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  • Komfortable Wüsten. Das Interieur in der Literatur des europäischen Realismus des 19. Jahrhunderts by Uta Schürmann
  • Frederick Betz
Komfortable Wüsten. Das Interieur in der Literatur des europäischen Realismus des 19. Jahrhunderts. Von Uta Schürmann. Köln: Böhlau, 2015. 233 Seiten + 18 s/w Abbildungen + 8 farbige Tafeln. €39,90.

Schürmann takes her title from the novel A rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose decadent hero, Des Esseintes, retreats from Paris to a suburban estate, where [End Page 658] he sequesters himself, surrounded by exotic “things” (plush furniture, drapes, books, art, jewels, perfumes, pets) he has obsessively collected in order to create “un désert confortable” far from the incessant “déluge de la sottise humaine” (quoted, 20). Huysmans’s aestheticizing novel is anti-naturalistic, but the literary creation of such a private space (Interieur) is typical of 19th-century Realism in response to the increasing urbanization of contemporary society.

Citing at the outset Théophile Gautier’s eccentric Parisian dandy and collector Tibertius (in La Toison d’or [1839])—who practically lives on his divan, propped up on pillows, and ignores the outside world—and Edouard Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola (1868)—sitting on an upholstered chair in front of a decorative screen and posing contemplatively, with an open book in hand, at his desk, which is covered with various objects, above which hang small oriental reproductions—Schürmann defines “das Interieur” accordingly as “ein bürgerlicher Rückzugsraum zur Selbstreflexion, außerdem ein Archiv der spurenbehafteten Dinge und eine stoffliche oder materiale Utopie, in der die Realien für eine Zeit- und Raumenthebung sorgen” (11). For the first time, “das Interieur” functions as a living space in contrast to the workplace, as Walter Benjamin notes in his Passagen-Werk, generally considered “eine Art Urtext des Interieurs” (12–13).

Schürmann’s study draws on art-historical and literary study of “das Interieur,” and on more recent “Dingtheorie” (cf. esp. Bill Brown, ed., Things, Chicago 2004), which focuses on the representation of objects and the materiality of texts (13). Bourgeois interiors were first artistically portrayed and invested with allegorical meaning in 17th-century Dutch genre paintings, whereas 19th-century interiors convey a fascination with the objects themselves, resulting from industrialization, mass production, and the desire of consumers to decorate their private spheres with various elegant or kitschy objects or reproductions. The furnishing of interiors produced in literary or artistic description new themes and narrative strategies, provoking in the reader questions, for example, about the marriage between the protagonists in Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895), or in the viewer of Menzel’s Pelzmantel auf einem Kanapee (1859), questions about the identity of the fur coat, or why she left it on the canopy, or where she has gone (15–17).

Such examples are not exceptional but rather illustrative of the rich portrayal of interiors in 19th-century literature and art. Before 1850, two authors in particular examined “das Interieur”: Balzac and Poe. In La fille aux yeux d’or (1834–35), which responded to Delacroix’s painting Les femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), Balzac introduces a love scene with detailed description of the interior to show the erotic effect of the exotic furnishings on the lovers. In his detective stories, e.g., “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842–43), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), Poe concerns himself with such clues (Spuren) as traces or surface impressions on furniture left behind in interiors. In his essay “The Philosophy of Furniture” (1840/45), Poe calls for interiors to be judged according to the same principles used for other art forms (17). Following Balzac’s “seelische” and Poe’s “bedrohliche” interiors, Schürmann cites different kinds of interiors, reflecting different social classes, in novels by Zola, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Fontane, and Edith Wharton (17–18).

All these literary interiors are not simply plot locations, but rather portray spaces that reveal narrative strategies of Realism, distinguished by an increased interest in [End Page 659] the surface of things, details, and impressions (Spuren). Schürmann examines primarily French, English, and...


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