A manuscript of the Tristan and Iseult stories in prose, Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 527

It is generally agreed that the tradition of the European novel begins with the compellingly bizarre Satyricon of Petronius. 1st-century Romans were finally able to consume a literary work which was neither history, philosophy, essay, personal reflection on nature or overt-covert attack on enemies. The trouble with the Satyricon is that one can’t place it anywhere – in the world of literary genre, it is genderfluid. And that is perhaps the reason why neither time nor cultural sensibility was able to drown its ambiguous appeal.

The Satyricon was a work of fiction, but it was like a comet visiting every few hundreds of years.

The European taste for fiction, so established in the modern period, survived Petronius’ odd concoction. To be fair, the Satyricon was too weird to beget imitators. It is fascinating but inimitable.

What was instead easier to follow, approach and approximate was the next great fiction tradition, that of the medieval roman courtois: Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseut, Yvain and the rest of the illuminated cast. The courtly romance developed forms which reached all the way up into the Renaissance and beyond, and few will deny that this typically Western medieval invention is still with us today, appealing and potently generative.

But what is fiction? I don’t mean the Anglo-American way of referring to the novel as a genre (how unfelicitous!), but the idea that something is created in the full knowledge that it is not real. To be fictitious is to be unstable, always on the edge of what could be and what could not. It is to reach down into the depths of human imagination in order to grasp that which can only be imagined, which doesn’t even reside there, never has but potentially will.

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