The Historical Novel  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Historical Novel (1962. [1947, Hun.]) is a book by György Lukács on historical fiction.

While prior to 1789, he argues, people's consciousness of history was relatively underdeveloped, the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars that followed brought about a realisation of the constantly changing, evolving character of human existence. This new historical consciousness was reflected in the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels use 'representative' or 'typical' characters to dramatise major social conflicts and historical transformations, for example the dissolution of feudal society in the Scottish Highlands and the entrenchment of mercantile capitalism. Lukács argues that Scott's new brand of historical realism was taken up by Balzac and Tolstoy, and enabled novelists to depict contemporary social life not as a static drama of fixed, universal types, but rather as a moment of history, constantly changing, open to the potential of revolutionary transformation. For this reason he sees these authors as progressive and their work as potentially radical, despite their own personal conservative politics.

For Lukács, this historical realist tradition began to give way after the 1848 revolutions, when the bourgeoisie ceased to be a progressive force and their role as agents of history was usurped by the proletariat. After this time, historical realism begins to sicken and lose its concern with social life as inescapably historical. He illustrates this point by comparing Flaubert's historical novel Salammbo to that of the earlier realists. For him, Flaubert's work marks a turning away from relevant social issues and an elevation of style over substance. Why he does not discuss Sentimental Education, a novel much more overtly concerned with recent historical developments, is not clear. For much of his life Lukács promoted a return to the realist tradition that he believed it had reached its height with Balzac and Scott, and bemoaned the supposed neglect of history that characterised modernism.

The Historical Novel has been hugely influential in subsequent critical studies of historical fiction, and no serious analyst of the genre fails to engage at some level with Lukács's arguments.





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