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  • Honoré de Balzac
  • Owen Heathcote

In a previous mise au point of thirty years of Balzac research, Charles Gould noted a 'remarkable extension of Balzac studies in recent times', a point subsequently endorsed by Anthony R. Pugh.1 Although no comparative claims will be made here, Balzac research continues to experience similar growth, both in France and in countries such as the USA, Canada, Japan, and the UK.2 Spearheaded by the two main research groups in France, the Groupe d'Études balzaciennes and the Groupe international de recherches balzaciennes,3 work on Balzac remains indisputably buoyant, with, for example, former 'jeunes balzaciens' now publishing alongside their more established colleagues.4 When to this critical work are added updated editions of the novels and the correspondence,5 chronologies of Balzac's creation,6 and new biographical and archival [End Page 463] studies,7 considerable advances are being made in the appreciation of Balzac and his works.

Although the variety of work inhibits categorization, two important threads can be identified: first, the long-lasting effects of negative reactions to his style and indeed to his concept and practice of the novel; secondly, the Marxist view that, by exposing 'l'inéluctabilité de la chute de ses aristocrates chéris',8 Balzac contradicted his legitimist sympathies, embodying a paradox that has, according to Michael Tilby, been 'a theme within French discussion of Balzac since at least Victor Hugo's funeral oration'.9 Moreover, these two strands merge, with analyses of Balzac's dynamic and plural positions countering his detractors' claims that he is an artless, 'lisible' writer.

Unité et structure de l'univers balzacien

One way of counteracting the criticism was to show Balzac's world as carefully constructed and coherent. Thus André Allemand's Unité et structure de l'univers balzacien10 was accompanied by groundbreaking work by Per Nykrog, Pierre Laubriet, and, in a Marxist perspective pioneered by Georg Lukács, by Pierre Barbéris and André Wurmser, all showing Balzac as a self-aware artist and sophisticated thinker.11 This sophistication, which, as Lucienne Frappier-Mazur has shown,12 included Balzac's maligned style, was also found in individual novels,13 seen as miniatures of the grander whole. The sense of each work as a self-sufficient example of a particular Weltanschauung, which doubtless owes much to 'thematic' critics such as Albert Béguin, Georges Poulet, and Jean-Pierre Richard,14 survives in introductions, prefaces, and collections on individual texts:15 as Michal Peled Ginsburg writes in Approaches to Teaching Balzac's [End Page 464] 'Old Goriot': 'The status of Père Goriot as the paradigmatic Balzacian text has been related not only to the story it tells but also to the way it represents the world.'16

What might be called thematic studies of Balzac have proliferated in recent years. One buoyant area is gender and sexuality, pioneered by Marie-Henriette Faillie, Richard Bolster, and, more recently, Catherine Nesci.17 North American colleagues including Janet Beizer, Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson, Doris Kadish, and Dorothy Kelly have made incisive contributions,18 to which can be added French work on the gendered body from Mireille Labouret, Régine Borderie, and Véronique Bui.19 Desire in Balzac has also been studied from a sexual or gendered perspective, by Pierre Danger, Lucienne Frappier-Mazur and Jean-Marie Roulin, and in the sociocritical work of Pierre Laforgue.20 Characters such as Vautrin and texts such as Sarrasine, Une passion dans le désert, and La Fille aux yeux d'or prompt gendered analyses, whether the focus is representations of lesbianism,21 male-to-male homoeroticism,22 questioning of heterosexual [End Page 465] structures,23 or the queering of sexuality.24 One effect of such work is to unsettle conventional notions of character and identity in Balzac,25 destabilizing his seemingly transparent, coherent world and converting him from a writer of 'readerly' 'works' to a writer of 'writerly' 'texts'. As Roland Barthes writes of one of Balzac's most gender-troubled texts: 'Sarrasine représente le trouble même de la représentation.'26

Balzac dans l'histoire; Balzac et le politique

A number of critics, such as Pierre Laforgue and Michael Lucey...


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