Representing Time in Ancient Fiction


  • R. Bracht Branham


It has been over forty years since Ian Watt argued in his persuasive and influential book that the novel was a cultural creation of the emerging English middle classes and that its salient formal feature was a new, more rigorous kind of realism — “formal realism.” By now his thesis has been repeatedly criticized on both logical and empirical grounds, but it still provides the most common point of reference for discussions of the origins of the novel. Watt’s claim that the novel is as uniquely English, at least in its origins, as it is distinctively modern in its methods still underlies the most ambitious attempts to revise or replace his account. Later refinements on Watt’s thesis have traced the novel back to other literary sources and areas of culture such as journalism or an assortment of popular and ephemeral forms (L.J. Davis, J.P. Hunter, W. B. Warner) or grounded his account more thoroughly in the evolution of pre-eighteenth century culture and society (M. McKeon). Even those scholars (like Reed and McKeon) who have acknowledged the inconvenient fact of novelistic fiction written in other languages in earlier centuries have balked at the idea that such fiction appears before the time of Cervantes. Now M.A. Doody has come along and cut the Gordian knot of origins by annulling the fundamental distinction between novelistic and other forms of fiction such as romance. With that old can of worms out of the way the history of the novel stretches right back to Chariton. What I would like to do here is to sketch an alternative Bakhtinian account of the genre that will do justice to the insights underlying the theses of both Watt and his critics, namely, that 1) something novel emerged in the fiction of the eighteenth century duly reflected in a new terminology (novel vs. romance) but that 2) these texts were far from being as unprecedented as the English department thesis suggests, since novelistic forms of fiction had appeared at least twice before, not only in Renaissance Spain but also in the Roman empire. While the varieties of fiction that appeared in the 18th century have become canonical examples of the genre of the novel in English, they do have a genealogy that can be traced back to antiquity, which illuminates what is distinctive about the novel as a form of discourse as well as what is and isn’t distinctively modern about it. As part of this genealogy, the ancient examples of novelistic fiction (e.g., Apuleius and Petronius) can be systematically or generically distinguished from the heroic romances written in Greek. In other words, novelistic fiction has been invented more than once and, while its earliest examples are still intimately related to romance and other pre-novelistic and oral forms of storytelling, they also provide interesting precedents for what have usually been considered some of the modern and early modern novel’s distinguishing features—such as contemporaneity and certain kinds of realism.