Just for fun, I’ve been reading through works of prose fiction from the 1600s until I feel able to declare a favorite for each decade, out of multiple good options. My favorites are given in bold below, along with comments about the other texts I definitely appreciated along the way. How much I had to say isn’t really an indicator of how much I liked the book. In a few cases, I’ve commented at length on things I learned from with modest enjoyment, and my comments overall got longer as I read more books in no particular order. But I’ve omitted anything I didn’t care for or didn’t finish. Incidentally, the texts that really floored me were The Plum in the Golden Vase and The Tale of Tales.
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, part 1 (1605; translated by Tobias Smollett; info). I’m sure I’d heard the essential plot of Don Quixote many times before reading it, but I don’t think I ever realized what a large role that reading and world literature actually play in the story. There are so many references in it to medieval and Renaissance literature (especially Amadis of Gaul) that it’s virtually a lesson in comparative lit itself. Anyway, I understand now why it’s such a landmark text: it’s a readable and engaging adventure; it includes plenty of good stories within the story; it’s funny enough to at least be worth a smile here or there; it’s rich in allusions both to other works of literature and to historical circumstances of interest; and, most importantly, it’s aware of its status as fiction and its own relationship to the world of fiction, playing with those kinds of things in a number of ways (interrupting itself, mentioning Cervantes himself in the text, hinting that it’s a dubious picture of what really happened, etc.). I chose to read Smollett’s translation based on this comparison of many translations, this review that compared Smollett and Grossman [PDF] in particular, and my nominal preference to read the work of two well-known writers at once. Even if Smollett’s hand in his translation has at times been doubted, I was happy with the choice.
- Honoré d’Urfé, L’Astrée, part 1 (1607; translated by Steven Rendall; info). This may be the original soap opera: extremely complicated/interrelated stories and stories within stories, all torrid romances and tied together by more than the frame story. Probably the most interesting was “Diana’s Story,” a tragic six-way love hexagon involving three different people hiding their true gender that ended abruptly when a foreign warrior wandered in and brutally murdered several of the principle characters. But for the most part, the book reminded me of Baroque paintings: anachronistic tableaux of quasi-mythologized people standing around emoting at each other, listening to each other tell stories with classical roots, overhearing each other, and confessing feelings to each other. Apparently the setting really is picturesque: Wikipedia has a nice photo of the Chemins de l’Astrée along the Lignon du Forez, where the book takes place. Anyway, while the emotional core of each story was often plausible and moving, the story framework was pretty contrived. Incidentally, after I read this, I watched Éric Rohmer’s last film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), which turned out to be a very thin adaptation of just the frame story, and it managed to share all the non-modern features of the book while simultaneously being very much an Éric Rohmer film: talky, posed, and awkward, but embedded in a beautiful landscape full of natural light.
- Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng [“The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”], The Plum in the Golden Vase, a.k.a. The Golden Lotus (1618 [manuscript in 1596?]; translated by David Tod Roy; info). For centuries, this gigantic novel has been most well-known for being pornographic, and it sure is: there are many gratuitously detailed scenes that, if filmed, could not be shown on HBO. But it’s also stuffed full of songs and poetry. And it’s also a reasonably compelling dynastic family saga about a corrupt public official and his many wives. It reminds me of several good TV shows that I think of as “bad decision theater,” and the narrator often drives home just what bad decisions the characters are making by literally saying, “though they never ever should have done it …” In short, this book is a lot of things. But what I really enjoyed most is that it’s a truly beautiful portrait of the life of the wealthy in pre-modern China. Trying not to spoil too much, I’ll list some especially good or noteworthy moments:
Lantern-viewing from the belvedere (ch. 15).
The finished flower garden (ch. 19).
Viewing the snow while drinking wine beside burning braziers (ch. 21).
Enjoying a two-person swing (ch. 25).
Kinds of people who do and don’t appreciate the heat (ch. 27).
Chin’s vase’s plum? (ch. 27).
Physiognomic prognostications (ch. 29).
Amazing (intentionally overdone?) chapter on Taoist ritual and Buddhist teachings (ch. 39).
Watching fireworks (ch. 42).
The tortoise oracle (ch. 46).
Seven administrative proposals (ch. 48).
Description of a bordello, plus grief and its reminders (ch. 59).
The Taoist priest who summons a spirit marshal (ch. 62).
An elaborate funeral (ch. 65).
Details of post-funerary rituals (ch. 66).
A ghost appears (ch. 67).
Another ghostly visitation, an Imperial audience, a well-described windstorm, and a dilapidated monastery (ch. 71).
The Temple of the Goddess of Iridescent Clouds and the outlaws’ stronghold (ch. 84).
A violent end (ch. 87).
Visiting the Temple of Eternal Felicity during the Ch’ing-Ming festival to pay respects to the dead (ch. 89).
The hilariously self-deprecating speech of the martial arts instructor (ch. 90).
The dilapidated garden (ch. 96).
And finally, the major shift in things, the atmosphere around it, and the unexpected appearance of several characters (ch. 100).
I can’t say this book is for everyone, but it’s certainly for a lot more people than those who are aware of it.
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, part 2 (1615; translated by Tobias Smollett; info). I had heard somewhere that part 2 of Don Quixote was better than part 1, so perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed, in part because the stories within the story were basically eliminated. The narrator mentions at one point how they’d been unpopular elements of part 1, so he expected to keep the story focused on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Unfortunately, that makes part 2 more straightforward—essentially a series of episodic encounters. It’s sometimes funny enough to be worth a smile; Sancho Panza’s ‘wise fool’ aspect gets fleshed out quite a bit; and I certainly felt for Don Quixote by the end. But all in all, I thought part 1 was a richer text.
- Miguel de Cervantes, Exemplary Stories (1613; info; translated by Lesley Lipton). This is a collection of mostly straightforward stories similar to the novellas of Boccaccio, Salernitano, Marguerite de Navarre, da Porto, and so on, but I did appreciate “The Glass Graduate” for its portrayal of the glass delusion and “The Dialogue of the Dogs” for being a picaresque story with a hero akin to Marryat’s Snarleyyow or London’s White Fang—but appearing much earlier and told in dialogue form.
- Robert Anton, Moriomachia (1613; edited by Charles C. Mish; info). Really more of a short story, but one originally published by itself, this is a mildly humorous piece about a joust/melee between the Knight of the Sun and the Knight of the Moon. First, we get the backstory for the Knight of the Sun: he’s a bull the Fairy Queen turned into a knight-errant for being so patient with her when she tried to milk him, and he’s pretty confused about the lives of ordinary humans, often in a manner reminiscent of Don Quixote, which is referenced directly at the end of the story. Next, we hear about the Knight of the Moon, who took possession of the Knight of the Sun’s armor when he saved its courier from a “pygmy giant.” They fight over the armor, and the battle is so monumental it triggers an eclipse—an exaggerated effect, stretched out for laughs.
- Yang Erzeng, The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal (1623; translated by Philip Clart; info). This didactic novel teaches some principles of Taoism within a mythological frame: the story of Han Xiangzi, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. Having disturbed the divine Immortality Peach Assembly in a previous existence, Han Xiangzi is sent to be reborn into a mortal family until he can re-learn the path to immortality. As a young man, he acquires two Taoist masters as teachers, and one discussion they have with his uncle Tuizhi is interesting (p. 54):
“Can humans have a constant mind that holds fast to the Dao?” Tuizhi asked.
“Gold dust may be precious, but still it is harmful when caught in the eyes,” Master Lü returned.
“How can I have a constant mind by being mindless?” Tuizhi asked.
“One who once suffered from snow and frost will be startled by willow blossoms falling to the ground,” was Master Zhong’s reply.
Tuizhi said, “How can I be mindless by having a constant mind?”
“Don’t bother hanging up the old mirror. When the sky brightens, the rooster will crow by itself,” Master Zhong said.
“Is the conscious mind completely false?” Tuizhi then asked.
Master Lü said, “Without the spring wind the blossoms do not open, but once opened they are blown down by the same wind.”
“Is being without a conscious mind alone to be sought after?” was Tuizhi’s next question.
“When the light of the sun has not yet risen above the horizon, everyone awaits it with expectation, but once broad daylight is here, it is taken for granted,” Master Zhong answered.
Most of the book isn’t like that, but Han Xiangzi is inspired by his masters to cultivate himself and pursue immortality in the wilderness where they live. On his journey, his masters put him through several trials, during one of which there’s another nice mystical moment (p. 106):
When Xiangzi looked carefully around the room, he saw that it was now completely empty. Thus he realized that everyone has this most precious treasure, and it is not necessary to withdraw to the stillness and solitude of the deep mountains to gain it. Those who regard it as far away have no grasp of it. Those who want to employ it recklessly reveal their attachment to the world of forms. Thereupon he closed his mouth, lowered his eyelids, and sat down cross-legged.
Anyway, Han Xiangzi becomes an immortal and ascends to heaven, where he is appointed Immortal of Universal Deliverance Who Opens the Primordium and Performs Magical Techniques, Greatly Initiating Transformation by His Teachings (p. 116). And that’s exactly what he does for the bulk of the novel. The Jade Emperor sends Han Xiangzi back to help his kin reattain lost immortality as well. In particular, Han Xiangzi spends a great deal of time trying to convince his uncle to detach himself from ordinary life and aspire to immortality, but his uncle doesn’t believe a word of it, even when Han Xiangzi performs magic like using his own vomit as food for a dog to turn the dog into an immortal crane or like conjuring a painting and stepping into it with his uncle. So Han Xiangzi goes to the underworld to rewrite his uncle’s destiny and seriously messes with his life to get him on the righteous path. Allegorically, all the stuff he puts him through makes this a Job-like story that explains why misfortune might befall even someone full of spiritual merit. Although it’s repetitive at times, it’s generally a pretty neat book.
- Francisco de Quevedo, El Buscón (1626; translated by Michael Alpert; info). Picaresque novel that moves along quickly from the first-person narrator’s morally deficient childhood to his life in Madrid where he’s imprisoned with a gang of gentlemen thieves to his time in Seville where he joins a group of actors and eventually falls in love (more or less). I especially enjoyed bits about how the gentlemen thieves mask their poverty and about how actors compose plays.
- Feng Menglong, Stories Old and New (1620; translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang; info). The forty stories in this collection are thematically paired, and each typically begins with a poem and a sort of prologue story before launching into the main narrative. It’s a languid formula and an odd one in that the prologue story often ends abruptly, leaving the reader wanting more (e.g. the prologue to story 28, “Li Xiuqing Marries the Virgin Huang” is actually the story of Mulan, told in a single paragraph), where the main narrative is sometimes a bit overwritten and too full of incidents that stretch out the action without adding much perspective. Still, they’re sophisticated stories, easily comparable to Italian novellas (Salernitano, da Porto, Bandello) or to several of Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories in complexity, and in each one I could usually see either interesting cultural context or a thoughtful moral or fun supernatural content. I just suspect that as a casual reader I’d have been about as well served by the abridged selection, Stories from a Ming Collection, translated by Cyril Birch.
- Anonymous, The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1620; edited by Charles C. Mish). A few tall tales about a tall woman who works in a tavern (but also goes to war), interesting because they present her as a strong Robin Hood-like character. Typically, she has some good reason to beat someone up, and they’re ashamed and either make amends or leave.
- Giambattista Basile, The Tale of Tales, a.k.a. Il Pentamerone (1634-1636; translated by Nancy L. Canepa; info). This is the fairy tale collection that probably gave rise to many better-known Mother Goose stories like Cinderella (“The Cinderella Cat”), The Fairies (“The Two Little Pizzas”), Puss in Boots (“Cagliuso”), and Sleeping Beauty (“Sun, Moon, and Talia”). And it is amazing, particularly in this unexpurgated translation. It’s full of crude language, fun literally-translated idioms, bizarre metaphors, strange imagery, amusing lists, and so on. It’s so wild that the only European text I’d really compare it to is Rabelais, because subsequent European fairy tale collections just don’t play with language/rhetoric to the same degree. The stories are also much pithier than, for example, The Fairy Tales of Madame d’Aulnoy (1697-1698; info).
- Bishop Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone (1638; edited by Charles C. Mish; info). While recuperating on the island of Saint Helena, a man from Spain trains a flock of birds to carry him aloft, and he uses this as his means of escape from a tricky situation en route back to Spain. Unfortunately, because it’s autumn, the birds undertake their annual migration—straight up to the Moon. During his eleven-day transit to the Moon, he experiences weightlessness but no hunger, meets with spirits, and observationally verifies that the Earth rotates, but won’t go quite so far as to agree with Copernicus that it revolves around the Sun (though he hints that it probably does). Once on the Moon he finds that the Earth is larger in the sky than the Moon is from a terrestrial point of view, so the Moon is definitely smaller than the Earth. He discovers that the Moon’s darker areas are oceans, and everything on the Moon is larger than it is on Earth—the trees are taller and thicker, as are the creatures he sees and the people he meets. The people actually come in three heights: “dwarf Lunars” are about as tall as Earthlings; another group averages around 10-12 feet; and another group averages around 20 feet. They wear clothes of a glorious and resplendent color not found on Earth. They live up to thirty times longer than Earthlings and reside in gigantic buildings. The gravity on the Moon being less than that of Earth, everyone travels by jumping and waving fans made of feathers to boost them fifty or sixty feet into the air. Sunlight and Earthlight cause people on the Moon to fall asleep for days at a time, depending on their height, e.g. dwarf Lunars and Earthlings will sleep for around 14 days per month, but taller folks can stay awake for some of that time. The Lunars all speak the same language, which the narrator records using musical notation because it is a tonal language with some words that vary by their musical tune and some words expressed as tunes only. The narrator gives the Lunar leaders jewels as gifts, and he is rewarded with three kinds of stones: poleastis (which when heated remains very hot indefinitely unless it is cooled with a liquid); machrus (which shines with the light of a hundred lamps); and ebelus (which functions as an antigravity device when it is attached to something on one side or a gravity-enhancing device when attached from the other side). The Moon is a paradise too, where there’s plenty of food, the women are beautiful and permanently fulfilling as partners, no one commits crime, etc. (though if by chance a child is born among the Lunars with an imperfect disposition, they’re sent to the Earth—typically though not always to North America). And after their deaths of old age, which they greet happily with a feast, their bodies never decay. Anyway, the narrator leaves the Moon before his birds die off, and he lands in China, where he manages to conceal his jewels before being captured as a magician and imprisoned long enough to learn another tonal language. He gives his narrative to a Jesuit priest to take back to Spain and hopes to return there someday himself. Overall, it’s an amazingly inventive story, presented in a matter of fact way with only a little religion and almost no natural philosophy mixed in.
- Johannes Kepler, Somnium (1634; translated by Reverend Normand Raymond Falardeau; info). Kepler’s frame story about having a dream about reading about the life of someone else who goes to the moon is the only thing that makes this short science-fictional treatise into a narrative. The bulk of it is really just imaginative astronomy / planetary science with a tiny bit of xenobiology at the end. The frame story is interesting though. The principal subject of the story studies with Tycho Brahe before returning home and learning more about his mother’s witchcraft, both of which apparently mirrored issues in Kepler’s life. I mean, he’s famously an associate of Tycho Brahe, but I didn’t know his mother was accused of being a witch. Apparently, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov called this the first work of science fiction, and (barring Lucian’s A True History for a number of reasons) I might agree—but I’d call Godwin’s The Man in the Moone the first satisfying work of science fiction.
- Madeleine de Scudéry, The Story of Sapho, an excerpt from Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649; translated by Karen Newman; info). Scudéry’s roman à clef supposedly runs to almost two million words, making it one of the longest novels ever written. This selection focuses on the character of Sapho (i.e. the poet Sappho), who probably represents Scudéry herself. Like the author, Sapho eschews marriage and leads a social circle concerned with the proper behavior of minor elites (they literally spend time debating the “je ne sais quois” that accompanies social refinement). The story is interesting as an instance of protofeminism: Sapho equates marriage with slavery and argues that women ought to be well-educated, even if they ought also to be modest in their self-presentation. The rivalries and dilemmas animating the story itself are reasonably engaging but not far removed from the stiff portraiture of a pastoral romance.
- Cawwood the Rook (1640; edited by Charles C. Mish). Brief collection of fables most akin to stories about Reynard the Fox but all tied to a gathering of different kinds of birds to determine who will be king in the Eagle’s absence. The morals are sometimes dubious (e.g. something like “As the least of birds, the Wren should know her place”), and I don’t think there’s anything but a vague thematic similarity to Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules or Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.
- Paul Scarron, The Comic Romance (1651/1657; translated by Jacques Houis; info). At one point in this very readable comic novel, an as-yet unnamed highwayman shoots one of his henchmen in the head for very little reason and then shoots a horse who “in all likelihood had no quarrel with that strange man,” and I thought, ha, that’s not the only thing here that reminds me of a Tarantino film: an ensemble cast of roguish characters; backstories all revealed in flashback; chapter headings conspicuously ornamenting the story with meta-jokes about the book itself; random ugly/cruel events intended to be funny; stories within stories; and a very convoluted main story that ties things together. It’s not actually as violent as all that, though, in spite of the cruel bits, and many of the stories within the story are nice, virtuous novellas. Also, the main characters are actors, generally portrayed sympathetically, and Scarron was a dramatist, so it’s easy to imagine some affection there. It’s too bad that Scarron died without finishing part three, but the book as it stands doesn’t leave a lot of questions unanswered. There are obvious unresolved conflicts, but in principle, it’s fine that it ends where it does.
- Cyrano de Bergerac, Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657; translated by A. Lovell, A.M.; info). This is one among several early science fiction stories from the 17th Century. The narrator’s two take-offs from Earth were interesting. First, starting from France, he attaches bottles of dew to a chair, and when they’re warmed by the sun, he rises so high he becomes frightened, breaks a bottle, and lands in Quebec (presumably because the author thought the vehicle would not retain its motion relative to the Earth turning). But next, assisted by some fireworks, he makes it all the way to the moon and correctly observes that the moon’s smaller mass yields less gravitational attraction. Anyway, on the moon a lot of things happen: the narrator discovers the garden of Eden; he meets a spirit that has inhabited many human bodies on Earth; he becomes the captive of a species of giants among whom the nobles speak in music and the common people speak in body movements; believed for a time to be female, he’s paired up with a man from Spain (in fact, the main character from Bishop Francis Godwin’s earlier The Man in the Moone!), ostensibly as a mate but more definitely as a companion; he learns the musical language, so he’s able to write the names of his captors in a musical notation; etc., etc. There’s also plenty of natural philosophy, including a discussion of whether the stars show us that there are infinite worlds, but most of that stuff is pretty dull. More engaging are the many observations of odd facts about life on the moon, like people sleeping (or getting tickled by servants) in little closets on beds of flowers, towns that move around on wheels, people walking around at night with a bunch of crystal globes full of glowworms around their legs, and music boxes that take the place of books in the musical language.
- Li Yu, A Tower for the Summer Heat, a.k.a. Twelve Lou (1658?; stories 4-7, 9 and 11 translated by Patrick Hanan and the rest translated by Nathan Mao and Weiting R. Mao; info). Compositionally speaking, these are extremely refined short stories: each features a poem, a word of introduction, a story in several chapters that includes as a motif some tower/house/lodge/upper room, and a critique explaining the moral of the story. They’re pretty down to earth—in fact, they frequently show astrologers and people claiming to be immortals to be charlatans, and in the Hanan translation, one story concludes, “The worship of gods and buddhas means worshipping our own minds; it does not mean that gods and bodhisattvas exist” (p. 38). Generally, they focus on trickery/deceit, arranged marriages, or trickery/deceit in the service of arranging a marriage. And quite a few offer puzzles for the reader to figure out before going forward in the story—one is explictly didactic in that it explains several kinds of lenses/mirrors lately available in China at the time and reveals as the solution to what happened in the story that a character had used a telescope to trick his bride-to-be into thinking he was a semi-omniscient immortal. Anyway, I enjoyed the stories well enough to seek out all twelve, even if, in the end, I would point someone toward The Plum in the Golden Vase if they were looking for similar material (17th C. realist domestic fiction from China).
- Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Simplicissimus (1669; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). A picaresque novel set during the Thirty Years War, Simplicissimus is entertaining for its roguish episodes and occasional wit, but what’s especially engaging is its portrayal of the war itself as a confusing and ugly mess someone can wind up fighting from both sides. In one notable episode where he’s disguised as a housemaid, Simplicissimus experiences harassment and misogyny, matters made even more visible in the sequel novella, The Life of Courage. In another episode omitted from several translations, because it’s generally not this kind of book, lake spirits give Simplicissimus a stone that allows him to breathe underwater so that he can dive down deep into the earth and get a natural history lesson from their ruler.
- Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World (1666; info). I appreciated this for its imagination—another world of bear people, worm people, lice people, etc., not to mention the appearance of the author in the work and her several arguments in favor of building imaginary worlds—but it’s mostly pretty dry natural philosophy, utopian allegory, or quirky argumentation.
- Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Clèves (1678; translated by John D. Lyons; info). Ostensibly the “first modern French novel,” this is basically a love triangle story—more specifically, an emotional affair—at the court of Henri II, more than a century prior to the novel’s composition. It’s a twisty, Shakespearean story, full of coincidences and mistaken interpretations, that maps out all the highs and lows of people crushing on each other.
- Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, The Life of Courage (1670; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). This was readable and interesting for how the main character proves to be so relatable even in the negative light she’s sometimes put in; as a picaresque novel focused on a character sometimes engaged in sex work, it’s sort of a precursor to Moll Flanders, but it’s set in the Thirty Years War, and it’s fairly dependent on Simplicissimus for some background.
- Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Tearaway (1670; translated by Mike Mitchell; info). This is a relatively slight addition to the Simplicissimus saga. Tearaway is the son of an acrobat and a young noblewoman. He gets caught up in the Dutch War of Independence, the Thirty Years War, and the wars against the Ottomans, sometimes as a soldier and always as a rogue. His story overlaps with that of both Simplicissimus and Courage, but it’s predominantly a picaresque account of an ordinary soldier’s life. There are occasional episodes involving “magic” that is revealed to be trickery, but near the end, the book takes a sharp turn toward SF/F when Tearaway’s wife takes a magical bird’s nest that turns her invisible and uses it to rob people, make them think she’s a ghost, etc.
- Marie-Catherine Desjardins, Madame de Villedieu, Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière (1672-1674; translated by Donna Kuizenga; info). At the beginning of this short, epistolary, semi-autobiographical picaresque novel, the main character’s adoptive father takes her hunting but tries to rape her in the woods, so she shoots him, setting off the first in a long series of social/legal problems that will plague her throughout the book. By the mid-point (p. 127), she can very reasonably say, “Madame, it was not men themselves I hated, but rather their mania for attaching themselves to me and then unfailingly entangling me in some troublesome adventure.” I think it’d be fair to call this a proto-feminist novel, and it’s also notable for its many connections to historical figures and events.
- Ihara Saikaku, Five Women Who Loved Love (1685; translated by Wm. Theodore de Bary; info). Though sometimes described as “erotic” fiction, this story collection (or at least this translation) is considerably more tame than an average romance novel published today. The characters do pursue their romance with the aim of pleasure, and both prostitution and the practice of shudō are mentioned briefly. But in reality the stories are just tragic love stories, elegantly written and full of beautiful imagery. The prose style is wonderful and feels very modern—so much so that I thought the translation might have something to do with it, but if so, the same thing happened to another Ihara book translated by a different person (see below).
- Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688; info). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that an early novel aiming to generate sympathy toward its enslaved hero would pile despair on top of violence on top of tragedy, but wow, things do get remarkably bad. I’m glad I read this though—it’s definitely worth knowing that it exists.
- Kim Manjung, Kuunmong, a.k.a. The Cloud Dream of the Nine (ca. 1690; translated by James S. Gale; info). I’m not sure whether to describe this wonderful Korean novel first and foremost as an enchanting fairytale, political satire, or harem fanfic. Its fairytale imagery includes things like fairies riding on white deer and cranes, the hero meeting a mermaid deep in a poisoned lake, and time passing mysteriously while the hero learns to play music. And as a fairytale, it’s really nice: full of romantic scenes and ornate set pieces. Its satire is not as obvious, I guess, but Wikipedia mentions that it is intended as commentary on King Sukjong‘s affairs, and read that way, it’s pretty arch stuff. The hero of the story is portrayed variously as great, really great, or super great, so people just line up to marry him and fall all over themselves to praise him and find ways to sort out and justify his numerous marriage arrangements. And that leads us to the harem fanfic aspect of it: this is a Korean novel set in Tang Dynasty China, and the basic plot involves one guy meeting, falling in love with, and eventually marrying eight women on his path to enlightenment, but the little bit of tension in the book arises in that “eventually,” because he’s in love with all of them and yet repeatedly blocked from marrying any of them for a good chunk of the story. So it’s both a fannishly romanticized picture of China and a polygamous romance novel with a lot of deferred resolution to it. Incidentally, one review that I read mentioned minor issues with the translation and implied this was related to the translator being a Christian missionary, and I can definitely see that. The translation sometimes uses phrases like “let no man put asunder” that are presumably wrong for the context, even if they get the gist of things across, and I can well imagine there being other ways that the religious and/or earthly content of the story has been assimilated. Another translation exists, but it’s out of print, and this one was still a fun read.
- François-Timoléon de Choisy, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, and Charles Perrault, The Story of the Marquise-Marquis de Banneville (1695; translated by Steven Rendall). This short love story seems plainly intended as a positive illustration of how gender encompasses more than just biology. In that light, the book’s premise that a mother might simply choose to raise any child as a daughter and have that work out as it does at least makes sense allegorically as a lesson that someone who seems to be male can actually be someone’s daughter and that it can be OK. We could also suppose the mom was lucky enough to make her decision and by coincidence have a trans daughter too. At any rate, this was a delightful book: the AFAB character was also great, and the story was well-written, deeply accepting of human differences, and happy about it.
- Ihara Saikaku, This Scheming World (1690; translated by Masanori Takatsuka and David C. Stubbs). Themed short story collections must have been kind of a thing in the 1600s—at least for Li Yu and Ihara Saikaku, though I guess fairy tale and morality tale collections count too. Anyway, these twenty vignettes about debt collection at New Year’s take it to an extreme in terms of realism. They’re full of interesting sociological details, and they’re also extremely well composed. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit dry.
- François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699; translated by John Hawkesworth; info). Fénelon’s didactic novel about best practices of leadership and government is always eloquent and occasionally beautiful but also very frequently dull. It re-imagines Telemachus’s search for his father as having been much longer and more full of incident than it is in the Odyssey, and that’s a great premise. Accompanied by Mentor, Telemachus winds up going all around the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Phoenicia, Crete, Calypso’s island, and Hesperia (i.e. Italy). At each stop, he endures some peril or another and learns lessons about virtuous leadership. Unfortunately, I really cannot count how often Mentor’s lectures literally put me to sleep—they’re not bad lessons, but they are obvious from an adult post-Enlightenment point of view, and they go on and on. But if they’d each been half the length, then their elegant composition would have been more enjoyable to read. The story does pick up some around the mid-point, when Telemachus becomes involved in a war in Hesperia, and overall it does have the flavor of the books it’s based on: the fighting scenes and many characterizations are reminiscent of the Iliad, and the travel and the descent to the underworld are reminiscent of the Odyssey. I also thought the descriptions of individuals and of the landscape were sometimes pretty great. I suspect, though, that the main reason to read the book is to observe how much it informed the French Enlightenment. Fénelon’s admiration for “savages [that] set you a noble example” shows in several places, explicitly, and in combination with the book’s general emphasis on educating someone to be wise, that feels very much like Rousseau. It’s also not too surprising that, even though Fénelon was reputedly an effective tutor for the young Duke of Burgundy, Louis XIV resented the book for questioning the divine right of kings to be absolute monarchs.
- Charles Perrault, Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, a.k.a. Mother Goose Tales (1697; translated by Christopher Betts; info). Many of these have obvious forebears in stories from Basile’s The Tale of Tales (q.v.). Perrault’s are nonetheless interesting, in part because they are recognizably the ones many modern re-tellings are based on. The stories not found in Basile (e.g. “Little Red Riding-Hood,” “Bluebeard,” and “Hop o’ my Thumb”) are important too. But really, I’d recommend Basile to adult readers as the richer, more interesting collection.
- Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, A Trip to the Country (1699; edited and translated by Perry Gethner and Allison Stedman; info). A group of French nobles stay for a while at an idyllic country estate, where there are fountains and an orangery, terraces and gardens, and musicians who come and play for them outside. The nobles flirt with each other and tell stories—in particular, ghost stories, though in most cases there turns out to be no ghost. There’s one fairy tale too about how four specially-talented brothers rescue a princess from a dragon but find the princess wasn’t in any real danger and actually wanted to stay on the dragon’s island because she was in love with a fisherman (who turns out to be a prince and comes to marry her, post-rescue, so all’s well). They also share a few stories about their past romances and whatnot, and they cruelly tease the nouveau riche neighbors. All in all, it’s an interesting picture of what people found entertaining at the time, and it’s well written too, though I’m not sure I recall a favorite scene.