Lukacs’s Theory of the Novel: Centenary Reflections


Franco Moretti in NLR:

When György Lukács is still mentioned nowadays in connection with the study of the novel, it is either for The Theory of the Novel, composed between 1914 and 1916, or for The Historical Novel, written exactly twenty years later. Either, or: because the two books couldn’t be more different. The Historical Novel is a very good book—a very useful book—written by a serious Marxist professor. The Theory is not useful at all. It is an ‘attempt’ [ein Versuch], declares the subtitle; but ‘Essay’ would be more to the point. The essay: the ‘ironic’ form, where ‘the critic is always talking about the ultimate questions of life’, Lukács had already written in Soul and Forms (1911), but ‘in such a tone, as if it were just a matter of paintings or books’. And in fact, whenever the Theorytalks about the ‘novel’, the reader senses that—through the oblique refraction of ‘books’—something much more momentous is at stake. But what? What is the ‘ultimate question’ that the Theory is trying to address?


An initial answer could be: it is the transformation of social existence—at some unspecified moment between Dante and Cervantes—into a ‘world of convention’ whose abnormality Lukács tries to capture through the metaphor of the ‘second nature’. Nature, because the ‘all-embracing power’ of convention subjects the social world to ‘laws’ whose ‘regularity’ can only be compared to that of physical nature: ‘strict’ laws, ‘without exception or choice’, that are—this is the decisive passage—‘the embodiment of recognized but meaningless necessities’.


Meaningless necessities. That is to say: in second nature, ‘meaning’ is present only in the recollection of its loss. It’s the disenchantment of the world first diagnosed by German culture around 1800. When the earth was still ‘the abode of the Gods’, wrote Novalis in the fifth Hymn to the Night:

Rivers and trees,
Flowers and beasts
Had human meaning

But now ‘the Gods have vanished’—they live ‘in another world’, echoes Hölderlin’s Bread and Wine, written in the same years—and ‘human meaning’ has vanished with them. ‘Lonely and lifeless / Stood nature’, continues Novalis:

Deprived of its soul by the violent number
And the iron chain
Laws had come into being
And in concepts
As in dust and draught
Disintegrated the unmeasurable flowering
Of manysided life.

More here.