In our final look at first novels in original languages, we’re imagining we’re on a beach somewhere in an exotic location. There is just enough shade so that we can read our books without the pages glaring up at us, and hopefully there’s a cocktail waiting for us just off to the side as well. We don’t ask much.
Sit back, relax, beware of incoming beachballs, and let’s look at some more first novels in native tongues.
四大名著, the four great classical novels, are the pinnacle of Chinese literature for many, often regarded as the greatest and most influential works of pre-modern Chinese fiction. The earliest of these classics is 水浒传, Water Margin, said to have been written by Shi Nai'an sometime during the 14 century.
The novel opens with the release of 108 spirits who have been imprisoned under an ancient stele-bearing tortoise. The story goes on to describe the life of Grand Marshall Gao Qiu, assassination attempts on his life, conflicts between outlaws and battles within the Song dynasty. There are one hundred chapters, and there is even an extended version available should you think that isn’t quite enough for you to read.
I promessi sposi, The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, is credited as being the most widely read work of the Italian language. However, with a publication date of around 1827, it is much too new and shiny to be considered a first novel.
Dante’s The Divine Comedy cannot be considered here either as a first despite its much earlier publication, because it is thought of as a poem rather than a novel. So where should we look?
One of the earliest collections of short stories might have to suffice; Il Novellino, published posthumously by Masuccio Salernitano in 1476, is a thoroughly worthy example. Il Novellino follows what appears to be a regular theme for many of our earliest novels, in that it is a series and is also about some form of corruption. There is strong anti-clerical attitude throughout the stories, leading to the book being added to the Index of prohibited books listed by the Catholic church in 1558.
There appears to be a fair amount of controversy over which story deserves the title of the first novel in Urdu, so we will just go with the consensus. Novelist Nazir Ahmad Dehlvi is a celebrated writer, social and religious reformer, and scholar, and clearly from his concern for the welfare and education of Muslim women, one of the earliest feminists as well. He also happens to be the author of our first novel in Urdu.
مراۃ العروس, Mirat-ul-Uroos (The Bride’s Mirror), was published by Dehlvi in 1869. The tale is set in Delhi, and tells the contrasting stories of two Muslim sisters, Akbari and Asghari. Akbari is raised in privilege and thought to be lazy and poorly educated, and has an unhappy marriage and life in general due to her lack of judgement and poor behaviour. Asghari is modest, hardworking, and well-educated, and although getting married is a difficult adjustment for her, Asghari goes on to form great bonds with her husband’s family and new community. It is a cleverly told story interweaving similar experiences at the same points in the two sister’s lives, showing very clearly how choices we make can lead to very different outcomes.
Bhagyawati is often cited as the first novel in Hindi, published by author Shardha Ram Phillauri in 1888. However, there is an earlier novel that fits our category of first novels better, so for now we will put Bhagyawati to one side whilst we take a look.
Pariksha guru, published in 1882 by Lala Srinivas Das, is the cautionary tale of bad company and loose morals corrupting decent well-to-do middle class young men. The book is part moral tale, part instruction manual at times, attempting to teach its reader about a better way of existing. The book was not well received; books at this time were usually tales of love sagas wrapped in fantasies, and so a moral lesson was somewhat out of place and unwanted.
So perhaps we should take a quick look back at Bhagyawati, yes? Written by Lala Sri Niwas, this book talked of the progressive perspective of Indian women's rights and status around the time of the book’s publication. This book was often given to daughters as part of the dowry when they married, so in some sense was quite traditional and like Pariksha guru the book was something of a moral tale. However, the novel did something that no other novel of that time did: it advocated marriage between widows, condemned child marriage, and affirmed the equality of male and female children.
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We are finishing in Finland, because, well, why not? Those of you familiar with Finnish literature will probably be thinking of the Kalevala, but since this epic tale is, yet again, one written as a poem, we cannot consider this beautiful work as Finland’s first novel. Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers) claims that title, published in 1870 by Aleksis Kivi, and proved to be an enduring piece of work that many consider to be the greatest Finnish novel ever written.
The story is about, unsurprisingly, seven brothers, who are somewhat rowdy and troublesome folk, arguing with the local constable, jury, vicar, churchwarden, and teachers, as well as their neighbours, in the village of Toukola. Over a series of adventures when they shy away from adulthood and its responsibilities, the brothers learn to be good people, eventually becoming family men and pillars of the community. Unlike the novels mentioned for our Hindi contribution there is not a moralistic tale in sight in this book, despite the character arcs that see the men turning their lives around.
And that brings us to the end of our look at first novels in original languages. We hope that we have not necessarily broadened your horizons, but rather offered a peek at some great, as yet unread literature out there for you to try. Happy reading!