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Literature of the 17th century

In the later medieval and Renaissance period, there was an important European trend towards fantastic fiction. Works such as Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) and Amadis of Gaul (eC14) spawned a large number of imitators. By 1600, the poor quality of many of the romances had led to them being seen as harmful distractions. Don Quixote is the story of an elderly man driven insane by reading too many romances of chivalry. --sourced from 2004 Romantic fiction Wikipedia entry.

Parent categories: 1600s - literature - novel

Genres: amatory fiction - romance novel - picaresque - whore dialogues - epistolary novel

Publishers: Pierre Marteau

Background: Baroque - Libertinism - print culture

Authors: Cervantes - John Wilmot - Samuel Pepys - Shakespeare

Titles: Don Quixote (1605) - Love Letters of a Portuguese nun (1669) - La Princesse de Clèves (1678)


--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel#The_17th_century [Nov 2005]

Origin of the modern European novel

The picaresque novel and the famous Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) are generally considered to be the origin of the modern European novel, characterized by realism. For example: --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel#Medieval_and_Renaissance [Dec 2004]

The First Rise of the Novel, 1500-1750

The invention of printing subjected both novels and romances to a first wave of trivialisation and commercialisation. Printed books were expensive, yet something people would buy, just as people still buy expensive things they can barely afford. Alphabetisation, or the rise of literacy, was a slow process when it came to writing skills, but was faster as far as reading skills were concerned. The Protestant Reformation afforded readers of religious pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets.

The urban population learned to read, but did not aspire to participation in the world of letters. The market of chapbooks developing with the printing press comprised both romances and little histories, tales and fables. Woodcuts were the regular ornament and they were offered without much care. A romance in which the heroic knight had to fight more than ten duels within a few pages could get the same illustration of such a fight again and again if the printers stock of standard illustrations was small. As their stocks grew, printers repeated the same illustrations in other books with similar plots, mixing these illustrations without respect to style. You can open 18th century chapbooks and find illustrations from the early years of printing next to more modern ones.

Romances were reduced to cheap and abrupt plots resembling modern comic books. Neither were the first collections of novels necessarily prestigious projects. They appeared with an enormous variety from folk tales over jests to stories told by Boccaccio and Chaucer, now venerable authors.

A more prestigious market of romances developed in the 16th century, with multi-volume works aiming at an audience which would subscribe to this production. The criticism levelled against romances by Chaucer's pilgrims grew in response both to the trivialisations and to the extended multi-volume "romances". Romances like the Amadis de Gaula led their readers into dream worlds of knighthood and fed them with ideals of a past no one could revitalise, or so the critics complained.

Italian authors like Machiavelli were among those who brought the novel into a new format: while it remained a story of intrigue, ending in a surprising point, the observations were now much finer: how did the protagonists manage their intrigue? How did they keep their secrets, what did they do when others threatened to discover them?

The whole question of novels and romances became critical when Cervantes added his Novelas Exemplares (1613) to the two volumes of his Don Quixote (1605/15). The famous satirical romance was levelled against the Amadis which had made Don Quixote lose his mind. Advocates of the lofty romance would, however, claim that the satirical counterpart of the old heroic romance could hardly teach anything: Don Quixote neither offered a hero to be emulated nor did it satisfy with beautiful speeches; all it could do was to make fun of lofty ideals. The Novelas Exemplares offered an alternative between the heroic and the satiric mode, yet critics were even less sure about what to make of this production. Cervantes told stories of adultry, jealousy and crime. If these stories were to give examples, they gave examples of immoral actions. The advocates of the "novel" responded that their stories taught both with good and with bad examples. The reader could still feel compassion and sympathy with the victims of crimes and intrigues, if evil examples were to be told.

The alternative to dubious novels and satirical romances were better, lofty romances: a production of romances modeled after Heliodorus arrived as a possible answer with excursions into the bucolic world. Honoré d'Urfés L'Astrée (1607-27) became the most famous work of this type. The criticism that these romances had nothing to do with real life was answered through the device of the roman à clef (literally "novel with a key", one that, properly understood, alludes to characters in the real world). John Barclay's Argenis (1625-26) appeared as a political roman à clef. The romances of Madeleine de Scudéry gained greater influence with plots situated in the ancient world and content taken from life. The famous author told stories of her friends in the literary circles of Paris and developed their fates from volume to volume of her serialised production. Readers of taste bought her books, as they offered the finest observation of human motives, characters taken from life, excellent morals regarding how one should and should not behave if one wanted to succeed in public life and in the intimate circles she portrayed.

The novel went its own way: Paul Scarron (himself a hero in the romances of Madeleine de Scudéry) published the first volume of his Roman Comique in 1651 (successive volumes appeared in 1657 and, by another hand, in 1663) with a plea for the development Cervantes had induced in Spain. France should (as he wrote in the famous 21st chapter of his Roman Comique [1]) imitate the Spanish with little stories like those they called "novels". Scarron himself added numerous of such stories to his own work.

Twenty years later Madame de La Fayette made the next decisive steps with her two novels. The first, her Zayde published in 1670 together with Pierre Daniel Huet's famous Treatise on the Origin of Romances, was a "Spanish History". Her second and more important novel appeared in 1678: La Princesse de Clèves proved that France could actually produce novels of a particularly French taste. The Spanish enjoyed stories of proud Spaniards who fought duels to avenge their reputations. The French had a more refined taste with minute observation of human motives and behaviour. The story was firmly a "novel" and not a "romance": a story of unparalleled female virtue, with a heroine who had had the chance to risk an illicit amour and not only withstood the temptation but made herself more unhappy by confessing her feelings to her husband. The gloom her story created was entirely new and sensational.

The regular novel took another turn. The late 17th century saw the emergence of a European market for scandal, with French books appearing now mostly in the Netherlands (where censorship was liberal) to be re-imported clandestinely back into France. The same production reached the neighbouring markets of Germany and Britain, where it was welcomed both for its French style and its predominantly anti-French politics. The novel flourished on this market as the best genre to purport scandalous news. The authors claimed the stories they had to tell were true, told not for the sake of scandal but only for the moral lessons they gave. To prove this, they fictionalized the names of their characters and told these stories as if they were novels. (The audience played its own game in identifying who was who). Journals of little stories appeared—the Mercure Gallant became the most important. Collections of letters added to the market; these included more of these little stories and led to the development of the epistolary novel in the late 17th century.

In the late 1670s the novel reached the English market. Aphra Behn and William Congreve were among the first modern English authors to adopt the term. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel#The_First_Rise_of_the_Novel.2C_1500-1750 [Nov 2005]

1605: Don Quixote

Don Quixote is often nominated as the best work of fiction ever. It stands in a unique position between medieval chivalric romance and the modern novel. The former were mostly disconnected stories with little exploration of the inner life of even the main character. The latter, of course, is focused almost always on the psychological evolution of a single character. In Part I, Quixote imposes himself on his environment. By Part II, he is no longer physically capable, but people know about him, "having read his adventures", and so, he needs to do less to maintain his image. By his deathbed, he has begun to assume a new identity, including a nickname, "the Good".

There are many minor literary "firsts" for European literature—a woman complaining of her menopause, someone with an eating disorder, and the psychological revealing of their troubles as something inner to themselves.

Subtle touches regarding perspective are everywhere: characters talk about a woman who is the cause of the death of a suitor, portraying her as evil, but when she comes on stage, she gives a different perspective entirely that makes Quixote (and thus the reader) defend her. A grand discourse on beauty and its relation to truth follows. When Quixote descends into a cave, Cervantes admits he does not know what went on there.

Like his contemporaries, Cervantes believed that literature had to contain moral messages, but, he disliked preaching in works of comic entertainment. His solution was to include almost all the moral advice of the age, but to place it in Quixote's voice, an idiosyncratic and immobile character, whose solutions most often go wrong. For instance when he frees a gang of galley slaves, who have proclaimed their innocence, by attacking their guards, then demands that they pay homage to Dulcinea, they pelt him with stones and leave. Accordingly, it is quite easy to read literally anything as the moral message.

Different ages have tended to read different things into the novel. When it first came out, it was usually interpreted as a comic novel. After the French Revolution it was popular in part due to its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and disenchanting—not comic at all. In the 19th century it was seen as a social commentary, but no one could easily tell "whose side Cervantes was on". By the 20th century it became clear that it was simply a unique and great work, the first true modern novel.

Following the Cuban revolution, the revolutionary government founded a publishing house called Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute), to publish large runs of great literature for distribution at low prices to the masses. The first book published by the Instituto was Don Quixote. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote [Dec 2004]

Simplicissimus (1668) - Johann Grimmelshausen

Simplicissimus (1668) - Johann Grimmelshausen [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
unidentified frontispiece to Simplicissimus, in the grotesque style

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1622? - August 11, 1676), German author, was born at Gelnhausen in or about 1622.

At the age of ten he was kidnapped by Hessian soldiery, and in their midst tasted the adventures of military life in the Thirty Years' War. At its close, Grimmelshausen entered the service of Franz Egon von Fürstenberg, bishop in Strasbourg and in 1665 was made Schultheiss (magistrate) at Renchen in Baden.

On obtaining this appointment, he devoted himself to literary pursuits, and in 1668 published Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch, d.h. die Beschreibung des Lebens eines seltsamen Vaganten, genannt Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim, the greatest German novel of the 17th century. For this work he took as his model the picaresque romances of Spain, already to some extent known in Germany. Simplicissimus is in great measure its author's autobiography; he begins with the childhood of his hero, and describes the latter's adventures amid the stirring scenes of the Thirty Years' War. The rustic detail with which these pictures are presented makes the book one of the most valuable documents of its time. In the later parts Grimmelshausen, however, over-indulges in allegory, and finally loses himself in a Robinson Crusoe story. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Jakob_Christoffel_von_Grimmelshausen [Jan 2006]

War novel
As the prose fiction novel rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, the war novel began to develop its modern form, although most novels featuring war were picaresque satires in which the soldier was rakish rather than than realistic figure. An example of one such work is Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, a semi-autobiographical account of the Thirty Years War. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_novel#Origins [Jan 2006]

See also: 1600s literature - 1600s - war in fiction - picaresque novel

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