The first novel was written 999 years ago. This was a long time before the term novel was even applied to literature. This was also a long time before Cervantes penned his masterwork, Don Quixote, which is commonly considered to be the first true novel. It isn’t. Perhaps it is the first modern novel. We’ll come to that later. The first edition of Cervantes’ book appeared in 1605. Some people believe that Don Quixote was actually written by one of Cervantes’ Spanish contemporaries, similar to the way in which Christopher Marlowe may have written Othello. But this is all beside the point.
In case you were wondering, the name of the real, actual, definite, first novel ever is Genji-monogatari, or, The Tale of Genji. The author was a woman. Her name was Murasaki Shikibu, and it was in 1007 that her opus was first published. Well, published isn’t exactly the right word. It was primarily spoken aloud, from memory, although there were definitely copies of the original manuscript floating around somewhere. These were lost, though, and the version that is available today has been taken from some 12th century manuscript scrolls and-
Hang on. Let me start again.
The first modern novel was written in 1605. This was a long time before the term modern novel had even been invented. This was also a long time after Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, which was immediately popular and was initially read aloud. Almost 600 years later, Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote was released. It is considered a modern novel because, well-
It is possible that the first novel ever written was actually The Golden Ass by Apuleius, a 2nd century Roman author from North Africa. If this book were indeed written in the 2nd century, then is was also written a long time before The Tale of Genji. However, The Golden Ass can’t be considered the world’s first modern novel because it isn’t miserable enough. Just kidding. Almost. Modernism arose from a dramatic shift in cultural awareness in the late 1800s. Wait, that isn’t right either. Modernism means realism means pessimism.
Descartes and Locke, two 17th century philosophers who insisted upon the importance of the individual experience, proved to be of great influence to Cervantes. Don Quixote, the protagonist of the book, comes to realise that his notions of chivalric romanticism are the misguided fever dreams of an old, dying fool. Don Quixote, the novel itself, mirrors this realisation by, thematically, rendering archaic the novels that preceded it. Yet Don Quixote isn’t a realistic novel in the slightest. It is tragic, yes, but also fanciful, poetic and surreal. Which means, I suppose, that modern novels don’t have to be completely realistic after all. Except that they do, because otherwise they seem to become postmodern novels. These don’t have to be realistic either. And just what do we mean by realistic anyway? And what does Daniel Defoe have to do with any of this?
Scratch that last bit.
The first modern, English-language novel was also the first work of realistic fiction. The novel was Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719. This was considered a realistic work because the motivations of the central character, and the descriptions of the world he inhabits, are entirely credible. So is this what we mean by realistic? Does realistic actually mean convincing? And, if so, convincing to whom? I was of the impression that realism was something characterised by a lack of dilution of its imaginary aspects. And how exactly does this apply to the postmodern novel anyway? Do we simply throw terms like magic realism around in the hope that they might stick in a have-cake-eat-too sort of way? And just what is a postmodern novel anyway? And why were any of these works referred to as novels in the first place? Where did the word novel even come from? From the Italian novella, obviously, which, when translated, means new. How did this term come to be applied to The Tale of Genji? I have no idea.
I’m not giving up yet.
A postmodern novel reintroduces traditional elements of style that were lost when the modern novel emerged. But what, exactly, is so new about that? Almost 1000 years have passed and we have decided that regression - the reincorporation of the very things that were excised in order for the modern novel to exist in the first place - should be accepted as some kind of sparkling literary innovation.
Disregard everything I have just written.
The Education of Cyrus was written, 400 years before Christ was born, by Xenophon.
It is Greek. It is a fictional account of the education of King Cyrus the Great of Persia.
And it is a strong candidate for the absolute, unequivocal, indisputable first novel ever.