- Balzac: La Littérature réfléchie. Discours et autoreprésentations
For a recent collection entitled Balzac: Ecrits sur le roman (Paris: Le Livre de poche, 2000), editor Stéphane Vachon brought together a variety of Balzac's writings that explicitly reflect on literature and art in an effort to distill Balzac's theory of the novel. The anthology draws from Balzac's newspaper articles and book reviews, his personal letters, and excerpts from his novels where a narrator or character talks about literature. Françoise van Rossum-Guyon's Balzac: La Littérature réfléchie offers a theoretically and narratively sophisticated revision of such a project. She explores Balzac's theory of the novel not from his explicit writings on art, but through the complex narrative functions of metadiscourse within his novels.
For van Rossum-Guyon, metadiscourse consists of the moments in a novel where artistic production is itself thematized, such as the narrator's commentary and asides, characters' discourses on art, descriptive passages, plot references to artists and writers, [End Page 421] and so on. Balzac: La Littérature réfléchie approaches Balzac's metadiscourse in two innovative and important ways. First, it analyzes Balzac's theories of literature through the narrative structure of the novels themselves. Metadiscourse is treated as a rhetorical component within the novels' thematics and form, rather than as a metaliterary code that stands outside the novel. Second, the book draws a sharp distinction between metadiscourse within the novels and Balzac's extra-literary writings on art. For van Rossum-Guyon, Balzac's "theory of the novel" is a multi-valent and contradictory corpus where narrators, characters, and the author actually express diverging views of literature.
Following an introductory chapter that maps out the different types of meta-discourse and their complex and often contradictory functions, the book is made up of a series of shorter chapters. Each chapter offers a close reading of a different sort of metadiscourse in selected novels: the narrator's tangents on prison jargon in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, narrative formulations of character in La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons, Vautrin's metadiscursive reflections on the way of the world in Le Père Goriot, character portraits and descriptions of the femme-auteur in Béatrix, and landscape descriptions in Le Curé de village. The second half of the book is then made up of a cluster of chapters on Illusions perdues, the novel most often taken to express Balzac's own theories of literature.
Central to van Rossum-Guyon's argument is the claim that Balzacian meta-discourse does not simply stand outside the novelistic plot; rather, metadiscourse furthers plot, character development, and the novels' thematics. Rather than taking metadiscourse as a guide, van Rossum-Guyon suggests a different method, a poetics of metadiscourse: "ce nouveau savoir du récit qui serait alors la véritable 'poétique' du roman balzacien" (20). When does the Balzacian narrator slip into meta-discourse, and to what end? At what points does the text theorize and reflect itself, and when does it choose not to? "Toutes les interventions sont intégrées au tissu fictionnel" (125). In her terms, metadiscourse has a diegetic function as well as a philosophical one. For instance, the narrator's digressions on prison jargon in the last section of Splendeurs et misères are not simply philosophical asides: the tangents are timed in such a way as to build suspense and further the already convoluted plot twists.
Indeed, van Rossum-Guyon's close textual analysis of metadiscourse often sheds light on aspects of a novel's thematics that might not have been visible otherwise. One particularly successful analysis centers on Les Deux Poètes, the first part of Illusions perdues, where David Séchard's lengthy discourse on paper production is interspersed with the narrator's own digressions explaining the history of paper. David's story as a producer of paper (the infrastructure of literature) offers its own metacommentary on...