Nicholas D. Paige


On his book Before Fiction: The Ancien Regime of the Novel

Cover Interview of May 21, 2012

The wide angle

This isn’t the first book to make fictionality the primary variable in the history of the novel, though it does depart pretty radically from earlier attempts.  That departure was unplanned.  At the outset, I was planning to do for the French novel what a few scholars had already done for the English.  The enshrined narrative of the novel’s rise had it marching steadily from the ideal to the real: it starts out fanciful, and slowly turns toward reality, inventing new ways of better representing psychology, of anchoring human existence in its full material context.  (This is why Don Quixote is always seen—quite wrongly, I think—as a kind of shorthand for the history of the novel as such.)  What a few critics starting in the 1980s did was turn this narrative on its head, arguing that the novel moves from being a kind of ersatz history to a final recognition that it is a privileged in-between space—neither a lie nor literal truth, but the certain supple something we call fiction.

Initially, then, I wanted to do more or less the same for France.  And so I picked a series of mostly canonical works from the early French tradition that seemed to bear witness to an evolving concept of fiction:  Lafayette’s The Princess de Clèves (often advanced as the first truly psychological novel), Rousseau’s huge best-seller Julie (a kind of re-write and critique of Clarissa), Diderot’s The Nun (for which he developed a maddeningly playful postface that has long obsessed critics), and a few more.

Yet I quickly ran into trouble.  My starting point was The Princess de Clèves, from 1678—a book that quite unabashedly flaunts its invented protagonist, whereas Diderot and Rousseau, writing almost a century later, are cagy about the existence of their heroines.  How could I go about arguing that fiction was rising if my earliest example was prematurely risen?

The upshot was that I had to rethink what these examples were really examples of. Historians of the English novel had lined up Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, arguing that they were slowly freeing the novel from a slavishly factual posture. Isolated works, it follows, are signs of something else behind or outside of them, designated as “the concept of fiction”; the careful reader can see that concept—which the writers themselves only intuit—peeking through the work.  Unfortunately, this is magical thinking.  We have created an all-powerful, invisible entity to which we ascribe causative power in the manifest world.

In the end, I realized that all I had was a bunch of idiosyncratic novels.  The later ones didn’t build on the former; the earlier ones didn’t anticipate some truth that we all now see clearly.  I think the novelists I deal with were brilliant:  they produced works that played in very different ways with the guiding assumption of the time, which was that good literature should be about real people.  But they didn’t change anything; they didn’t bring into being the regime of fiction.