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  • The City in French Writing: The Eighteeenth-Century Experience — Écrire la ville audix-huitième siècle
  • Robin Howells
The City in French Writing: The Eighteeenth-Century Experience — Écrire la ville audix-huitième siècle. Edited by Síofra Pierse . University College Dublin Press, 2004. xiii + 195 pp. Hb £29.95; €38.00.

It is good to encounter a collection of articles which has not just a theme but a structure. As Síofra Pierse points out in her introduction, the first four pieces here treat fiction which shows 'Urban Mobility', whereas subsequent studies find the city portrayed as the locus of 'Moral Fragility'. The works treated belong respectively to the first and the second half of the century. Thus the contrast in their presentation of the city — which is always and paradigmatically Paris — reflects a diachronic shift around the mid-century from openness to anxiety. One observes, however, that three of the first four articles also identify in their texts a reflexive irony. Playful literarity could also be seen as an expression of 'mobility'. Will McMorran shows how Marivaux in the first-person narratives of Marianne and Jacob draws on romance and the picaresque. While taking a subversive pleasure in the depiction of popular milieux, he also deprecates them by assuring the reader that such vulgarity will soon be left behind. John P. Greene interestingly explores realist and literary 'poissard' elements in Caylus's Histoire de Guillaume, cocher (c. 1740). We see how Guillaume's conveyances are also the vehicle of his stories, and his narrative register changes as he rises socially. Josephine Grieder lists references to concrete realities in Manon Lescaut. Iona Galleron Marasescu nicely shows how Mouhy in Paris; ou, le mentor à la mode uses fiction to offer (like Caylus) a review not only of Paris society but also of literary genres.

We then turn to more fraught writing from later in the century. Anne Taylor illustrates how the utopian ideas of Morelly, Beaurieu, Mercier and others involve the strict regulation of most aspects of daily life. Síofra Pierse gives us a very long piece around Restif's Nuits de Paris. Lana Asfour neatly shows how the space of the Palais Royal, which figures permissiveness in Diderot's Neveu de Rameau, becomes the locus of prurient fascination and increasing disapproval in Mercier and Restif. The volume ends, quite irrelevantly, with an account of intellectual life in Geneva. Otherwise this is generally a commendable collection of pieces, mainly by young scholars, on Paris as topos in the period's fiction. Several of the studies, however, remain at the empirical level, with insufficient conceptual or historical framing. For example, in the three articles on diagnoses of sickness in the urban body and dreams of social control, one might expect at least a reference to Foucault, and to more recent work on urban pathology and utopianism in the later Enlightenment.

Robin Howells
Birkbeck College, London


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