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Reviewed by
Katarzyna Bartoszyńska
Bilkent University
Paige, Nicholas D. Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 312 pp. $59.95.

There is a growing body of criticism that seeks to reexamine the rise of the novel, moving away from the focus on realism and considering instead the development of fictionality. Before Fiction is an exciting addition to this line of thought: a series of close readings of early French novels in terms of their understandings of the space of fiction. But it is much more than that. On a broader level, the book is a reflection on how we understand innovation and development in literature, and the way that literary history is written.

Paige begins by distinguishing between what he dubs three different regimes of fiction (being careful to clarify that by “regimes” he is not referring to Foucauldian epistemes or Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms): the Aristotelian, the pseudofactual, and the fictional. In the Aristotelian model, which takes as its starting point Aristotle’s distinction between poetry and history, authors adapt history and known characters into stories with ‘good,’ or unified, plots. The second regime, which dates from around 1670 to the early nineteenth century, is the pseudofactual (a term he takes from Barbara Foley’s work of 1986, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction), in which authors pose as editors who present ‘found’ manuscripts to the public. The third phase could be considered modern fiction as we know it, in which authors expect that readers will take their works not as literally true, but as representative of reality despite being invented. Although this is often seen by critics as the moment of realism’s triumph, where novels could purport to describe real life without pretending to be literally true—what Paige calls the “‘more and more real’ narrative” (20) of theorists such as Dorrit Cohn—it can more appropriately be seen as the rise of an openly fictional mode, the acceptance that a novel is not real.

It is the transition between the pseudofactual and the fictional that Paige focuses on, as have many critics working on the idea of fictionality. Paige provides an overview of these approaches, focusing particularly on the works of Lennard Davis, Barbara Foley, and Catherine Gallagher. The problem with their accounts, he writes, is that the transition between the two modes becomes increasingly unclear, as modern fictionality comes to be seen as already present within the pseudofactual. What is more, the insistence on a noticeable shift between the two forms fails to account for the longevity of the pseudofactual pretense: if the idea of a wholly invented story became acceptable, why did authors continue to insist that their stories were true well into the nineteenth century?

Here the broader project of the book becomes clear. Paige is writing against what one might call the ‘paradigm-shifting masterpiece’ version of literary evolution, our view that certain novels revolutionize literary form, inventing new techniques that redefine the literary field: “We see our canonical novels of the past as an archipelago [End Page 134] connected to the mainland of now, whereas they may be only a series of data points acting as hosts for our perception of patterns—patterns we perceive based on our knowledge of what is to come” (25). Instead, he suggests that fiction be considered as “nebula of writing practices and ideas about writing—techniques invented and modified, sometimes quickly and sometimes not, through a difficult-to-specify dialectical relationship with what people think literature can and should do” (205). This means that Paige does not see novels as necessarily symptomatic of broader social anxieties or trends, though he does not deny their relation to the cultures and historical moments from which they emerge, or the possibility of links between discourses of fiction and those of law, science, or economics. He remains focused, however, on the mechanics of form, considering it, in a sense, as a set of technological developments, “devices that need to be invented and then worked on by their inventor and the inventor’s competition” (33). Seeing fiction in this way, in morphological terms, rather than as a symptom of other conceptual or social movements, opens up a series of fascinating questions about how literary form changes that have remained, Paige asserts, largely unexplored.

Each chapter skillfully combines a close reading of the mechanics of fictionality in a given text (he discusses the works of Lafayette, Subligny, Crébillon, Rousseau, Diderot, and Cazotte) with an overview of how these innovations were understood in both their own time and in later critical works. The book is scrupulously footnoted, with an exhaustive detailing of varying critical takes on the novels in question. In keeping with his resistance to the ‘paradigm-shifting masterpiece’ version of literary history, Paige illuminates the ways in which each work experimented with new literary techniques while insisting that none of them should be seen as ‘inventing’ modern fiction in any meaningful sense. Although Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves introduces the major innovation of a wholly invented heroine, it does not lead to an explosion of third-person narratives of fictional protagonists. It is “an isolated manipulation of longstanding conventions and local practices that changed precisely nothing” (36). Crébillon’s experiments with omniscience, while quite interesting, in no way resemble later uses of the technique in authors such as Fielding or Behn (which themselves have little in common), and seem more quirky than influential. Cazotte’s introduction of supernatural events into a seemingly realistic narrative is of a different nature from later fantastic and uncanny narratives, and is an utterly isolated work in French literature—just as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto is in English letters. Rather, it is the device of hesitation (which Todorov will see as the defining trait of the fantastic), not properly found in either Walpole or Cazotte, that becomes an influential feature of later novels.

At this point, one might ask whether Paige’s insistence on the lack of influence of the novels he focuses on is not simply a sign that he has chosen the wrong novels. In the case of Cazotte, for instance, one is prepared to acknowledge that Le Diable Amoreux had limited influence, but what if one were to consider the novel that first pioneered the technique of hesitation that Paige himself acknowledges later emerged as centrally important? This does not require a return to the ‘path-breaking masterpiece’ view of literature so much as an acknowledgement that even in a morphological history, a new technique has to appear in a novel before it can spread. Perhaps the difference between the two approaches is not as stark as it first appears?

Paige’s insistence on the fact that the novels he discusses have not invented fiction contains an underlying argument about the relevance of truth claims to the development of fictionality: although one is tempted to see the matter of truth and reference as a central factor (particularly given that the three regimes are divided in terms of the kinds of truth claims they make), what emerges from Paige’s account is the possibility [End Page 135] that other aspects of the novel may be far more relevant. A clear example of this can be found in the chapter on Rousseau, which suggests that it is not the famed Prefaces of Julie and their deliberate hedging on the matter of truth that made it an innovative work in its own time, but rather the mode of readerly identification it elicits.

This is a moment where the balancing act of the book becomes more noticeable: the argument against prior critical accounts of the novel’s development pushes Paige to focus on questions of truth and insist that the novels he is investigating were not path-breaking, whereas his interest in the development of fictionality pulls him to investigate other aspects of these novels, which receive comparatively less rhetorical emphasis. One sees this tension more skillfully handled in his chapter on Crébillon, where Paige uses Les Égarements du Coeur et de l’espirit, ou mémoires de Monsieur de Meilcour to argue against Catherine Gallagher’s assertion that the use of character types marks a move towards modern fictionality.

Though the readings are of French novels, the broader narrative of the work is relevant to English literature (and discussions of English examples appear throughout), and indeed, Paige’s book is of clear importance for any scholar working on the development of the novel, regardless of the national tradition, not only in its modeling of what an attentive examination of the evolution of fictionality looks like in a given text, but also for its broader reflections on how we understand literary development.

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Subject Headings

  • French fiction -- 17th century -- Themes, motives.
  • Paige, Nicholas D. -- Before fiction: the ancien régime of the novel. -- 296596
  • Bartoszyńska, Katarzyna.
  • Paige, Nicholas D. -- Before fiction: the ancien régime of the novel. -- 296596
  • Bartoszyńska, Katarzyna.
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