -- on the whole his definition of the novel, and why he considers it so valuable is convincing:
Choosing to tell a story (as opposed to engaging in abstract thought, or counting, or writing in a form that completely excludes plot and narrator) means to accept an ontology: it means to assume that reality is composed of particular beings who are subject to time, agitated by an imbalance, and located in a world. In narrative representation people are not abstract or self-centering or disembodied or static or alone, unlike what may occur in language games like science, philosophy, or lyric poetry. [...] Of all the language games our culture has developed, the novel is the one that shows in the most detail what it means to exist in time and in a world.
       Theory of the Novel is an excellent historical overview of the changing shape of the form and of how the 'novel' as we know it, came to be, and a useful starting point for discussions and study of more specifics.
       (Mazzoni notes that it is the: "second part of a study that began with Sulla poesia moderna (On Modern Poetry)", his 2005 work that is not yet available in English; presumably it would also be interesting to consider this work in light of the larger project.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 December 2016

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Theory of the Novel: Reviews: Guido Mazzoni: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guido Mazzoni was born in 1967 and teaches at the University of Siena.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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