Between Philosophy and History: On Guido Mazzoni’s “Theory of the Novel”

By Alberto CompariniApril 15, 2017

Between Philosophy and History: On Guido Mazzoni’s “Theory of the Novel”

Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni

BETWEEN 1995 AND 2010, Guido Mazzoni worked on three books: a study of modern poetry (Sulla poesia moderna, 2005); a collection of poems (I mondi [Worlds], 2010); and, finally, a theory of the novel (Teoria del romanzo, 2011).

From a bird’s eye view, these works constitute a single project — an attempt to trace the development of Western society and understand its current state by way of literary forms. After all, as Adorno wrote in Philosophy of New Music (1949), “the forms of art reflect the history of man more truthfully than do documents themselves.” In Theory of the Novel (translated by Zakiya Hanafi), Mazzoni regards the novel as symbolic of human thought. For him, fictional worlds embody not only a particular truth but are also a means by which to understand that very truth. As the “primary art practiced in the West, the art that portrays the extensive totality of life,” the novel emphasizes multifacetedness and interdependencies; “[o]nly narrative fiction,” writes Mazzoni, “can show how particular beings are exposed to the world, and how their identity, happiness, and unhappiness depend on the way their paths cross with those of others, and the power of circumstances.”

In Mazzoni’s analysis, the novel emerges as a “game of truth.” In 1984, under the pseudonym “Maurice Florence,” the French philosopher Michel Foucault contributed an entry titled “Michel Foucault” to a dictionary of philosophers. In that entry, the term “game of truth” is used to describe the “discursive practices that define what is true and what is false, what form the discourse of truth must take, and who and what the subject and object of knowledge are.” Mazzoni is similarly concerned with the “structures of sense that still shape our discourses today,” namely those of mimesis (imitation) and concept (reflection), whose separation was ratified by Plato in Books II, III, and X of the Republic. Theory of the Novel can be read as a history of mimesis, whose rise coincides with the development of modern aesthetics, according to which truth can be represented in a medium different from that of the concept. In the absence of both meaning and telos from history, it is only the mimetic novel — not the concept — that is still capable of depicting the complexities of human consciousness as well as of society at large. It is a “genre in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”

Originating in Greece between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE, the dichotomy of mimesis and concept — as well as that of philosophy and narrative — produced theoretical boundaries and a cultural hegemonic model. As Erich Auerbach explained in Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929) and, at length, in Mimesis (1946), according to this model, not everything was representable in literature, and certainly not in all kinds of literature. Literary style had to correspond strictly to content, which in turn had societal and political implications; and some content was, for societal or political reasons, simply unrepresentable. Known as Stiltrennung (separation of styles), this hierarchization of subject matter, style, and genre was central to the configuration of the novel and its rise.

By describing the separation of styles in his first chapter, Mazzoni is able to contextualize the novel from both historical and synchronic perspectives: he demonstrates the changing forms of the novel through time while further focusing on the internal conflicts of the genre itself, in particular that between mimesis and concept. This permits him to examine the novel and the form of human thought it manifests in Western society from the mid-16th century to the present day from an aesthetic standpoint and, more importantly, as a “theory of human [inter-]action”: “it means that we are attending to the stories of finite beings, whether real or possible, showing the interweaving of their destinies, the happiness or unhappiness that awaits them as they exist in the midst of others and circumstances.” This “existential analytics” of finite beings does eventually require a stronger focus on the cultural, sociological, economical, and political elements that lie at the core of Mazzoni’s historical-philosophical understanding of the novel. Nonetheless, narratological analysis and its categories tackle these same questions “from a timeless point of view,” and they are also part of Mazzoni’s study of the novel.

After his philosophical introduction to the theory of the novel, Mazzoni delineates the “Origin of the Novel” using three parameters: semantics, geography, and history. To begin with, narrative forms and their capacity to tell a story stem from two families: “one group includes le roman, der Roman, and il romanzo; the other, the novel and la novela”; both systems imply a distinction between the “territory of the Romance” and the “territory of the Novel.” Secondly, between 1550 and 1800, the novel slowly became what it is 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.” This terminological framework enables the reader to make sense of the literary struggle between the novel and the romance, and to understand the linguistic and philosophical origin of the contemporary concept of the “novel.” The latter has its origins in the last decades of the 17th century, when the novel “gradually occupied the center of the literary space and became ‘the novel,’ in the emphatic sense, while the romance was pushed to the periphery of the system.”

The geographical metaphor is crucial to his argument: the conflict between periphery and center is dialectical and dynamic, so that “in the course of the eighteenth century, the tradition of the novel gained hegemony and pushed the romance to the outskirts of the system, but the system remained cohesive.” And so it’s not by chance that the third chapter opens with the idea of a “Dialectic of Continuity and Change.” For Mazzoni, all literary genres are fluid entities that are physiologically predisposed to movement and metamorphosis, and, in the process of moving and changing, tell us about hegemonic relations in the world: “‘Center’ and ‘Periphery’ are not aesthetic or quantitative categories: they do not measure the spread or value of the works, but the hegemony of tendencies.”

Up until the 19th century, when mimesis finally reached the private sphere, literary dynamism was controlled by the rigid social and aesthetic rules of the separation of styles. Only in the 19th century did it become possible to address that which “l[ay] close to us,” bringing the particular — “proper names, stories, and personal destinies” — to the center of this new rising literary genre, together with “a new outlook on life and a new idea of beauty.” The political and economic supremacy of the English and French nations extended to literary production, and their interests in the “mimesis of social classes, environments, and objects” and in the “vocabulary of introspection” would shape the form of novels up to the first half of the 20th century, as Franco Moretti has demonstrated in his recent The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (2013).

To demonstrate the fluidity and dynamism of literary forms, Mazzoni highlights traces of the romance — especially the element of melodrama, and the focus on a single (adventurous) character — in 19th-century novels. With respect to the former, Mazzoni posits that the minutiae of the everyday provided enough melodrama for writers such as “Scott, Balzac, or Dickens,” hence, “the problem of making life interesting does not exist, because it is solved a priori.” The narrative purposes of other authors, like Manzoni and Austen, were served by the individual experience of their lead characters — “private disruptions that, however irrelevant or insignificant they may be in the eyes of others, are crucial to the individuals undergoing them.” For Mazzoni, the “generation born between the late 1810s and late 1820s — that of George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, and Tolstoy” — can be seen as the precursors to 20th-century Modernism. These writers subjected the hitherto strictly prescribed form of the novel to formal, stylistic, and thematic deformations. Mazzoni discusses specifically new structures (e.g., non-melodramatic narrative), forms (e.g., novel of personal destiny), and functions (e.g., modes of viewing time). At the heart of these pre-Modernist novels lies the rediscovery of “an organic relationship between private and global destinies.” In other words, what distinguished the realist novels published in the second half of the 19th century from those of the first half is a new understanding of life itself.

That new understanding was expressed through a new use of the

cornerstones of the novelistic edifice: narrators, plots, and characters […] Flaubert cut the number of the narrator’s opinions and comments down to as few as possible; Dostoevsky granted his characters their freedom, allowing what they said to be just as valuable as the narrator’s words, creating a polyphonic effect.

Mazzoni notes that, when it came to plots, Flaubert aimed to demolish “the cornerstones of nineteenth-century story lines: the causal connection between the parts and the hierarchy between scenes.” But what ultimately pushed open the road toward Modernism was a new mode of depicting character psychology: “in order to translate the interior life into language, our culture uses the genre of psychological analysis and the monologue: the former specializes in the description of enduring traits; the latter expresses inner conflicts.”

Following this new paradigm, the novel took an inward turn, with “the essential part of a story no longer tak[ing] place in the segment of reality that everyone can see or hear,” as well as an essayistic turn: “The era when Western novels were being loaded with ideas spans the works Tolstoy and Dostoevsky published in the 1860s and those Musil and Broch published in the 1930s.” The final shift was formal:

Form no longer appears consubstantial with content, and thus natural and invisible; instead it draws attention to itself, revealing itself to be artificial mediation, creating a distancing effect on the habits of common sense and on the ordinary way of telling stories.

In the 1930s, however, the “disjointed plots, new ways of imagining the psychic life, and new narrative mediations” of the re-formed Modernist grammar “began to wane.” In the last few pages of his book, Mazzoni attempts to interpret the “Multiple Archipelago” of postmodernist literature and the rise of the new “global” novel after World War II. Despite the limited space given to this crucial aspect, Mazzoni succeeds in shedding light on the literary genealogy “that is still alive at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” This genealogy stems from three main trends:

[M]agic realism, which developed outside Europe during the 1940s […,] the clusters of experimentation that emerged between the late 1950s and the 1970s [… and] the postmodernist narrative in a narrow sense, which developed in the United States between the 1960s and the 1970s.

At the end of the book Mazzoni comes full circle, arguing that the “centrality of existential realism” defines contemporary fiction as much as it defined fiction in the 19th century; these divergent fictional worlds are united by the conviction that “nothing is important but life.” It “would require a transformation comparable to what resulted in the phase of human history whose protracted twilight we are currently living through — the modern age” — to challenge, change, or overcome this primacy of individual lives in the fictional worlds in which they exist.

Mazzoni not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of both the novel and the theory of the novel at his command, but, moreover, possesses a gift for analysis and clarity: Theory of the Novel is probably the sharpest philosophical treatment of the novel since Lukács’s Theory of the Novel (1914–1916). In the past two decades, books such as Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography (2014), or the edited volumes Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (Michael McKeon, 2000) and The Novel (Franco Moretti, 2006), have given us important historical and theoretical tools for understanding the genre. Mazzoni’s study stands out as a masterpiece of literary criticism, which makes use of these tools in order to fashion a wholly new concept of the novel, its origins, and its development. Beyond being a pleasurable read, Mazzoni’s book is a paragon of scholarship, which will give its readers a deeper appreciation of fictional worlds born of life itself.


Alberto Comparini is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at Stanford University.

LARB Contributor

Alberto Comparini is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at Stanford University. He works on 20th-century Italian literature from an interdisciplinary perspective, by studying the relations between philosophy and literature. He has published a book on the poetry of Eugenio Montale (Iride. L’Alcesti di Montale, 2014) and many articles in Italian and international journals. A second book on Pavese is forthcoming in 2016. Before moving to Stanford, he studied in Italy at the Università degli Studi di Genova and in the United Kingdom at Durham University.


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