Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 344-345
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Schehr, Lawrence R. Rendering French Realism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. Pp. 268. ISBN 0-8047-2782-2
"Furieux d'intelligence": no phrase better captures the almost maniacal interpretive pressure of Lawrence Schehr's magnificent Rendering French Realism than these words of Stéphane Mallarmé, famously reprised by Julia Kristeva.
In its most compact form, Schehr's argument begins with the claim that the normalization and institutionalization of postmodern thought has worked to blind recent critics to a radical questioning of representation as such in the "supposedly normal and readable works of realism" (11). Against this unwittingly traditional tendency to see realism's defining moments as those of maximum readability, Schehr postulates that realist fiction defines itself at those points where "the processes of representation break down," in those rents in the textual fabric that mark "some abyss of undecidability" (17-18). This insistence on siting realist self-definition in the "black hole[s]" of realist textuality leads Schehr to mine a wide range of (more or less) realist works for interruptions, contradictions and points of rupture - moments of unrepresentability that conspicuously lack "the saving grace of ideological, ironic, or strategic explanations" (17-18).
However amply justified these summary statements may be by the readings that follow, they suggest far too narrow an argumentative scope. To his eminently philosophical cast of mind, as evidenced by the rigor of his argument's deconstructive frame, Schehr marries a remarkable range of literary reference, a strong grounding in (and engagement of) narrative theory, and an acute sense for the way questions of gender and sexuality haunt the realist project. Most striking, perhaps, is Schehr's commitment to a form of literary history fully informed by theoretical models widely presumed to be anti-historical. If the mud, muck and viscous flows that permeate the realist text function for Schehr both as signs of a disordered, entropic world and as figures for an unrepresentability logically prior to realism's mimetic reflections, they also serve to frame his account of realism's overarching trajectory - from the realist "call to arms" that is Stendhal's definition of the novel as a mirror reflecting both the azure sky and the mire of the road it travels, to realism's death in the generalized flou and entropic flows of Bouvard et Pécuchet (40-42). Historicity likewise insists in the way Schehr, while acknowledging the risk of a certain teleology, repeatedly reads early works as posing theoretical problems for which later works function as "successful answer[s]" (26; cf. 28, 32, 52, 64).
Rendering French Realism is comprised of a theoretical Introduction and four long chapters (on Stendhal, Balzac, Nerval/Dumas, and Flaubert respectively); in lesser hands, the densely concatenated arguments of any given chapter could have easily been drawn out to monograph length. For many of the same reasons that made Barthes's S/Z so powerful in its time, Schehr's iconoclastic take on realist textuality is arguably most forceful in the long chapter on "Balzac's Improprieties," understood as "the glossed-over holes and gaps in the writing, the pits of realism, and the means, tricks, and techniques by which the author seeks to overcome them" (90). [End Page 344]
For a sense of the nuance of Schehr's approach to Balzac, consider his treatment of the character Vautrin. In the recognition scene of Le Père Goriot, where the old maid Michonneau slaps the shoulders of a drugged Vautrin to reveal his convict's brand, Schehr finds "a convenient mise-en-abîme of the novel, as well as . . . the illustration of the taming of violence, the marginalization of the other, and the moral rhetoric that supplants violence itself" (96). The very force of the French state, and the moral order that undergirds it, are thus seen to depend upon a proleptically defused violence on the margins, "the symbolic rape of a gay man by a non-woman, a vieille fille" (98).
But Vautrin is a far from static character. Over the course of La Comédie humaine, Schehr argues, Vautrin functions...