Imagined lives and moral ideals are central themes in this revisionist history of the novel.
Pavel (French, Comparative Literature, and Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago; The Spell of Language: Poststructuralism and Speculation, 2001, etc.) traces the development of the novel from ancient Greece to the mid-20th century, with a swift glance at contemporary fiction—an ambitious project for barely 300 pages. Unlike historians who believe the novel progressed in a linear trajectory from its origins in the 17th century, Pavel sees it as an organic form with ancient roots, in which patterns emerge, disappear, recur and evolve. His title has a double meaning: “Lives” refers both to the vitality and variety of the genre and to the lives of fictional characters. Examining a generous selection of mostly Western European and British writers, Pavel identifies a tension between what he calls idealist narratives, in which virtuous characters behave admirably, and anti-idealist narratives, which censure or mock human behavior and feature rogues, tricksters or villains. Within these two types of narratives, the author points out three personality types: “strong souls, sensitive hearts, or enigmatic psyches.” Strong souls, guided by providence, battle adversity to live up to ideals of piety, valor and love. Sensitive hearts, often isolated from their community, find their moral compass within themselves. Enigmatic psyches struggle, and sometimes fail, to understand their own desires and emotions. Pavel marshals evidence from works that he considers the finest examples of fiction from such writers as Heliodorus, Cervantes, Balzac, Defoe, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Fielding and Flaubert. Women writers and Americans make only brief appearances. Despite its Eurocentric focus, Pavel’s study raises questions that can enrich readings of a wide range of fiction: What does it mean to live a virtuous life? How can humans achieve justice? What is an individual’s responsibility to the community? To what extent is self-knowledge possible?
These enduring questions infuse this erudite, elegantly written history with passion and urgency.