- Novel: La genesi del romanzo moderno nell'Inghilterra del Settecento. [Novel: The Rise of the Modern Novel in Eighteenth-Century England.] by Riccardo Capoferro
Capoferro's Novel is the ideal sequel to his earlier monographs on eighteenth-century prose: Frontiere del racconto. Letteratura di viaggio e romanzi in Inghilterra, 1680–1750 (2007; on travel narrative and the novel), and Empirical Wonder: Historicizing the Fantastic, 1660–1760 (2010); as well as to his introductory books on Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (2003) and Jonathan Swift (2013) for Italian undergraduates.
Novel is an ambitious attempt to update the debate on the rise of that literary genre started by Ian Watt and carried on by several scholars, including Michael McKeon, whose tracks Capoferro perceptively follows. The core idea of his study is that new literary forms of representing life, based on the self's observation and interpretation of external and internal stimuli, emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and helped shape an approach to realism different from the mimetic representation of previous centuries insofar as it depended not so much on mirroring the outside world but on receiving and processing ideas within subjective and then intersubjective experience. In Capoferro's view, rather than being a direct result of the philosophical empiricism of Bacon and [End Page 218] Locke, this new literary approach to realism was a parallel phenomenon. Its main urge was to fashion the interpretive abilities of the readership by accommodating them to a new "social imaginary" that was emerging in the seventeenth century as an alternative to the ancien-régime ethos.
Capoferro's interpretation of this "social imaginary" owes much to Charles Taylor's theory of the economic model of human society, and, of course, to Jürgen Habermas's history of the rise of the public sphere. To the already well-known interpretation of the novel as the result of the struggle between competing secular beliefs and moral-political ideas, Capoferro adds his own thesis, according to which this new realism materialized as an aesthetic mediation among, rather than a simple result of, competing worldviews. This realism of mediation and exchange was part of a new cognitive experience based not only on empirical knowledge but also, and above all, on an intersubjective life that was unknown to previous, ancien-régime literary form.
Capoferro's history of the novel in part will look familiar to English scholars, especially in its structure which follows Watt's Rise of the Novel. The book in fact starts with a chapter on the cultural foundation of the novel from the culture of absolutism to the public sphere of opinion, followed by a chapter on the transition from ancien-régime verisimilitude to empirical realism; and by three chapters on Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, together with a coda on the development of fiction to the mid-eighteenth century. However, it also shows original ideas and close readings that flesh out the abovementioned new methodological approach and steer it away from the formal and dialectical models respectively offered by Watt and McKeon. In particular, Capoferro does not believe there are clear-cut boundaries separating the romance and the novel, nor between conservative and progressive ideologies. Unlike McKeon, he thinks that the novel emerges not so much as a simple abstraction at the end of a dialectical process opposing and intertwining conservative and progressive ideologies, but rather as a protean form that variously adjusts itself to epistemic shifts and tentatively incorporates them as interpretive models of an ever-changing reality. Therefore, instead of one single "realism" there are various novelistic "realisms" or, as Capoferro calls them, "empirical fictions." The rise of the novel thus becomes a lasting enterprise that never reaches a climax or stabilizes itself.
The book's final chapter on "narrative immersion" (an important addendum to the most common histories of the eighteenth-century novel) opens up new views based on a cognitive interpretation of the novel's approach to the relationship between self and the world. In...