In the Court of the Pear King: French Culture and the Rise of Realism
Sandy Petrey's new book on the beginnings of the realist movement in France starts with an apparent historical hapax relating to the dissemination of caricatures portraying the French king, Louis-Philippe, as being shaped like a pear. This image was circulated widely throughout France in various forms and became known far and wide. For Petrey, this seemingly incidental event is the signature of the nascent movement of realism because of the ways in which the equivalences play out between representation and reality: "Like the pear that became a portrait, like the revolution that became a monarchy, realism has as its armature representation's power to make and unmake reality" (36). This then is the crux of the analogical argument at the heart of Petrey's study of the beginnings of realism: "the pear is so striking an analogue to realist reality" (150).
After this long introduction, the second chapter of the book is a study of Balzac's famous allegorical story about aesthetics and madness, "Le Chef d'œuvre inconnu." Reading this work as a self-reflecting mise-en-abyme of the aesthetic problems associated with mimesis and representation, Petrey posits a complicated relation between what we might perceive as verisimilar representation – a portrait of a woman that looks like a woman – and Frenhofer's actual production of a seemingly non-representational modernist figure. That modernism, or what we perceive as the non-representational features often associated with modernism, is born at the same moment as realist representation is an insight second to none in this book. Petrey is suggesting, as others have, that the famous divide between Balzac's realism and Flaubert's illusions, provoked by Madame Bovary, is itself illusory: the pear king was already part of the modernist, proto-dadaist aesthetic and, in the Balzac story, the author offering an illustration of and a warning about this strange teratology. The rest of this chapter is devoted to a meticulous reading of Balzac's Le Colonel Chabert, – is the protagonist alive or is he not? – in which Petrey skillfully uses the details of the plot to illustrate [End Page 400] aporias worthy of Schrödinger's cat.
In chapter three, Petrey offers a clever reading of George Sand, whom he sees as a gender-bending activist eager to question the categories imposed on her. As he writes so succinctly: "Madame and Monsieur name social constructions, not Platonic essences" (77). Petrey's reading of Sand follows the debunking of essentialism in Sand's novel Indiana. For Petrey, it is definitely le monde à l'envers, with Don Juan becoming Caspar Milquetoast (83). Petrey offers a compelling thematic reading of the novel that takes its strength from the twists and turns of the plot as well as from character formation and psychology. The following chapter is devoted to an analysis of the aftermath of the July Revolution with a reading of Delacroix's famous painting of Liberty Leading the People. For Petrey, this allegorical figure of "Delacroix's whore" or "a woman of easy virtue" (101) rises up above the crowd to be the inspiration for and the sometime raison d'être of the era. Turning from painting to opera, Petrey shows how the story of Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (with a libretto by Scribe and Delavigne) is itself (following Heinrich Heine's analysis) analogous to the dualisms of the July Revolution.
In chapter five, Petrey offers a reading of the figure of "1830" in Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le noir. Even though parts of the novel had already been written before the July events, for Petrey, the novel does indirectly speak of the revolution to "the extent to which Julien believes in the comedy he is playing" (129). Dupe of circumstances, Julien is a cynic in the first half of the novel, but in the second part, he seems to fall utterly under the sway of the "nonsense he is acting out" (129). For Petrey, Julien's change from peasant to pseudo-aristocrat is a parallel to the change from "the Duc d'Orléans into King Louis-Philippe" (131). Petrey concludes the chapter with an analysis of the plot of Stendhal's Lucien Leuwen and specifically the role of Orleanism in the novel. Petrey ends his work with an epilogue about the ways in which "realism is representational." The final paragraph starts with a remark that could be seen as a call for further, related studies: "The duality of French history is also characteristic of the history of many other places at many other times" (156). Indeed.
This work is at its best when the author is focused on using the details of plot to advance his assessment of the literary works in question. And certainly, using Delacroix's painting and the libretto for Meyerbeer's opera adds dimensions to the study. Yet I have several quibbles about matters that weaken this work somewhat for me. First, while the story of Louis-Philippe as pear is amusing, it is essentially an analogy to what Petrey is really interested in, the ambiguities of realist representation and the contradictions contained in realist representational models. Too much of Petrey's study proceeds by analogy; an analysis of homologous structures in realist representation would have been far more helpful for furthering the author's arguments. Telling readers that "producing monarchy from revolution was equivalent either to converting base metal into gold or gold into base metal" (21) tells them nothing; "Like positive and negative electrical charges, monarchy and revolution were mutually destructive" (28) tells them even less. Second, Petrey does not always acknowledge that there have been lots and lots of sharp critical analyses of the works in question. One would have expected more frequent tipping of the author's hat to fellow critics. Third, the author has been poorly served by his editors who allowed self-indulgent conceit after conceit to mar the work: "under the July Monarchy, pears and kings were as tightly bound as bunions and corns or Roquefort and Stilton" (IX); "the king and the pear . . . were wholly unlike an umbrella [End Page 401] and a sewing machine" (3); "This was not monarchy. It was government of the people, by the people, for the people!" (27); "Determining the legitimate king poses the same problem as defining a real man or woman, an authentic Hutu or Tutsi, a good Christian or Muslim, a true Arab or Jew" (73); "It's not that a roaring bull turns into a pussycat, it's that there never was a roaring bull. You cannot lose what you don't have . . . " (87), etc. All of these are extremely distracting, to say the least. And using subjective language like "dumbfoundingly silly" and "flabbergasting gibberish" (both on 35) is amusing, as is "representational pizzazz" (62), but such comments are hardly enlightening. Finally, some of the figures are simply over the top, with references to "RuPaul on the fashion runway" (73), to whom "Louis-Philippe in the Tuileries" is compared and a whole riff in the epilogue concerns Jennie Livingstone's film, Paris Is Burning. As interesting as this film is, it is simply not relevant. Je veux bien, mais quand-même . . .