Nineteenth Century French Studies 29.3&4 (2001) 336-337
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Chambers, Ross. Loiterature. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. Pp. 311. ISBN 0-8032-6392-9
Subtle, ingenious, humane, and immensely learned, Ross Chambers's new book relates digression to social critique in a deep constellation of original insights. Grounded in episodicity (x), "loiterature" promises no revelation or entelechy. Yet its diverse events are linked by a personified, observing consciousness. This narrator is socially marginal. She or he neither performs useful work (e.g., presenting edifying messages) nor exalts artistic craft. Because loiterature depicts the relationship between a marginalized self and its society, it always holds strong potential for social criticism. It frequently reminds us readers that its major referent is the actual society contemporary to the writer, who pokes around where she or he doesn't belong. The marginalized viewpoint may protect the voyeuristic observer from contamination from what she or he observes: by remaining hidden, for example, Proust's narrator implies "the gay world is fascinating, but I'm not part of it."
From the Revolution through La Belle Epoque, Chambers devotes most space to Verne, Nerval, Xavier de Maistre, and Baudelaire. Jules Verne's Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours (26-29), a tightly programmed itinerary functioning as a quasi- imperialist appropriation, advances purposefully like Chateaubriand's or Lamar-tine's travelers to the Holy Land, or like the sexual tourists of Orientalism from Flaubert and Nerval through Gide to Barthes, where the wealthy consumer stands at domination's centerpoint. But as in Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre, you rarely stop to get to know the natives. By contrast, such accounts highlight the leisurely reflections in Xavier de Maistre's Voyage autour de ma chambre (92-100), whose narrator must spend six weeks under house arrest for dueling. In his room, he discovers that conscious intent is not all our selfhood; what we today might call the id makes the self mutable.
The expository rhythms of Chapter 3, on "Loiterly Subjects," espouse their subjects - Nerval's Nuits d'octobre and Colette's La Vagabonde (57-82 passim). Denarrativized, the text becomes a site for chance encounters. Chapter 5 ("Time Out: Meditation and the Escalator Principle," 114-53) uses Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine (New York: Vintage, 1990) brilliantly to deepen the concept of the "flâneur" from the anecdotal to the theoretical. The paradigm of "free association" supersedes the syntagm of narratability: Baker teaches us that "the world is listable" (145) as he thinks up examples of grooved surfaces, moving, glinting surfaces, and so forth. The encyclopedic tendencies of Nerval, Flaubert, or Huysmans's anatomies are no longer supported by a pretext of a story, but in compensation, Baker acquires the childlike capacity for renewing himself.
Chapters 6-7, on literary dogs as cynical, hypocritical, or naïve observers, form a delightful riff running from Cervantes to Barbara Bush - as a cat person, Chambers, like Cervantes, can tease out the complexities of canine consciousness with detachment. The absence of nineteenth-century authors from these chapters suggests that the romantics, sunk in the soup of subjectivity, cannot readily depict an alien [End Page 336] consciousness: instead, their favorite trope is the apostrophe or harangue that remolds externality to the shape of their desires.
In Baudelaire (Chapter 8, " 'Flâneur Reading': On Being Belated," 215-49) - with emphasis on "Le Cygne" and on "Le Peintre de la vie moderne" - the street per se, Chambers explains, is a non-productive space, like reading. The flâneur is neither for nor against revolution (although Baudelaire's prose and verse poems sometimes call for it). But by merely loitering in the street without producing or consuming anything, he becomes an enemy of progressive society. His consciousness is schizophrenic: he lives in two cities at once, where the fading memories of 1848 vie with present impressions of Haussmann's factitious Paris. From the transitional space of the street Baudelaire, "a strongly dualistic thinker," finds an inspiration for "thinking thirdness" (221) that will become fully realized in the prose...