The Questionable Orthodoxy of Genres

October 7, 2015   •   By Alberto Comparini

“HYBRID GENRES,” and the questionable orthodoxy of traditional genres, are subjects that continue to vex literary theory. Consider Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: What do these novels share? What kind of novels are they? Are these books truly novels, or are they another form altogether? 

In 1991, Thomas Harrison asked himself similar questions, focusing on the novel and its relation to the essay. This yielded the very first publication in English on the form of so-called “essayism” in Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello. While that was not the first time that critics and readers had associated the otherwise distinct genres of the novel and the essay, Harrison’s book was the first to posit the existence of the hybrid genre of the “novel-essay.” Later, in 1995, Claire de Obaldia’s book The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay also explored the essayistic dimension of the modern European novel, especially in the chapter “Novels ‘Without Qualities.’” 

The definition and canonization of the novel-essay within the theory of the novel, and in the history of the novel, is at the core of Stefano Ercolino’s The Novel-Essay, 1884–1947. In this short, dense, and outstanding book, Ercolino focuses on “French, Austrian, and German nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction and culture, in order to define the features of a literary genre, the novel-essay, the significance of which, for the history of the novel and for modern culture, has been largely underestimated.”

Ercolino’s book — with its rich historical and cultural background, on the one hand, and close analysis of novels published in France, Austria, and Germany between the 19th and 20th centuries, on the other — is a decisive improvement for the study of the hybrid genre, as well as for the interpretation of modernity. As he states at the outset of his study, the novel-essay has a “significance […] for the history of the novel and for modern culture,” since it is also “the symbolic form of the crisis of modernity.”

Ercolino posits a clear connection between the history of the novel and history itself, the relationship of which, he argues, can be elucidated through literary forms. Referring to one of his mentors, Franco Moretti, Ercolino reminds us that forms are “problem-solving mechanism[s].” This bio-bibliographical reference is indeed important to fully understanding The Novel-Essay and Ercolino’s approach to literary theory, which is best appreciated as a problem-solving mechanism itself.

Educated in Italy as a scholar of literary theory and a historian of literature, Ercolino had the chance to spend one year at Stanford with Moretti thanks to a Fulbright fellowship during his PhD at the Università degli Studi dell’Aquila. The Novel-Essay is indeed a meeting of the minds between Moretti’s morphological, formalist, and digital humanities approach, and Italian historical scholarship — a combination between close and “distant” reading. The outcome is a serious, smart, valuable work on literary genre and history, striking a perfect balance between the two that allows Ercolino to develop his theory on the novel-essay.

But what is a novel-essay? According to the author, it is the “organic fusion of two distinct forms, the novel and the essay.” “Symbolic function,” “macroscopic features,” and “micro-morphological patterns” are grounded in both novel and essay, whose relationship allows the birth of the novel-essay. The main trait of the novel-essay is the essayistic intrusion in the novel, often by means of free indirect discourse; the role of the essay, within a novel, is to disrupt its temporal and narrative structures. 

The history of the novel-essay parallels the crisis of modernity, from 1884–1947: tracking the sociological, political, and economic outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and Paris Commune (1871); the diffusion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s philosophy (known as “school of suspicion”) throughout Europe; the failure of Positivism; Einstein’s relativism theory (1905, 1916); World War I and II; the birth and the failures of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. 

The novel-essay is initially, at the end of 19th century, the negative counterpart of the naturalist novel. In order to approach, define, and describe this genre historically, philosophically, and culturally, Ercolino focuses on five main authors and books (Huysmans’s Against Nature, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, and Mann’s Doctor Faustus), also including writers such as Zola, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Sartre, and Joyce. According to Ercolino, they embody and mirror, through the novel-essay, the history of the Western novel in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the first chapter, Ercolino shows how the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, the second Industrial Revolution, the Long Depression of 1873–1896, and the inner contradiction of capitalism precipitated the emergence of new literary forms. Huysmans’s Against Nature (1884) is the first attempt to move beyond the kind of naturalist aesthetics Zola made famous, and to replace it with a new literary and epistemological system. As Ercolino puts it,

Huysmans restored the complexity of the novelistic character, after its emptying by naturalism, under the sign of opposition to historical time. The breaking-in of the critical form par excellence, the essay, into the novel awakened the critical potential of literature, an art dulled in the conforming aesthetics of naturalism.

In the last chapter of Against Nature, the character des Esseintes expresses in free indirect style his opinions against the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and even against art. Huysmans will repeat the model in Là-Bas (1891), which begins with a dialogic essay that “explicitly formulat[es] an aesthetics” against naturalism.

The birth of a different character such as des Esseintes opens a new perspective of and on literature: his non-action embodies for the first time the ineluctable catastrophe of modernity. He is the ancestor of all oppositional and critical characters of modernism, such as Luigi Pirandello’s Mattia Pascal, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, and Robert Musil’s Ulrich. By being autonomous and in revolt against both society and positivism, a multifaceted psychology allows Huysmans to introduce in the novel the form of the essay.

Ercolino reads the failure of the 19th-century novel through many phenomena, not just cultural, historical, and philosophical, but also scientific. The “development of classical electrodynamics, with energy taking center of the scientific investigation over matter, and the increasing mathematizing of physical description of reality, began to show the multidimensional nature of a world that was even more difficult to explain in terms of Newtonian mechanics.” Authors such as Huysmans or Strindberg, in other words, had to face the multidimensional nature of a world that was even more difficult to explain in terms of naturalist determinism. Strindberg’s “Rational Mysticism,” as it appears in the Inferno trilogy (1887–1889), is another example Ercolino takes into account to show this defection from both naturalism and positivism alike, whose inadequacy instantiated the urge for transcendence in Strindberg’s Inferno.

Ercolino also explains the novel-essay in terms of what he calls a “morphological changeover” at the end of the 19th century, the process through which two literary forms, such as the Bildungsroman and the novel-essay, change over in carrying on a symbolic literary discourse on modernity. According to Ercolino, “Morphology and Weltanschauungen” shape literary history; therefore, in order to study a new genre, they must be taken into account together. If, on the one hand, Huysmans’s novels are an attack on naturalism, Against Nature is an anti-Bildungsroman — a novel written and conceived in opposition to a genre he viewed as the expression of the bourgeois environment, on the one hand, and modernity, on the other. The novel’s aesthetic and ideology start changing at the end of the 19th century, given “the particular process of progressive historical, scientific, and technological acceleration” — a progressive transformation galvanized by psychoanalysis, relativity, and quantum mechanics.

Against Nature is a deep, pervasive, and structural hybridization between novel and essay that positions des Esseintes’s aesthetic project as ideological; it is itself à rebours, against the ideology of the bourgeois novel. The way in which this “non-narrative, atemporal form (the essay)” combines with “a narrative and temporal one (the novel) constituted a formal exorcism of the new pressure of historical time.” Finally, according to Ercolino, these essayistic inserts “are not functional at all to the Bildung of the protagonist”: every novel-essay protagonist is completely overwhelmed by the weight and complexity of these insertions; they are not able to learn from all of them, because the historical and philosophical conditions do not allow a synthetic approach to the reality. The character is unable to grow as a result, and the complexity of this experience becomes the goal of the changeover between the two forms: the novel-essay and the Bildungsroman.

Ercolino explains this essayistic changeover by means of the concept of mimesis:

In the essayistic inserts in free indirect style, which are widespread in the novel-essay as a genre, free indirect style is a mimetic morphological device. The overlapping of the voices of the narrator and those of the characters typical of free indirect style mimes the genre indeterminateness of the essay, allowing a specific feature of the subvenient form, the essay, “to transmigrate” into the supervenient form, the novel-essay.

It is true that the novel-essay is a novel, but it preserves and utilizes the essay-device to “recompos[e] the fracture that occurred in the historical and social fabric of Europe between the turn of the nineteenth century and World War I.”

Ercolino cites Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novel in order to “further illuminate the morphology of the novel-essay and to mark a significant turn in the history of the novel between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.” He claims that symbolic forms need historical and social conditions to exist; in Dostoevsky’s case, the development of Russian history prevented him from writing a novel-essay per se. Radical ideologies, on the one hand, and structure of societies, on the other, dramatically separate Europe and Russia at the end of 19th century, not just historically, but also philosophically — the crisis of the symbolic order of modernity could not be thought or theorized by Dostoevsky through the form of the novel-essay. Even Notes from Underground could not be associated with European novel-essays: the autodiegetic narrator “never merges with his fictional recipient, nor does he merge with himself;” finally, “each statement is negated by the narrator himself, to the point that a dense epistemological opacity spreads throughout the whole body of the novel.” This is completely incompatible with the synthetic and dialectic framework of the novel-essay — not to mention the fact that Notes from Underground is not a novel at all.


Ercolino takes into account two complex examples of Essayism — that of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. Both examples show the effort of the novel-essay to reach a total dimension that did not exist anymore in modern novels. It is true that those novels are victims of the illusion of that “‘Habsburg myth’ that Claudio Magris spoke of, a myth swept away by the violence of the war.” According to Magris, the “Habsburg myth” is the story of a culture which lived the crisis and the dramatic transformation of a whole civilization, not only Austrian; a civilization that, in the name of his love of order, discovers the disorder of the world. Yet, Musil and Broch’s novels aim to recreate a true and positive connection between literature and life, in a way that the novel-essay can replace the failed modernist novel in this regard: “The synthetic-totalizing strain of Musil’s and Broch’s novels made of the novel-essay the aesthetic surrogate of the lost political unity of the Austro-German world, turning it into an exquisitely political form.” 

About Musil’s unfinished masterpiece, Ercolino states that “[t]he essay is the tool used by Ulrich (and Musil) to explore the shapeless territory of the ‘nonratioid,’ the territory from which any rational certainty is banned, but which insistently demands to be investigated.” Musil has widely written on Essayismus, which makes his case even more interesting for both Ercolino and his readers. However, what interests Ercolino in Musil’s works is how “The Man Without Qualities cast[s] a new light on the aesthetic and ethical project of the novel-essay as a form born out of the crisis of the ideological apparatus of modernity.” Because of the radical experimentation in the hybridization between essay and fiction on the aesthetic plane, one of the central issues in Musil is ethics: in fact, it is through the ethical dimension that Ulrich experiences reality, on the one hand, and takes on the crisis of modernity, on the other. Musil’s essay is an ethical attempt to recompose the ontological and epistemological fracture provoked by World War II and to provide, as Musil reminds us in his novel, “material for a new morality.”

On the other hand, in Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, the emergence of the essay frames the narrative of the novel as well as its morphological components. As stated earlier, Broch’s work “is not a historical novel;” it is indeed set in a historical background, but firstly it lacks historical figures among its main characters; secondly, it is focused on the fates of common individuals. In other words, it is a novel-essay. The comparison with a historical novel such as War and Peace further clarifies the nature of The Sleepwalkers; in the Russian novel — a different hybridization between novel and epic — we find elements such as history, which shapes the whole narrative, or the emergence of national identity, which in Broch’s novel are covered by the essayistic inserts. Finally, whereas the essay in Broch leads to a new configuration of reality, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace the essayism is not the bearer of a new form or novel genre, such as the novel-essay.

In the last chapter, Ercolino focuses again on Mann, but this time on his Doctor Faust, which marks the end of the novel-essay. If this genre was born as emergence for new literary forms, it will end because of the exhaustion of its epistemological needs. It is a novel-essay, but because of its adhering to the principle of montage and to its encyclopedic dimension, it takes on “the problem of the new in art, the problem of its impossibility, and the return of the archaic,” which would later torment most postmodern literature. Ercolino argues that already in Doctor Faust we can see the postmodern need to “answer the exhaustion of literary language.” Mann was concerned to unravel the epistemological failure of modernity, and Ercolino understands the philosophical form and direction that the novel was already taking with Mann’s Doctor Faust in that light: absorbed by the postmodern age, the novel-essay resists, but devoid of its desire and need to describe the fall of modernity. 

Ercolino does not attempt to trace this trajectory in The Novel-Essay, but by mentioning Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow, De Lillo’s Underworld, Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or Siti’s Troppi paradisi, he briefly maps in the last page of his work what he will later call in his second book The Maximalist Novel, one of the most refined literary expressions of the cultural logic of late capitalism. The Novel-Essay is indeed a necessary step not just to understand the crisis of modernity or to study the premises of the ideology of postmodernism — it is a chapter of the history of the novel which will allow us to understand the development of our society through the mirror of literary forms.


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