- The Novel Map: Space and Subjectivity in Nineteenth-Century French Fiction by Patrick Bray
As Patrick Bray makes clear in the conclusion of his monograph, nineteenth-century literary works which attempted to “imagine a new, textual subjectivity, one that could renegotiate the relationship between the self and the oppressive spaces of a modern society” should be of crucial importance to twenty-first century readers in an age of big data, globalization and technologies that effectively reorder our sense of space and time (229). For him, Stendhal, Nerval, Sand, Zola and Proust wrote into their first-person narratives a perspective in which “the past, present and future coexist and where space is opened up to the infinite” (231). That Bray is able to tie so seamlessly his study of nineteenth-century novels into contemporary questions of spatiality and temporality is just one of the many reasons that this ambitious book is a valuable contribution to French Studies. [End Page 159]
Bray develops the eponymous critical term “novel map” in his study of subjectivity and space in nineteenth-century fiction, using it to name “any device in a narrative text that simulates a holistic image of the self occupying multiple times and spaces” (13). At the onset of the book he offers the example of the talisman in Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, a magic skin, on which Raphaël de Valentin believes himself able to envision his life: present, past and future. Bray shows how the “talisman affords new possibilities of conceptualizing the self in time and space—as a subject of space” (13). Over the course of ten subsequent chapters, Bray conceives of other such “novel maps”: Stendhal’s idealized view of Rome in the Vie de Henry Bru-lard (written in 1835–36, published posthumously); Zola’s genealogy of the Rougon-Macquart family; the “double text” of Proust’s entire À la recherche du temps perdu, both a novel about becoming a writer and the writer’s ultimate novel itself. Each of these creates “a synoptic and textual image of the self beyond the page and the present of writing” (229).
Before delving into his own readings of these five novelists, Bray carefully takes his reader through the history of French thought on subjectivity and on space, from Descartes and Rousseau to structuralism, post-structuralism, and the contemporary discipline of geographical information science. He offers, too, a persuasive justification for focusing his study on novels of the nineteenth century: this is a period, he suggests, during which notions of space and time were drastically transformed (with the Cassini and États-Majors maps, the advent of the railroad, Greenwich Mean Time, telegraphs) while the literary field was being altered by the rise of the novel. Even for those unacquainted with these archives, Bray’s overview is clear and relevant; it anchors the reader in the contexts from which the “novel maps” he studies emerge, while also showing where his own intervention fits into the history of thinking on this topic. Yet while Bray allocates significant space in his introduction to providing theoretical and historical contexts, he nevertheless privileges the potential of “literature alone [to convey] the experience of abandonment to language from insides, the defiance of an individual who realigns spatial boundaries to imagine a new world and new subjects” (11).
Bray’s analyses of these first-person narratives are impressive in scope: he offers new readings of key individual works while more generally tracing the development of the novel throughout the period in question. Beginning with Henri Beyle’s (Stendhal) Vie de Henry Brulard, a narrative “suspended between novel and autobiography” (22), Bray studies the mechanisms through which Stendhal achieves the fragile balance between the [End Page 160] author (Beyle) and a fictional character (Brulard), arguing that this hybrid text challenges the very project of autobiography. Noting distinct similarities between Stendhal and Nerval’s interest in simultaneously inscribing the subject in and writing the self out of a text, Bray reads in Voyage en Orient and Sylvie the “motif of the subject...