Via the latest entry at Pepys’ Diary (“then home to my wife, who is not well with her cold, and sat and read a piece of Grand Cyrus in English by her”) I learned about what is alleged to be the longest novel ever written (“with the possible exception of Henry Darger’s unpublished The Story of the Vivian Girls“), Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, and from the Wikipedia article I got to Artamè, which has put the entire novel online. The thought of reading over two million words is daunting, but Artamè does it very cleverly; they point out that consecutive solitary reading, such as we are used to, was not the norm in Madeleine de Scudéry’s day, and the novel was expected to be read aloud in company, “a piece” at a time (as Sam is doing with his wife), and they present the text thus:

L’accès au texte du roman, ainsi qu’aux illustrations d’époque, est possible à tout moment par le biais de la rubrique “Texte” dans la barre de menu de gauche. Il suffit de sélectionner la subdivision désirée (Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus est divisé en dix parties contenant chacune trois livres). Apparaît alors, « par défaut », un résumé de premier niveau. Un clic sur l’un des paragraphes de ce texte permet d’accéder à un résumé de second niveau. Un nouveau clic sur l’un des paragraphes de cette seconde série donne ensuite accès au texte du roman, présenté dans une version respectant la graphie et la pagination de l’édition de 1656, mais renumérotée en continu par nos soins.

In other words, you go to the Synopsis page, where you get a first-level summary; you click on whichever section interests you and get a more detailed second-level summary; then, when you click on a section of that, you get the actual text of the novel. It’s a brilliant solution, if you ask me.


  1. Ayn Rand must be fuming in her grave.

  2. There’s also a 1653 translation by F[rancis] G[ifford], available on EEBO for those who have access. I’ve tried to wrestle with it but given up in boredom. See also: Ann Radcliffe.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    I had of course heard about “Le Grand Cyrus” and its author, but never read any of it. I have just read the Synopsis: what a convoluted story! The 17th century equivalent of a bad soap opera, especially since it was read in installments in front of an appreciative group who came back to hear each installment week after week. You have to give the author an A for effort: it sounds like she tried to make the suspense last as long as she could and finally gave up when she couldn’t think of yet another variation on all those conventional situations. And those ridiculous names! I gladly leave it to others to access a second level of analysis, let alone a third.

  4. Boileau wrote a short squib satirising romances such as Le Grand Cyrus called Les héros du roman, available on line in somewhat garbled shape here (scroll down). It takes the form of a Lucianic “Dialogue of the Dead” and begins with Pluto complaining that all the heroes of antiquity in the Elysian Fields have become infected with “galanterie” thanks to writers like Madeleine de Scudéry:
    “Ils parlent tous un certain langage qu’ils appellent galanterie; et quand nous leur témoignons, Proserpine et moi, que cela nous choque, ils nous traitent de bourgeois, et disent que nous ne sommes pas galants. On m’a assuré même que cette pestilente galanterie avait infecté tous les pays infernaux, et même les champs Élysées; de sorte que les héros et surtout les héroïnes qui les habitent, sont aujourd’hui les plus sottes gens du monde, grâce à certains auteurs qui leur ont appris, dit-on, ce beau langage, et qui en ont fait des amoureux transis.”
    Cyrus is no longer the great conqueror to be found in Herodotus but “Artamène” in love with Princess Mandane, who has been kidnapped eight times (fortunately “tous ses ravisseurs étaient les scélérats du monde les plus vertueux. Assurément ils n’ont pas osé lui toucher”). The austere Roman heroes and heroines Horatius Cocles, Cloelia, Lucretia and Brutus, who have been turned into complete wusses by the fashion for romance, prove incapable of defending the Elysian Fields against a rebellion by the criminals imprisoned in Tartarus. In the end it turns out that these “heroes” are all impostors, French bourgeois operating under assumed names, and Pluto orders them to be thrown head first into the River Lethe along with leurs billets doux, leurs lettres galantes, leurs vers passionnés, avec tous les nombreux volumes, ou, pour mieux dire, les monceaux de ridicule papier ou sont écrites leurs histoires.

  5. People say they’ve been influenced by Henry Darger (mostly his art work) even though “The Story of the Vivian Girls” is unpublished.

  6. Apparently it’s science fiction, but it sounds like a biography of a Radio City chorus line (not that the two are incompatible). He wrote some other stuff too.

  7. Madeleine de Scudéry became a fictional character herself in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella Das Fräulein von Scuderi, in which she investigates a series of robberies and murders connected with jewellery. Published in 1819, it anticipates the fashion for historically-set detective fiction (The Name of the Rose, Cadfael, Falco et al.) by over 150 years.

  8. Odd coincidence, I’m just now in the middle of Hoffmann’s wonderful Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr, the first thing by him I have read. From its construction, I am amazed that this “novel” was published in 1819-1821, instead of say as an experimental work of the 20th century. But that only goes to show how relatively unfamiliar even I still am with what novelists were up to in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite all my reading up to now. What is this ridiculous notion of “progress” that makes so many glance back at the past in sneering ignorance, if they glance at all ?

  9. Two million words isn’t so much for something published serially. Two friends and I, with a number of collaborators, have published about 1.8 million words of our joint work Borderlands, organized into 33 parts containing almost 600 episodes. The text starts as a role-playing chat log, but is copy-edited into something close to a play script, with lines of dialogue and stage directions. Work began in March 2003 and is continuing. The most recent published episode was written in July 2009; there are about 50 unpublished episodes in the pipeline.

  10. “From its construction, I am amazed that this ‘novel’ was published in 1819-1821, instead of say as an experimental work of the 20th century”
    Same here. It’s a long time since I read it but Kater Murr is indeed a wonderful novel. I also once read Antoine Furetière’s Le Roman bourgeois (1666), which is a parody of romances such as Le Grand Cyrus. I’ve rarely come across anything so “post-modern”. As the Wikipedia article says, “With a self-conscious narrator who comments on his techniques and disregards the conventions the novel, it anticipates Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in many ways.”
    “What is this ridiculous notion of ‘progress’ that makes so many glance back at the past in sneering ignorance, if they glance at all?”
    Search me. I find “modern chauvinism” a particularly depressing phenomenon. I suppose the ignorant but arrogant find it more difficult to sneer about the inferiority of non-Western cultures nowadays so they have to flatter their own intellectual insecurities by mocking the dead instead.

  11. If you look at the wikipedia longest novel page, yo see it’s a dubious claim, depending on what counts as a novel.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    a self-conscious narrator who comments on his techniques and disregards the conventions the novel,
    That is also true of some parts of Don Quixote.

  13. Bathrobe says:

    I suspect sneering at the past is a prerogative of the young. The reasons are probably biological — the need to dissociate themselves from their parents and everything they represent.
    The young also tend to regard history (i.e., anything before they were born) as “past” and irrelevant or “past” and mysterious; never something that has moulded everything they take for granted in their hip young lives.

  14. It’s always wise to put together a balanced sneering portfolio and hedge your sneering at the past, for example, against your sneering at Young People Today. Also, you lose credibility if you sneer at everything, so I suggest choosing a few things not to sneer at. I suggest puppies and kitties, but there are various other options.

  15. There’s another way around that credibility problem, John. A classical hedge is to be prepared to sneer at sneering itself, when backed into an argumentative corner. It demonstrates your bona fides, and lifts from your shoulders the cynical onus of having to lug around a sack of puppies and kitties for deployment in heated discussions.
    The downside of this classical maneuver is that you risk getting punched out by someone who thinks you’re making a fool of them. So it’s best to choose weaker interlocutors only.

  16. Meta-sneering can get out of hand, theough, if your opponent counters with meta-meta-sneering.

  17. I agree, meta-sneering is one of the most derisory things in existence. Pfui!

  18. The only way to cut short the vicious circle of meta-meta…..n-sneering, is the resort to invective. This is the “Hulk Smash!” argument, which was used by Alexander with the Gordian knot and used by Napoleon with the chessboard.
    Just saying. Conrad is a perfectly nice person.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    used by Napoleon with the chessboard
    Forgive my ignorance, but I am not familiar with that reference. What did Napoleon do?

  20. He was losing a game of chess, so he kicked over the board. I have no idea where I heard the story. It is alluded to here, though the author’s point seems to be that chess is a weenie game.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    A rather strange article! but thank you, JE.

  22. How timely. Samuel Pepys died on this day in 1703.

  23. Bathrobe says:

    Strange article, maybe, but full of wisdom. The people who mould history are not those who follow the “rules”. To mould history, you must make the rules.

  24. I’ve been trying to tell the Democrats that for five years or more, Bathrobe. The Republicans already know. (It’s true at the low levels too, you don’t have to be a world conqueror).
    “The point is not to understand the world, but to change it”.

  25. Cherchez la femme ! Marx may there have merely been generalizing a maxim he learned from his wife: “The point is not to understand a dirty diaper, but to change it”.
    But it applies to unmarried philosophers as well. So I am still trying to change the minds of people who think like that.

  26. Without a thorough understanding of what you are being asked to do, and its implications, there may be insufficent motive to find an effective way of weaseling out of it.

  27. Latest studies have shown that Marx and Lenin didn’t help around the house much. Maybe Marx heard his wife talking to someone else.

  28. Perhaps it was Mrs. Engels. Her husband had more than enough money to hire child-carers. So she at least could indulge in philosophic speculation about diapers, without having to change them herself. That would surely have put Mrs. M. in a bad mood – hence her peevish dictum.

  29. Marx and Lenin didn’t help around the house much
    Marx’s housekeeper had a child by him that was passed off as Engels’. Maybe that’s where Engles got the idea for “Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.”

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