- Polymorphic Readings in the Novel:Theory and Praxis
The product of some fifteen years of research between 1995 and 2010, Guido Mazzoni's impressive Theory of the Novel first appeared in Italian in 2011. Its availability now in Zakiya Hanafi's estimable translation, an important scholarly achievement in its own right, is a welcome event. Mazzoni subscribes fully to the Bakhtinian insight that there is "no unitary language or style in the novel" ("From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse" 48), that it operates beyond thematico-formal prescription and limit. In Mazzoni's own formulation, "Starting from a certain date, the novel became the genre in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever" (16; emphasis in original). Similarly, he concurs with Bakhtin, if with some qualification–a point to which I will return presently–in the view that the novel is in a constant state of change and development.
Any theory of the novel will inevitably be a story about stories, and this is Mazzoni's [End Page 481] story: across millennia of (European) history, there has been a slow devolution of mimetic interest and influence away from the powerful and exemplary few to the many, from kings and gods and heroes, and their amanuenses, to lesser nobility, what we have come to call the bourgeoisie, and the existentially unheroic, and finally today to pretty much any person and any existential circumstance. Thus, the dominant narrative genre of the Greco-Roman period, the epic (epos)–with its stories of the "glorious deeds of heroes," of "the works of the gods and men" (22) in Homer's formulations–offers few "narrative traces" of "common folk" (24). Similarly, medieval romances, with their heroes and improbable plots and impossibly idealized moral codes, neglect the many and the commonplace. It is only with the rise of the novel circa 1550 that narrative focus slowly starts to become more diffuse in its characterizations, more ecumenical in its plots, and more pluralistic of narratorial voice.
Mazzoni offers a very rich and detailed analysis of the "historical semantics" of the terms that nominate the genre. He traces out two separate genealogies, both Latinate in origin: "le roman, der Roman, and il romanzo" from the old French "romanz," and the other English, "novel," both for "novelty," but also related to "nouvelle," i.e., the novella (60-64). In a process of reverse discovery or "retrospective identification," akin to a quasi-Borgesian selection of one's precursors, writ large across centuries, utterly different works like Satyricon (c. 100), Aethiopica (c. 300), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64), The Princesse de Clèves (1678), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), all come to be viewed as "novels" (64, 66). By 1800, the term means what it does today:
a polymorphic space providing a home for stories of a certain length that do not fall within the confines of more rigidly codified narrative genres (epic poems, works of history, and the chansons de geste).(66; emphasis in original)
Significantly, in emphasizing the "retrospective" nature of literary historiography, Mazzoni questions Bakhtin's "entelechy" of the novel as a "privileged lineage" of a "pluridiscursive and polyphonic tradition" which, ambiguously, stands alongside the latter's claim that the novel is a continuously protean form (65).
Mazzoni develops his theory of the novel, effectively his novelistic canon, through what he calls an "intraspecific" approach which focuses on intra- and intertextual relations. He eschews to a large degree the "sociological theme," concentrating rather on the formal analysis of character and character types, and plot structures (13, 161). In particular, Mazzoni's own canon for this genre without, in the words of Bakhtin, any canon, "only examples" ("Epic and the Novel" 3), revolves around a body...