restricted access Balzac: Une poetique du roman (review)
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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 469-470

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New Books at a Glance

Une poétique du roman

Balzac: Une poétique du roman, edited by Stéphane Vachon. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes (PUV), 1996. 460 pp.

In this handsome volume of essays presented in Montreal in 1994 at the Sixth Colloquium of the Groupe International de Recherches Balzaciennes, thirty scholars from nine countries explore themes of totality, fragmentation, and limits in Balzac. Following an introduction by the editor, Stéphane Vachon, the work is divided into six parts, each of which is preceded by an introduction summarizing the section and its principal arguments. Section 1, “Commencer, déplier, finir,” addresses the question of beginnings, middles, and endings in Balzac’s novels. Balzac was haunted by the impossibility of the “last word,” as several of these commentators point out; his anxieties over beginnings and endings are, of course, very much in keeping with his postrevolutionary historical moment and are not just a compositional hurdle. In the second section, “La récusation des genres,” Jeannine Guichardet studies the hybrid quality of many of Balzac’s works, finding in “le brassage des genres” the power of the virtuel, the possibility of openings to unwritten novels. The third section, “Poétique du secret,” presents commentaries on the role of the enigma in Balzac. The [End Page 469] fourth section, “Personnage, dialogue, description: La signature balzacienne,” occupies the center of Balzac: Une poétique du roman and offers its most compelling critical perspectives. Elishiva Rosen studies how Balzac’s works have been “positioned” in literary history and how understanding his characters as “social actors” can illuminate the interactions of social and historical boundaries. Drawing brilliantly on Mikhail Bahktin, Walter Benjamin, and Jean-Pierre Richard, Juliette Frølich analyzes the importance of Balzac’s signifying objects, a délire d’objectivité that has, as Frølich astutely points out, its own rhythmic and rhetorical strategies. In the section’s beautifully written concluding essay, “L’inouï balzacien,” Catherine Nesci explores how musical “language” constitutes both a guide to and a metaphor of the outer limits of Balzacian mimesis. Music as the Other of language—paradoxically outside writing yet also its broken mirror—echoes the urban writer’s experience of exile within the crowded labyrinth of his own city. The fifth section, “Mises au monde,” treats the subject of origins, both textual and psychological. Stéphane Vachon, for example, imagines the Balzacian manuscript as a founding origin, a kind of fond de mémoire, for the elaboration of a new writerly identity. The sixth and final section, “Le modèle balzacien,” opens with a superb introduction by Michel Pierssens, then proceeds to explore the influence of Balzac in writers such as Stendhal, Emile Zola, J.-K. Huysmans, and Claude Simon. In the section’s best essay, Michael R. Finn carefully examines “Le Balzac de Proust.” Proust saw Balzac as both mentor and monster; he freed himself from the dead author’s colonizing voice through pastiche, working out of Balzac from within his stylistic voice. The collection ends with a short piece by Lucien Dällenbach that emphasizes the idea, found in many of the contributions, that any totality is by necessity fragmentary. Balzac: Une poétique du roman is an impressive achievement that will be of interest mostly to Balzac scholars, although its range will commend it to those studying broader questions of narrative poetics and literary influence.

Kevin C. Smith
George Washington University