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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 67-78

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Sound Memory

Paris Street Cries in Balzac's Père Goriot

At the heart of Le Père Goriot, on the eve of one of "les jours les plus extraordinaires de l'histoire de la maison" (3:91),1 is an episode in which Madame Vauquer's boarders, flush with Bordeaux wine, recite and bellow the cries of Parisian street peddlers at dinner. Rastignac has apparently committed himself to two mutually exclusive romantic plots, either of which would secure his fortune, by both courting Victorine Taillefer and accepting Goriot's offer of a garçonnière. That night, Taillefer fils will be murdered, enabling Rastignac to obtain Victorine's dowry and share the profits with Vautrin, the mastermind behind the deal. This will be Vautrin's last meal at the Pension Vauquer before he is unmasked and arrested as Trompe-la-Mort.

At this moment, as each intrigue is wound tighter, it may seem odd that the lodgers are imitating street peddlers, those itinerant merchants who circulated among the faubourgs crying out their wares. Yet this short scene, which stages Vautrin's relationship to the other main characters, relates to a long tradition of discourse on street cries dating back to the Middle Ages. Representations of street cries had renewed appeal in the mid- to late-nineteenth-century writings of, among others, Jo–seph Mainzer and Victor Fournel. Seen in this broader context and in the context of Balzac's other references to modern Paris, the street cries in Le Père Goriot draw out the novel's ethnographic discussion of the sounds and class dynamics characteristic of early-nineteenth-century Paris. Like the ethnographic literature with which it shares a common interest in the crieurs de Paris as expressions of Parisian identity, Honoré de Balzac's novel reconstructs a folkloric aural past and shows the extent to which sound defines identity.

From the Middle Ages onward, chapmen or colporteurs traveled from village to village advertising their wares in the streets. Each trade [End Page 67] had a distinctive cry, a combination of words and characteristic tune, such that buyers could identify the itinerant merchant by a sound marker; however, street criers are frequently conflated into a broad category of peddlers. Although originally colporteur signified the official profession of the itinerant vendor of broadsheets (papiers volants) and images, the word came to designate all hawkers.2 By the eighteenth century, colporteurs were viewed with increased suspicion, because they sold goods illegally, sold defective merchandise, or spread malicious and subversive information, and laws were created to regulate hawking.3 The evolution of street criers' representation parallels the sedentary bourgeois' increased suspicion toward lower-class transience, marginality and criminality. Street cries eventually become a metonym for the working class as a whole, now defined by raucousness and criminality as opposed to bourgeois silence and respectability.

The Cris de Paris refer both to the historical practice of peddling and to an art (either written, visual or aural) form that dates back to Guillaume de la Villeneuve's thirteenth-century poem "Les Crieries de Paris," and to sixteenth-century woodcuts.4 A modern revival of interest in the Cris de Paris from as early as the 1820s coincided with a gradual decline in the practice. As Balzac and Fournel were keenly aware, the reorganization of space following the urban renewal begun under Napoleon I and spearheaded by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s was changing sound culture, and street criers were increasingly confined to the older neighborhoods of Paris. Their perceived disappearance, and their concomitant association with Vieux Paris, was likely what motivated nineteenth-century writers engaged in Parisian ethnography. These ethnographers drew on the genre set out in Louis-Sébastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris to document their societies and capture what was new and changing. Balzac heeded this documentary impulse by contributing to an evolving body of littérature pano–ramique5; moreover, his novels, especially Le Père Goriot, can be productively read as a folkloric record or a literary ethnography...


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