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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-12-17 15:01:18
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Character

Interpretation of life

Scene, or setting

Agent of change in language and thought

The novelist’s conscious day-to-day preoccupation is the setting down of incident, the delineation of personality, the regulation of exposition, climax, and denouement. The aesthetic value of the work is frequently determined by subliminal forces that seem to operate independently of the writer, investing the properties of the surface story with a deeper significance. A novel will then come close to myth, its characters turning into symbols of permanent human states or impulses, particular incarnations of general truths perhaps only realized for the first time in the act of reading. The ability to perform a quixotic act anteceded Don Quixote, just as bovarysme existed before Flaubert found a name for it.

Such early ancient Roman fiction as Petronius’ Satyricon of the 1st century AD and Lucius Apuleius’ Golden Ass of the 2nd century contain many of the popular elements that distinguish the novel from its nobler born relative the epic poem. In the fictional works, the medium is prose, the events described are unheroic, the settings are streets and taverns, not battlefields and palaces. There is more low fornication than princely combat; the gods do not move the action; the dialogue is homely rather than aristocratic. It was, in fact, out of the need to find—in the period of Roman decline—a literary form that was anti-epic in both substance and language that the first prose fiction of Europe seems to have been conceived. The most memorable character in Petronius is a nouveau riche vulgarian; the hero of Lucius Apuleius is turned into a donkey; nothing less epic can well be imagined.

Novelists, being neither poets nor philosophers, rarely originate modes of thinking and expression. Poets such as Chaucer and Shakespeare have had much to do with the making of the English language, and Byron was responsible for the articulation of the new romantic sensibility in it in the early 19th century. Books like the Bible, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf may underlie permanent or transient cultures, but it is hard to find, except in the early Romantic period, a novelist capable of arousing new attitudes to life (as opposed to aspects of the social order) and forging the vocabulary of such attitudes.


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