- Aesthetics of Fraudulence in Nineteenth-Century France: Frauds, Hoaxes and Counterfeits
The introduction to Aesthetics of Fraudulence in Nineteenth-Century France: Frauds, Hoaxes, and Counterfeits indicates that the chapters are "not rigorously interlocked, they can be detached from the whole, easily read in isolation" (17). The studies in this volume indeed provide quite disparate investigations. If they fit roomily and range broadly under the rubric of "fraudulence," it is because that rubric is writ particularly large. The volume as a whole addresses itself to the multiplicity of contexts in which fraudulence may be at work as well as to what is described as the pervasiveness of fraudulence as a trope in the nineteenth century. This premise is generalized to a fault. The volume lacks a convincingly developed historical, theoretical, or methodological thesis. It does not deliver the kind of insightful discussion of aesthetics or sustained inquiry into fraudulence that the title promises. These deficiencies, along with the corresponding eclecticism of the chapters, will leave some readers unsatisfied. As an academic study, the volume presents problematic features. It gives little space to the larger contexts for its subjects. Disturbingly, the notes are minimal and few. Little to no indication of the relevant scholarship appears either in the main text or in the [End Page 172] notes. The bibliography is surprisingly short, considering the wide range of topics, authors, and circumstances touched on in the chapters. The reader, then, has little help to guess what the particular contribution of the volume may be.
All this being said, the readings in this volume are in and of themselves not uninteresting. In the unfinished satirical work Pauvre Belgique! of Baudelaire, irony keys in the reader to multiple levels of inauthenticity, such that mockery of things Belgian gives the lie to a French culture seen as degraded (chapter eight). The novel Gabriel of George Sand, with its central device of transvestitism understood as disguise, posits the unstable and constructed nature of both gender and legal identities (chapter nine). Political propaganda from public ceremony to printed caricatures reveals the vexed issue of authenticity at the heart of the debates surrounding the installation of Louis XVIII on a resurrected and restored throne (chapter four). In the story "Pierre Grassou" of Balzac, the popular paintings of a mediocre artist who can do no better than to copy the works of greater talents than his own connects commercial success with degraded artistry and both with democracy, but also points to great art as the greatest scam of all (chapter five). In La Guzla, an early publication in the form of faux-Illyrian folk ballads authored by Prosper Mérimée that is habitually termed a mystification, the essentially allusive nature of the text resonates with the preying, parasitic vampires that feature in some of the songs (chapter two).
At least two sections of the volume provide tantalizing glimpses of fascinating, ambiguous cases that well merit commentary in the broader context of studies specifically interested in fakery. The works of Mérimée and the case of Eugène-François Vidocq, a convicted forger who later became a police informer and anti-counterfeit operative before authoring memoirs whose relationship to historical fact is complicated, are cited often enough in anthologies of hoaxes, attrapes, and mystifications. Relatively little space, however, has been devoted to extended analysis of historical works by Mérimée on pretenders or, until recently, to the memoirs of Vidocq, although new editions of the works of the latter as well as full-length scholarly studies in French have appeared in the last dozen or so years. Analysis of these cases is therefore most welcome, and particularly for English-language readers. Yet even so, the pages devoted to this part of the work of Mérimée offer more of a tease than a thorough investigation. In Chapter Two, the argument that the Faux Démétrius, a work of history about pretenders to the Russian throne, was meant as a political satire of Louis...