Lit. for Grownups

So much to read; so little time

I will gradually migrate my separate blog of the same name onto this page and then pull it all together into one.

These essays are drawn from a series of talks I gave for a couple of years called "Lit. for Grownups." The object of the program was to interest older folks who don't get out much to take up reading, perhaps by rediscovering some of the books they might have encountered in earlier years, as well as more recent authors. I sought to introduce different ways of looking at some of the classics and books teachers recommended years ago, while also providing some interesting and less-well-known aspects of the books and their authors. The program was at least a partial success. I got some of my audience interested in reading again. A few decided to try writing on their own. And it did lead to some lively and interesting discussions.

The Oldest Novel

The dispute over the oldest novel might seem petty, but getting at the answer can be intriguing and quite revealing. Some academics don’t go outside the body of literature in English, and thus settle for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) as “the first novel,” even though doing so does not dip very deeply into the wider body of literary history, nor does it acknowledge earlier works from other cultures, like The Tale of Genji, from Japan, or numerous European romances written in Spanish, French, and Italian as early as the 12th century. Robinson Crusoe is also hardly the oldest novel in English (see a list of other contenders, below), although modern readers might have trouble understanding the Middle English used by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1483).
Apart from ignorance of the variety of works that could qualify as the oldest novel, another reason for the dispute about which novel came first is that not everyone agrees on what a novel is. The term novel has been part of the literary lexicon since the mid-17th century, borrowing from the Italian novella to distinguish a particular kind of prose fiction from the prevailing “romance” and shorter novella.
The elements of a novel include theme, characterization, plot, climax, conflict and resolution. Broadly, a novel is a fictional prose narrative of considerable length and complexity in which the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters serve to unfold the plot. Novels are distinguished from other early literary forms such as fables and myths, which are forms of storytelling that embellish real events or purport to explain the unknown, to provide a record, or to serve as a tribute.
Certainly there were many literary works that qualified as novels before the term novel was used to describe them. If a novel is treated as a prose narrative of significant length, the oldest novel is probably The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th Century Japan. The Tale of Genji has had a tremendous influence on Japanese literature, and it continues to be cited as a major source of inspiration by prominent Japanese novelists today. If epic poems are included in the debate, matters get a bit more complicated. Both The Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumeria in about 2500 B.C. and Homer’s classic The Odyssey, from 800 B.C., are far older than The Tale of Genji, and could be considered precursors to the modern novel. The Odyssey in particular has had an immense influence on Western culture and literature; themes from this epic poem pop up often in contemporary Western art, music, and writing.
In Europe, the form of the novel appears to have emerged around the 15th Century, with the rapid spread of books made possible by printing, although several qualifying stories were written earlier. Books like Le Morte D'Artur, The Canterbury Tales, and The Adventures of Esplandian were all published in the 1400s, soon to be followed by publication of huge numbers of novels with the advent of the printing press and movable type. The word “novel” itself entered the English language around 1566, right on time for Miguel de Cervantes to write La Galatea and later Don Quixote. The word is derived from the Italian novella. By the 16th Century, the novel, however broadly defined, had become firmly entrenched in literature.
The novel thrives as a literary form perhaps because of its simplicity. From examples in the literature of different cultures, it is clear that various forms of the novel evolved independently but with much the same quality, which is probably the main reason it is difficult to say definitively which came first.
Contenders for ‘Oldest Novel’ Title
The Education of Cyrus, by Xenophon (circa 400 B.C.)
In her biography of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), Mary Renault (1975) says that the book that more than any other inspired the Macedonian conqueror of most of the ancient Greeks’ known world was The Education of Cyrus, by Xenophon (430-355 B.C.). The book has been called the world’s oldest novel, appearing 400 years before Petronius’ Satyricon and more than 1,300 years before Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. It was published around the time of Alexander’s birth. Most works on the conqueror emphasize his pronounced admiration for Homer's heroes. He visited the traditional gravesite of Achilles after crossing into Asia, and he and his best friend Hephaistion ran a reverential lap around the tomb to honor the Greek hero. He was also said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. But he also carried a copy of Cyrus’s work with him, and a number of Alexander’s decisions could be read as informed by those of Cyrus, such as Alexander’s respectful treatment of the captured wife and children of Darius III, the king of Persia whose lands he was methodically capturing, and his choices when it came to the day-to-day administration of conquered lands. The world’s oldest novel had at least one very early and admiring close reader.
Xenophon’s story differs from works by Homer and others in being a “what-if” tale. The author himself was in the unexpected position of being elected to lead a force of 10,000 Greek soldiers after their Persian commander had been killed in Mesopotamia. Xenophon had the challenge of getting them back to Greece alive, which he apparently he did, but the account gives the kind of knowledge and decision-making he would have liked to have had if had more time to prepare and gain experience before being thrust into the leadership position. As such, his novel is an homage to the family of Cyrus the Younger, as a fictional embodiment of what he considers to be the ideal warrior and leader, patterned upon the ideas of his mentor, Socrates. So there is a lot of advice on military matters: how to finance a war, how to properly feed and manage the sleep schedules of soldiers; the pacing of the march to the mean speed of all; how to administer conquered lands.
But there is a lot of psychological insight, too. Much of it is somewhat specific to the military: the general must really be wise, not just pretend to be wise to gain the confidence of the troops; leaders at each rank must trust their soldiers; there are times when troops need to hear an inspirational speech and times when they don’t; managing status-seeking among soldiers; how it feels when the second-in-command slowly and unwittingly steals away the affections of the troops; strategy and tactics. There’s also developmental psychology: the best age at which to learn particular lessons, when to indulge children and when to refrain; basic emotions: “so cruelly can fear, the prince of horrors, bind and subjugate the souls of men,” complex emotions: bearing success with modesty and not insolence. Characters converse on the circumstances under which one may attain wisdom, on the relationship between wealth and contentment, and on the power of kindness and courtesy.
The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari), By Lady Murasaki Shikibu (1021)
The Tale of Genji is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to a noblewoman in the imperial court in the early 11th century, around the peak of the Heian period. It is often called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic. It is unique in its depiction of the lifestyle of Japan’s nobility and the imperial household during the period, long before Japan was a unified country. The first partial translation of Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kenchō, published in 1882. Arthur Waley published a six-volume translation of all but one chapter, with the first volume published in 1921 and the last in 1933. In 1976, Edward Seidensticker published the first complete translation into English, and the most recent English translation was published in 2001 by Royall Tyler, is considered most faithful in content and form to the original.
Genji, the Ladies’ Man
Genji, the hero of the tale, is the son of the emperor and his favorite concubine, Kiritsubo. A Korean sage predicts a brilliant future for Genji but his mother is the object of jealousy among other concubines and court ladies, and the stress weakens and eventually kills her. The distraught emperor eventually finds another concubine, Fujitsubo, who reminds him of his former love. But Genji, only 3 years old and lacking support within the court, is consigned to the “non-royal” Genji clan, casting the boy out of the imperial inner circle, and the eldest son of the emperor by Lady Kokiden is elevated to crown prince (thus heir to the imperial throne).
Genji matures to be uncommonly handsome and gifted in the social graces of the time, admired by all but feared by Lady Kokiden and her family, because of their role in denying Genji his rightful place in the line of succession. The first part of the story is essentially a record of Genji’s amorous exploits with several ladies in and around the imperial compound, as well as his friendship with To no Chujo and an arranged marriage to Aoi, To no Chujo’s sister, as well as the birth of Genji’s son and the beginning of his infatuation and eventual relationship with the young Murasaki.
In time, the emperor dies and is succeeded by Lady Kokiden's son. Genji's amorous intrigues, because they involve some prominent ladies-in-waiting, cause a scandal that forces his departure from the capital and several years of exile in Suma. In the second part of the story, Genji meets the former governor of Harima and Lady Akashi, his daughter.
Genji returns to the capital as the emperor abdicates in favor of the son he secretly conceived with Lady Fujitsubo. Genji’s position at court is thus restored and Lady Akashi has a baby girl. Genji makes a pilgrimage to the Simiyoshi Shrine to give thanks to the gods for protecting him from a violent typhoon at Suma, and he returns to settle down with Murasaki and several other ladies at his Rokujo estate. In this part of the story, Genji becomes increasingly influential at court and he is preoccupied with promoting his children and grandchildren at court. He marries again, this time to the Third Princess, who bears him a son, then retires from court to become a Buddhist nun.
Because it was written to entertain the Japanese court of the 11th Century, the level of the original language is practically impossible for modern Japanese to read or understand. Another problem, which carried over in the early translation, is that naming people was considered rude in Heian court society, so none of the characters (except Genji himself) are named. Instead, the narrator refers to the men by their military rank or position in court, and to the women by the color of their clothing (Murasaki, for example, is a deeper shade of purple. The young Murasaki, whom Genji encountered when she was about 10 years old and raised first as his adopted daughter, then took as his lover, was Wakamurasaki, which could be translated as Lavender), or by words used at a meeting or by the rank of a prominent male relative. This means that the same character may be referred to differently from one chapter to another.
Another difficulty is the use of poetry. Poems were and still are an important part of imperial court activity, and phrases, or word play based upon bits of classic poems were expected elements in Heian court life and were often a kind of code used among those at court to convey thinly veiled allusions. Poems in The Tale of Genji are often written in a classic Japanese form called tanka, a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, and many of the poems included were well known to the intended audience of the time, so usually only the first few lines are given and the reader is expected to be able to complete the thought, much as we might pick up on “When in Rome…” by adding our own “do as the Romans do.”
The original Genji did not use many kanji (Chinese characters), and was thus written mostly in kana, a form of phonetic script. In the Heian era, use of kanji was primarily reserved for men, and women were discreet about using it, aiming not to flaunt their education. The disadvantage, however, is that without the Chinese characters as a guide, misinterpretation, and thus ambiguity, hampered translation and even transliteration of the story into modern Japanese language.
The Tale of Genji was written in a Japanese literary style similar to the Western journal, as a chronological record of events. As such, the encounters and events are in more or less sequential order, but the narrative is continuous to the point that its consistent thread is an account of the amorous life of a handsome young nobleman, not so different in its way from a fairly spicy modern Harlequin Romance novel.
Genji is more substantial as a literary work than the shorter, more gossipy Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi) , completed in 1002 by another Heian Era court lady who served Empress Consort Teishi in the 990s and early 11th Century Japan. Shōnagon's writing and poetic skill makes it interesting as a work of literature, even in English translation, and it is valuable as a historical document. Part of it was accidentally brought to the attention of the imperial court while Shōnagon was alive, causing a stir because of its sometimes snippy observations about personalities and its revelations about the previously sheltered nature of imperial household activities. The Pillow Book was first translated into English in 1889 by T. Purcell and W. G. Aston. Other notable English translations were by Arthur Waley in 1928, Ivan Morris in 1967, and Meredith McKinney in 2006.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1387)
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer over a period roughly from 1387 to 1400. The tales (mostly written in verse although some are in prose) are told as part of a storytelling contest by a group of 30 pilgrims as they travel together from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return. The travelers drew lots to determine the order (The Knight was first), and were to tell one tale on the way to the shrine and two on the way back. Chaucer never completed the full project, and, since the printing press had not yet been invented at the time of the original writing, manuscripts that survive are incomplete and were handwritten.
Following a long list of works written earlier in his career, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls, The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's greatest work. He uses the tales and the descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection resembles The Decameron, which involved a group of travelers fleeing the Black Plague, and which Chaucer may have read during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372. No other work before Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th Century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organize the journey.
Deciphering Chaucer
The General Prologue is the key to The Canterbury tales that describes the gathering of the pilgrims at an inn before they set out the next morning on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. Harry Baily, the narrator, who is also one of the pilgrims, describes the circumstances, as well as providing introductions to each of the members of the party.
This excerpt from the Prologue picks up with the introduction to the Wife of Bath, first in the original Middle English, then in Modern English:
Middle English

A good WIF was ther, OF biside BATHE, But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe. Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt, She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she, That she was out of alle charitee. Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground; I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed. Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed, Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe. Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe. She was a worthy womman al hir lyve: Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, Withouthen oother compaignye in youthe, But therof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe. And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem; She hadde passed many a straunge strem; At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne, In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne. She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye. Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye. Upon an amblere esily she sat, Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat As brood as is a bokeler or a targe; A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large, And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe. In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe. Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce, For she koude of that art the olde daunce. Modern English There was a WIFE of BATH, or a near city, Who was somewhat deaf, it is a pity. At making clothes she had a skillful hand She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent. In all the parish there was no wife to go And proceed her in offering, it is so; And if one did, indeed, so angry was she It put her out of all her charity. Her head-dresses were of finest weave and ground; I dare swear that they weighed about ten pound Which, on a Sunday, she wore on her head. Her stockings were of the finest scarlet red, Tightly fastened, and her shoes were soft and new. Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue. She'd been respectable throughout her life, Married in church, husbands she had five, Not counting other company in youth; But thereof there's no need to speak, in truth. Three times she'd travelled to Jerusalem; And many a foreign stream she'd had to stem; At Rome she'd been, and she'd been in Boulogne, In Spain at Santiago, and at Cologne. She could tell much of wandering by the way: Gap-toothed was she, it is the truth I say. Upon a pacing horse easily she sat, Wearing a large wimple, and over all a hat As broad as is a buckler or a targe; An overskirt was tucked around her buttocks large, And her feet spurred sharply under that. In company well could she laugh and chat. The remedies of love she knew, perchance, For of that art she'd learned the old, old dance.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1719)
Despite the earlier options, many literary critics who focus upon works in English hold that the book most worthy of the term “novel” in its modern sense is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. They favor Robinson Crusoe as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. Its success led to many imitators and castaway novels became popular in Europe from the 18th Century. Most have fallen into obscurity, but a few, such as Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, published in 1812, remain popular.
Robinson Crusoe is a fictional autobiography of the title character—a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers before being rescued. Inspiration for the story may have been influenced by the real-life story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived for four or five years on an island off the Pacific Coast of Chile called Más a Tierra (in 1966 its name was changed to Robinson Crusoe Island). The details of Crusoe's island were probably based on the Caribbean island of Tobago. It is also likely that Defoe was inspired for his plot by the Latin or English translations of Ibn Tufail's Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, an earlier novel also set on a desert island. Another source for Defoe's novel may have been Robert Knox's account of his abduction by the King of Ceylon in 1659 in An Historical Account of the Island Ceylon. Although inspired by a real life event, it was the first notable work of literature in which the story was not based upon mythology, legends or previous literature, while having a moral message. The inclusion of a moral is not a necessary element of novels, and critics and readers alike usually regard it as a turn-off, which is one reason many don’t consider Robinson Crusoe to be a literary first. Critics don’t necessarily agree on what the dominant moral theme is, anyway. Defoe was a Puritan moralist and had written several guides to “how to be a good Puritan Christian, among them The New Family Instructor (1727) and Religious Courtship (1722).
While Robinson Crusoe is far more a narrative than a guide, it shares many of the themes and theological and moral points of view. There is an allusion to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, as Crusoe, like Jonah, neglects his “duty,” and is punished for it by being cast adrift at sea. At times in the story, Crusoe muses upon the notion his actions are guided by a divinely ordained fate, which explains how he is able to remain so optimistic in the face of an apparently hopeless abandonment. When confronted with the cannibals, Crusoe finds he cannot blame the natives for a practice that is so deeply ingrained in their culture, even though he maintains his own belief that cannibalism is a “national crime,” and forbids Friday from partaking. Robinson Crusoe is also cited as an example of the classic “Christian work ethic,” in which Crusoe must remain active in improving his situation, rather than simply kicking back and enjoying a life of leisure.
Crusoe also often muses that the money he salvaged from the ship is worthless on the island, especially when compared to the tools he uses. The arrival of Friday in the story then becomes a vehicle for illustrating the possibility of commerce, in the form of gains from trade. From that point, though, the story becomes tedious for its constant reference to any dark-skinned people as “savages.” Crusoe maintains control of the guns and tools, which make him the boss. But wouldn’t it be more likely that Friday would have been able to teach Crusoe some practical survival skills? Wouldn’t it be more likely for Crusoe to ask Friday’s own name or learn some of his language? And who discovered whom anyway?
Retelling Beowulf
Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen, (1022), Retold by Michael Crichton (1976)
My personal favorite example of the distinction between the old literary epics and what we now regard as the modern novel is in an early undertaking by prolific author and screenwriter Michael Crichton. In 1976, he published the result of a combining of two very old tales, both apparently based upon fact; one was from Beowulf, the 8th Century Anglo-Saxon epic legend, and the other from a 10th Century account of a journey by an emissary of the Caliph of Baghdad, accompanying a party of Norse Vikings to their home country. Crichton explained that a good friend of his was lecturing on “Bores of Literature,” including his argument that Beowulf was simply uninteresting. Crichton insisted that the story not only was not boring, but was in fact a very interesting work, and that he could prove it. The result was Eaters of the Dead, later republished as The Thirteenth Warrior, to accompany a film based upon the book.
The Caliph of Baghdad sends Ahmad ibn Fadlan to serve as ambassador to the kingdom of the Volga Bulgars. Ibn Fadlan never arrives, because he is captured by a group of a dozen Vikings who are on a heroic quest to return to their ancestral Swedish home. They decide that accepting ibn Fadlan as the 13th member of the party would bring them good luck. Along the way, they battle “mist-monsters” or wendol, a surviving group of Neanderthals who go to battle wearing bear skins like those found in the original Beowulf story.
What remains of the original Beowulf survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. Its composition by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet is dated between the 8th and early 11th centuries. In 1731, the manuscript was badly damaged in a fire. The poem fell into obscurity for decades, and its existence did not become widely known again until it was printed in 1815 in an edition prepared by the Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin. The events described in the poem were set in the late 5th century and were probably compiled to preserve them as legends for entertainment, thus there is not a clear distinction between real historic events and fictional elements. Beowulf scholars generally agree that many of the characters and settings also appear in other Scandinavian literature, and dating events in the poem matches archaeological excavations in Sweden and Denmark.
Eaters of the Dead is narrated as a scientific commentary on an old manuscript. The narrator describes the story as a composite of extant commentaries and translations of the works of the original storyteller.
Some Other Contenders
Le Morte d'Arthur, by Thomas Malory, (written about 1470, published 1485)
Beware the Cat, by William Baldwin, (written 1553, published 1570)
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, by John Lyly, (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580)
The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, by Philip Sidney (1581)
The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1678)
Philosophus Autodidactus, translated by George Ashwell (translator), (1686)
Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn, (1688)
The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, translated by Simon Ockley (1708)
The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1719)
Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe (1722)
Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (1740)

The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, by Ian Watt (2001)
The Education of Cyrus, by Xenophon, translated by H.G. Dakyns (1992)
The Nature of Alexander, by Mary Renault (1975)
The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (1978)
The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, by Ivan Morris (1994)
Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (2007)
Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton (1976)
Project Gutenberg: Online version of The Education of Cyrus:
Amherst College: “The World's Oldest Novel: The Tale of Genji and Its Refractions” Course Outline:
World Digital Library, international digital library operated by UNESCO and the United States Library of Congress:
Tablets of The Tale of Gilgamesh:
The Internet Classics Archive text of Homer’s The Odyssey, from MIT:
The Librarius Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Online Side-by-Side Middle English to Modern English:’s Online version of Beowulf:
Project Gutenberg: Online version of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: