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  • Weaving Balzac’s Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of La Comédie humaine
  • Keri A. Berg
Madden, James C.Weaving Balzac’s Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of La Comédie humaine. Birmingham: Summa Publications, 2003. Pp. 269. ISBN1-883479-41-X

Readers of Balzac, as James C. Madden aptly notes in Weaving Balzac's Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of La Comédie humaine, travel through the author's textual world with their own "Balzacian baggage": a "collection of knowledge, assumption and beliefs" about the characters, their stories, the period and the author himself (85). With each new journey, either into a previously unexplored text or when revisiting an old favorite, readers repack their bags, making room for new information by revising earlier ideas in accordance with their most recent textual acquisitions. Madden's travel metaphor applies to Balzac's work as well as to his own critical study, as the author charts the internal path of narration in La Comédie humaine. Focusing on the role and discourse of diegetic narrators and narratees, Madden unpacks the Balzacian suitcase, showing readers the various narrative pieces [End Page 416] of La Comédie humaine and, more importantly, how they fit together. As Madden demonstrates, this narrative map takes us to the very heart of La Comédie humaine: the act of reading itself.

Madden is not alone in his study of Balzacian narratology; consider Roland Barthes's seminal text S/Z (1970), which spurred a wave of scholarship devoted to the narrative structure of La Comédie humaine. Weaving Balzac's Web's unique appeal, however, stems from its singular emphasis on diegetic narration. By concentrating on Balzac's character-narrators, their mode of narration, their stories and their auditors, Madden provides a series of detailed analyses of diegetic narratives within individual novels and short stories, which he then ties back to the overreaching framework of La Comédie humaine, documenting how these characters and their tales shape Balzac's collective text. It is Madden's focus on intertextuality – Balzac's configuration of "frames" and "stories" – that sets up the larger paradigm of reading in La Comédie humaine (4).

Beginning with the character-narrators, Madden plots the narrative links between Balzac's texts. As characters in La Comédie humaine, these narrators acquire a certain textual history, which the experienced reader, or what Madden alternately terms the "rereader" and "le lecteur initié," uses to judge the specific characters as narrators, evaluating their role as observers and witnesses as well as that of raconteurs. Bianchon, for example, gains the reader's trust as a narrator through his profession, his status as a healer, and his repeat performances in La Comédie humaine as a devoted friend, student and confidant. In addition, Bianchon's medical position affords him access to the private sufferings of society, making him a privileged observer, who, as a narrator, has a wealth of knowledge – often secret knowledge – that he is able to convey to his audience.

Not all character-narrators, however, are so reliable. Take de Marsay: the quintessential Parisian dandy, whose dual membership in le monde and les Treize results in a double knowledge of Paris' visible and invisible societies. Yet it is this same double persona that clouds rather than elucidates de Marsay's narratives, as his self-portrait of a young, naïve, lover in Autre étude de femme (1842) clashes with the earlier depiction of a passionate and violent de Marsay in La Fille aux yeux d'or (1835). Indeed, critics have noted inconsistencies in de Marsay's age and the chronology of affairs. Madden, in contrast, reads these discrepancies as a deliberate veiling in which de Marsay the narrator adapts his portrait of de Marsay the character to fit his narrative needs. According to Madden, such textual incongruities "serve as openings," for they invite readers to read across La Comédie humaine, comparing and ultimately synthesizing the various versions of de Marsay to form their own personal portrait (47).

Moving from narrator to narratee, Madden examines the second half of Balzac's narrative formulation. Following his analysis, the narratees "serve as the...


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