- L'Esprit de l'escalier ou Les Degrés du savoir
What can a reader of nineteenth-century novels learn by paying careful attention to scenes involving staircases—whether barely evoked in passing or described at length? Raymond Mahieu's readings show that this often overlooked piece of architecture can reveal quite a lot about the situation of the characters who mount and descend their steps: "Plus on lira de scènes d'escalier, plus il faudra s'en convaincre: entre les degrés et le savoir se constate une étrange solidarité" (7). Mahieu showcases the centrality of knowledge in his clever title, a play on the French expression "avoir l'esprit de l'escalier" for someone who, incapable of thinking of a quick rejoinder, only comes up with a reply when descending the stairs, once it is too late.
Emeritus Professor Mahieu brings his extensive knowledge of the nineteenth-century novel to bear on his vast corpus of texts, both canonical and largely forgotten. The authors who figure most prominently in his study include Balzac, Stendhal, Sand, Hugo, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Zola, Vigny, the Goncourt brothers, Maupassant, and Huysmans, although it is more an overall appreciation of the signification of staircases rather than an in depth knowledge of any particular writer or novel that one gains from reading L'Esprit de l'escalier. Mahieu's ability to evoke connections between disparate texts as he seamlessly flows from one example to the next is truly impressive, for the organization of this book presents a structural challenge of its own. With examples that rarely extend for more than a few paragraphs, it can be hard for the reader to keep track of Mahieu's developing arguments, although he helpfully relies on quotes from the novels themselves (some from a few lines to others as long as a third to half a page) to provide grounding for his readers. The book is organized into chapters based on such concepts as whether the staircase in question is interior or exterior, in a single-family dwelling or an apartment building, as a point that connects oppositional high and low spaces, by what the novel's characters do on the staircase (whether they are alone or cross paths, ascend or descend), and by whether the knowledge in question is connected to shadows and obscurity or light and mastery of their situation. Each of the six chapters contains numerous subheadings to account for all of the different variables Mahieu discovered.
The author's analysis of the signifying function of a dwelling's front steps in his [End Page 168] first chapter provides an example of the kind of information a reader can learn when paying careful attention to a novel's staircases. Over the course of four pages and with examples taken from Balzac, Daudet, Zola, Duranty, Barbey d'Aurevilly, and Musset, Mahieu evokes the front stoop's metonymic function: it is in a position to communicate information not only about the building, but about its occupants as well (17). For example, in Duranty's Le Malheur d'Henriette Gérard, the front steps hold a dual function as a barrier between public and private spaces. Not only is a suitor who is deemed socially inferior by the family blocked there from entering the home, but also the heroine's experiences on this staircase evoke her feelings of imprisonment: "lors d'une tentative avortée de fugue, elle s'y immobilise, et au moment du départ et à celui du retour,—comme si le lieu participait de la nature implacablement captatrice de la demeure" (18-19). Mahieu further shows how the signification of staircases is enhanced when the reader compares all of the different scenes involving staircases throughout a novel.
The penultimate chapter, "Lumières," focuses particularly on the implications of characters' ascending versus descending movement on a staircase. Examples taken from multiple texts by Balzac, but also Reybaud, Stendhal, and Barbey d'Aurevilly, lead Mahieu to characterize the common point of the characters' advertures when they...