E. M. Forster defined a novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” Randall Jarrell thought it was “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” At least both would have agreed that the word count makes a difference. A novel is a long story, essentially, its very length rendering flaws inevitable, per Jarrell.

We tend to think of the novel as a more-or-less modern invention; the expression “Ancient Egyptian novel,” for example, seems a contradiction in terms. For this, we have etymology to thank. The word “novel” is a transliteration of the Italian novella (piece of news, chit-chat, tale), meaning a structured, realistic story, along the lines of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Although the use of novella in Italian dates back to the Middle Ages, the English word “novel” is little attested in its current sense until the eighteenth century, and this has led many critics and readers to believe that the thing itself only dates from then, too. Pamela (1740), a 600-page romance by Samuel Richardson, is usually considered the first fully realized English novel, with Richardson following in the footsteps of the seventeenth-century Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes, who gets the palm as the first real novelist and Don Quixote full honors as the first real novel. (Supposedly Richardson worried that the novel would turn out to be a fad.)

Enter Steven Moore. He believes the novel is as old as human civilization and devoted the more-than 700 pages of his 2010 survey The Novel: An Alternative History (Beginnings to 1600) and the thousand-plus pages of its sequel, The Novel: An Alternative History 1600–1800, to telling us why. His passion for his case is evident. In an interview, he says of the book, “It is essentially a defense of contemporary avant-garde fiction, which is my specialty. I wanted to show that such fiction is not an aberration that started with Ulysses in 1922, as some conservative critics complain, but has always existed.” And he means always: Volume 1 begins with the Ancient Egyptians, in the second millennium BCE.

Moore is the opposite of the “conservative critics” he deplores. He holds no brief for theory, or literary criticism in general. He is more of an archeologist who, in his massive dig, unearths evidence that “experimental” fiction has been around as long as storytelling itself. He dismisses conventional wisdom. For instance, the venerable Cervantes-as-first-novelist theory, he says bluntly, is “Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the fourth century BCE (Xenophon’s Cyropaedia) and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages.”

Anyone who thinks linguistic extravagance in novels began with Ulysses in 1922 hasn’t done his homework. . . . may I introduce Messrs. Petronius, Apuleius, Achilles Tatius, Subandhu, the anonymous Irish author of The Battle of Magh Rath, Alharizi, Fujiwara Teika, Gurgani, Nizami, Kakuichi, Colonna, Rabelais, Wu Chengen, Grange, Lyly, Sidney, Nashe, Suranna, the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling, Cervantes, López de Úbeda, Quevedo, Tung Yueh, Swift, Gracián, Cao Xuequin, Sterne, Li Ruzhen, Melville, Lautréamont, Carroll, Meredith, Huysmans, Wilde, Rolfe, Firbank, Bely, et al.?

This sets the Moorean tone: caustic, learned, witty.

After reading Volume 1, I was apprehensive that he might have lost his touch in Volume 2. Not a bit of it. With a showman’s flair, he raises the curtain on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a time not only of revolution and war but also of great literature. The middle class was starting to come into its own and indulge an appetite for popular entertainment, at the forefront of which was the novel.

As Moore puts it, “By 1600, the novel was a familiar enough genre that I did not feel the need this time to haul in quasi-novelistic narratives as I did in the previous volume.” This could be taken to imply that many of the novels he celebrated in Volume 1 were in fact something else, an opinion held by some critics such as Denis Donoghue, who disputes Moore’s claim that writers were turning out novels 2,500 years ago: epics, yes, parables, odes, and ballads, but not novels. “My elastic definition of the novel . . . stretches wide enough to include some works not usually classified as novels,” Moore concedes. I don’t know; he pretty much convinced me in Volume 1.

In any case we can all agree that by the seventeenth century the novel was firmly established as “a convenient vehicle not only for spinning romances and adventures, but for extolling religious virtues, for telling bawdy tales, for envisioning utopias, for exploring philosophical views, for teaching manners, and even for criticizing novels.” To a certain extent, the best-known novels of the age—Candide, Tristram Shandy, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, etc.—do all these things. And Moore persuades us that if they were worth reading then, they are even more worth reading now. He knows his stuff; he’s really read ’em all, 400 novels for this book alone.

For Moore, 'experimental' fiction has been around as long as storytelling itself.

Who is this walking Library of Congress? Something of a maverick, for a start. He is an independent scholar, a former editor at the Review of Contemporary Fiction and Dalkey Archive Press (publishers of my novel Killoyle), an independent bookseller, and, obviously, an arch-bookworm. He is also an acknowledged authority on the writing of the postmodern American novelist William Gaddis, on whose work he has published two books, and on the genre-bending innovations of other modern and postmodern novelists of the Gaddis type—John Barth, Alexander Theroux, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, Gilbert Sorrentino, James Joyce, etc. He is also one of the world’s go-to guys for information on the British aesthetic eccentric Ronald Firbank and the Spanish expatriate modernist Felipe Alfau, whose novel Chromos Moore rescued from oblivion.

His specialties are arcane, but he knows his way around the big names, and his insight occasionally humbles those of us who thought we did, too. A talented literary sleuth, he can take the best-known novels and find new ways of looking at them, or come up with concise definitions no one has thought of before. In this book he kicks things off by redefining the first and second volumes of Don Quixote:

If part 1 is about the dangers of deceiving oneself, part 2 is about the dangers of being deceived by others, especially by those in positions of authority.

An apposite angle in these days of political dysfunction. And he sees beyond the Quixotic burlesque; in both books he finds the “narrator,” a.k.a. Cervantes (“it’s disingenuous to insist on a strict distinction between Cervantes and his narrator”), very much in inquisitorial mode, passing comments on good and bad art—something like Moore himself, in fact. He also reminds us that there is no great art without invention, Cervantes’s being metafiction, avant la lettre: “Cervantes’s decision to have his characters comment on a novel in which they appear is a stunning innovation.”

In discussing his favorite novels, Moore dismisses readings or interpretations he regards as fanciful or misguided. Of the standard view of Don Quixote as a dreamer, he says the novel is “not about the power of the imagination to transform mundane reality, as some suggest, but about deluding yourself, getting your facts wrong, and then endangering others with your delusions.”

His lucid criticism is frequently derailed by his dislike of religion. Not content to make the point about the Don’s delusions, he goes on, “Think of Don Quixote as a Christian Scientist parent who allows his sick child to die rather than seek medical assistance, confident in the  . . . will of his god.” This sneering at religion carries over from Volume 1, with passages such as:

I suspect even a Christian fundamentalist—moving her lips as her finger slowly traces the words on the page—would find [Ramon Llull’s Blanquerna] too religiose.

And in Volume 2, he dismisses John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a profoundly influential allegorical novel, as “Christian hokum.” His dislike of religion threatens to upset his composure; he seems constitutionally incapable of finding any redeeming value in the 2,000-year history of Christianity that has been so much a part of Western culture.

But this and other quirks—over the course of a thousand pages, you get to know them all—can be forgiven because of the scope of Moore’s vision, the magnitude of his challenge: to chronicle all the great novels of history, and to lead us back to the ones we thought we knew with fresh insights. To return briefly, for example, to his treatment of Don Quixote, he rejects seeing the Don as a tragic hero, Romantic lead, or incurable optimist. The tilting at windmills, the mistaken identities, the misadventures, the puns and obscenities? Moore goes for the simple explanation: Don Q is nuts, pure and simple. “To regard the knight as an unflappable optimist,” Moore warns, “is a road that leads straight to a claims-adjuster braying ‘The Impossible Dream’ in an amateur dinner-theater production of Man of La Mancha.” Whoa! Anything but that.

Thanks to his vast reading and erudition, Moore’s arguments about how a given novel differs in style or quality from similar novels are clear and well reasoned. And he has an equal ability to spot unexpected connections across the ages. In Volume 1 he floored me with such comparisons, never more so than one between Vladimir Nabokov and Niketas Eugenianos, the twelfth-century Byzantine Greek author of Drosilla and Charikles.

Like Nabokov at the beginning of Laughter in the Dark, like all writerly authors, Eugenianos is less interested in the what than the how, less interested in the plot than in . . . showing off his linguistic abilities.

The surprising parallels continue in Volume 2. For example, in his section on French novels, Moore looks at the largely forgotten The Virtuous Orphan: Or, The Life of Marianne Countess of * * * * *, a psychological study of a high-society “coquette” by the eighteenth-century writer Pierre Marivaux, who is more famous as a playwright than as a novelist, and draws a direct link between it and the fiction of a later compatriot:

The combination of self-analysis and sociological observation is almost Proustian; since the 500-page novel occupies only two months, had Marivaux continued at that pace he might have written a novel as long as Proust’s. The radical change in narrative time strikes anyone who reads French novels in historical sequence.

I’d never given Marivaux a thought since reading his tedious plays in French class, and certainly never considered him as a novelist. But Moore forces me to think again, to seek out the work under discussion and to look at Proust in a different light: as a writer drawing, at least in part, on an established tradition in his own culture, rather than charting entirely new territory.

Moore also outs the novelist in other writers better known for drama. Cervantes’s contemporary Lope de Vega, for instance, like Marivaux known to me only as a playwright, was not just a novelist but one of considerable gifts. For his novel La Dorotea, in which the characters converse wittily while finding themselves trapped within a kind of perpetual metaphysical chess game, Lope coined the phrase “an action in prose,” referring to the work’s hybrid nature as a prose play. The expression tickles Moore, who calls it a “cool term that might have appealed to Kerouac.”

• • •

As in the first volume, Moore’s literary archeology digs deep into centuries and cultures. He divides his study into linguistic sections: Spanish, German, French, etc., with everyone writing in a given language included, regardless of nationality. So Rousseau and Casanova, neither of whom was French but both of whom wrote in that language, are included in the French section, and Irishmen Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift come under English. (There is an American section at the end, for the first novelists on this continent.)

Moore, who is a true multiculturalist—meaning one who studies many cultures, not just one who relativizes them—emphasizes Asian fiction as well. It was a good time for Asian literature, especially Chinese. During this period, Moore says, “the novel was a stagnant art everywhere east of Egypt except in China . . . . There are some Chinese novels that rival anything published in Europe during this time.” Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, for instance, he believes is the greatest novel of the period. I’m afraid I have to take his word for it, as I do for most of the other Asian novels he discusses.

I am on firmer ground with European literature, as Moore is, too, for all his genuine breadth of culture. He skips Italy, Russia, and the Netherlands, which produced “too few original novels during this period,” an accurate assessment as far as I know. There were writers of merit—Carlo Goldoni, Giambattista Vico, etc.—but, in Moore’s eyes, no novelists worth the effort. Or maybe even he has his limits.

After gallivanting through Spain with Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Moore heads north for France and Germany and ransacks their overflowing literary attics. Among the French, Voltaire and Diderot get the full treatment, as they must, Candide (“fleet, fierce, and funny”) and La Religieuse (“an Enlightenment manifesto for freedom”) being two of the seminal novels of the age. Rousseau’s silly Emile gets shorter shrift. Speaking of seminal, the Marquis de Sade is beckoned onstage as a serious man of letters. Cuckoo, the old Marquis? Quite, and much of his writing is vapid porn. But the better works, such as Justine, represent to Moore

a heroic attempt to speak truth to power, to lay bare the secrets of Nature: the instinct for vice, the erotic relationship between sex and crime, the symbolic relationship between the will to political power and an addiction to perversion, between financial acquisition and corruption.

In the German end of the attic, another good novelist revealed by Moore’s relentless digging is the great dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, Goethe’s friend and rival, who wrote a Gothic novel called Der Geisterseher, or The Ghost-seer. It is one of the first and best examples of a species of German Gothic novel called the Bundesroman, or secret-society thriller, a genre, Moore points out, “that has made Dan Brown richer than the dreams of avarice.” Thus Moore deftly ties the present literary age to its ancestral past: tastes change, he suggests, but not that much.

Schiller left The Ghost-seer unfinished, which is a pity, since in Moore’s estimation it is “an intriguing and influential work” with a mystery plot in its first half worthy of “a Sherlock Holmes story.” No one knows why Schiller abandoned his novel. Competition from Goethe? Could be. Goethe was a hard act to follow.

Moore tries to approach Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther—so often imitated, famous to the point of parody—afresh, as if he’d never read it before.

I was struck by how startlingly new and different Werther is from its predecessors, from its lyrical style and Romantic sensibility to its psychological depth and innovative use of epistolary form . . . . Goethe’s great achievement is his revealing portrait of a character type fairly new to fiction: someone who is smart, cultured, and sensitive, but also depressed, damaged, and self-destructive. . . . [He] resembles David Foster Wallace, whose intellectual powers were not enough to overcome neurological malfunctioning.

Young Werther/David Foster Wallace: the unexpected parallel is perfect, and unforgettable.

And so to the English—or “English”— giants. Moore waxes furiously eloquent: “If [Henry Fielding’s] Joseph Andrews is the moment when the English novel switches from black and white to color, Tristram Shandy marks the conversion to hi-def 3d with director’s commentary.” Anyone who hasn’t read Sterne’s masterpiece is more impoverished than he or she can know.

But there are many others of which the same could be said. One of Moore’s gifts to his readers is to remind us of the near-infinite riches of literature from all cultures. Odd and savory trivia abound. Every work Moore mentions opens a window onto another; he scatters the names of these works, and sundry details about them, almost faster than the reader can absorb (this book, like its predecessor, will repay re-reading and is a pleasure to browse). He delights in minutiae, and his head is stuffed with fictional arcana, nowhere more so than in the section on English fiction, where his love is most deeply engaged.

In the period under discussion alone, apart from the titles already mentioned, we encounter such oddities as the mysterious Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (“the first significant epistolary novel in English literature”) and Oroonoko (“a sustained attack . . . against religion itself”—two thumbs up from Moore, you can be sure), as well as the standard repertory, such as Fielding’s Tom Jones (“the greatest English novel of the 1740s”); Richardson’s Pamela (“a fairy tale set in the real world”); Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (“a brilliant, nihilistic, avant-garde novel”); Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe; and the list goes on.

In the section titled “Bluestocking Novels” he brings in the female novelists who were making names for themselves and rehabilitates them to the position they deserve. These include Elizabeth Montagu, founder of the Bluestocking Society (“their name taken from the informal, blue worsted stockings they wore in contrast to the formal, black silk stockings worn in high society”; Moore never leaves his reader in the dark); Sarah Scott; Elizabeth Sheridan; and Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein’s mother, Mary Shelley, and author of the “startlingly original” novella Mary: A Fiction. Under “Modern Romances” we meet Frances Burney, she of the “wildly popular” Evelina, a bestseller in its day. Under “The Gothic Novel” we are introduced, or re-introduced, to Ann Radcliffe’s lurid Mysteries of Udolpho and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which, although nominally medieval in theme, actually has much more in common with Shakespeare’s plays, Moore points out. And so the incredible details accumulate until finally we cross the ocean and, on the edge of the great American continent, we hear of the imminent arrival of “a feller with a whopper about a whale.”

• • •

That is for Volume 3, if it ever comes. I hope it does. Volumes 1 and 2 prove one thing: Moore enjoys literature. He is completely unstuffy about it. Great books are fun, so take a chance on them, he says. You have no idea what mad capers and high jinks there are between those covers, what wisdom, what longing, what beauty. Thanks to literature, the past is not dead and gone. You can still get there from here; best of all, it is really not all that different.

Less a polemic than a dedicated effort to counter conventional wisdom and undermine the folie de grandeur of self-appointed lit-crit pundits, both volumes of The Novel: An Alternative History represent a reproach to those who pigeonhole works of literature as “accessible,” “difficult,” and “off-limits.” Moore’s response to such airless criticism is to fling the windows open. Although his main intention is to provide the first complete and unabridged history of the novel, and to expand the category to include nearly all narrative fiction, it is the aesthetic appeal of great literature across the ages that he most cherishes. He wants to celebrate the eternal flame of fiction as art, and in doing so he has produced a work of art of his own. “I couldn’t care less what a novel is about,” he says. “I’m interested in its style, technique, form—the things that make a novel a work of art rather than just a story about some people.”

Michael Dirda, one of the few contemporary critics in Moore’s class, observes that among the literary historian’s duties is “to seek the merits of neglected writers and, when possible, send readers back to give their work a try.” Moore does this better than anyone, and he has, so far, managed to do it for virtually every novelist from Xenophon to Marivaux. He makes it a pleasure and a privilege to accompany him on his journey of discovery and rediscovery.

Photograph: Stijn Nieuwendijk