An entry in Benedetto Croce’s diary records a visit from ‘Moravia, the writer of novels’.footnote1 There is an unmistakable hint of malice in the description, the shrewd, wounding humour that is perhaps what chiefly endures of the genius of Don Benedetto. The punctilious designation ‘writer of novels’ is a way of cutting Moravia down to size, implicitly making light of his reputation. It is as if to say that the name ‘Moravia’ is not enough; more is needed to establish his identity, details of a profession or other information, as for any other anonymous visitor. The specification, moreover, does not sound like a compliment. Though neutral on the face of it, like the entry in a passport, it strikes a reductive note, suggesting an honest occupation, commendable if only as a well-meaning endeavour, but not a particularly brilliant one, and certainly not one of the highest expressions of the life of the mind; the exercise of a practical function—useful enough in its own way—rather than what Croce understood as the work of poetic creation.

To be sure, there were novels that Croce liked, and he knew how to interpret them. But the novel as a form remained fundamentally alien to his aesthetics and his criticism. This was no accident. For the novel was an expression of that radical modernity Croce celebrated as affirmation and progress of the spirit—history as the unfolding of freedom, liberalism emancipated from religious and political dogma—but which his innermost nature resisted. He was unable to comprehend and share this new way of being and feeling, these transformations of sensibility and of subjectivity in their relations to the world—a dusty, parodic, even degraded, yet also radically new and intrepid odyssey.

The novel was born out of the disintegration of a feudal agrarian civilization, mirror of those perennial—or at least, very long-lived—structures that remained fundamental to Croce’s imagination and taste, shaping his way of seeing and experiencing the world and making sense of its evolution. Politically, he exalted the bourgeoisie that destroyed the classical standards of that order, and created and prized the novel. But aesthetically he remained completely insensible to the modern ‘prose of the world’ which was the premise and essence of the new form. Croce could immerse himself with tactical intelligence in his contemporary political world, but not in that of culture, literature and the arts, where people lived their lives and through which they also experienced politics. He was a committed contemporary of Mussolini and Lenin, but not of Kafka.

Can we imagine the novel without modernity? The novel is modernity. Not only could the form not exist without the epoch, like a wave without the sea, but in some ways it could be described as its most intimate, mobile manifestation, as the expression of a face is captured in a glance or the contour of a mouth. True, the term ‘romance’ goes back to medieval times, and there were what we call Greek ‘novels’. But to the extent that these Hellenistic fictions are deserving of the word, it is because they already display—even if only embryonically, beneath all the cultural, social and stylistic markers of their time—traces of the modernization and ambivalence that characterize the novel as we know it: its connexion with the dissolution of the epic; the symbiosis between the crisis of a derivative literary culture and its technical innovations, where vestiges of the epic universe are reshaped into new structures, and the sunset of the old values coexists with the bold construction of a new reality; a mish-mash of popular narrative strategies, serials and feuilletons, which captivated the public of antiquity as it would the bourgeoisie; and a polyphonic fusion of high and low genres, and especially of registers and themes. Then again, the end of the ancient world seems increasingly to mirror the end of the modern one (and the post-modern as well?) and the elusive imminence of something radically different that we can feel, yet cannot define or even imagine.

The first ‘proper’ novel is Don Quixote, which Dostoevsky thought enough to justify humanity in the eyes of God. Centuries later it was a touchstone for the Romantics in their codification of the novel as the expression par excellence of modernity. In Cervantes the epic, and faith in the epic, meet their demise, yet without ceasing to traverse the ruined roads of this world as if these were enchanted woods, dense with poetry and meaning. His novel is born out of disillusionment and a paradoxical resistance to it. Don Quixote is an epic of disenchantment that preserves, at least at first, deep echoes of epic poetry in the lucid new medium of prose.

According to Hegel, ‘the great epic style consists in the work’s seeming to be its own minstrel and appearing to be independent, not having any author to conduct it or be at its head.’ Homer is one, nobody and many. The hero of the epic—and the author with him—lives his life in a poetic world, one as full of tangible meaning and poetry as the forests of the ancient myths, inhabited by gods. It is the ‘original poetic condition’ of the world, as Hegel put it, in which the values, norms and unity of life are felt by individuals not as an external imposition, but as if fused into their souls, which know no scission. The subject bathes in a harmonious, innocent unity with itself and with life. The infinite variety of objects is subsumed within a higher order, illumined by a meaning that confers on things their incommensurable value, transforming in Don Quixote’s vision a common barber’s basin of metal alloy into a unique, irreplaceable helmet of gold.

For Hegel, that original poetic condition came to an end with the modern epoch of labour, a stage of modernity in which individuals must work towards prescribed objective ends, sometimes against their own wishes, in keeping with a conception of social progress that requires specialization—curtailing personal development and sacrificing individuality—in pursuit of a one-sided profession. Once this scission has occurred, the universal forces guiding human action are no longer at home in the soul but rise before it like an external constraint, a ‘prosaic order’ of things. The abstraction and mechanization of labour disempower the subject, counterposing to the poetry of the heart—the need to live a life that is entirely one’s own, woven of experiences whose meaning is irreplaceably individual—the ‘prose of the world’, that anonymous web of social relations in which persons become mere means in a social mechanism whose ends escape them. Hyperion, the hero of Hölderlin’s novel-poem who dreams of the rebirth of Hellas in a new civilization at once more harmonious and whole, tells of a life cut off at its roots, of human beings who were—and should be once again—everything, and instead are nothing.