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Introduction H onan~ de Balzac's Le Colonel Chabert (1832) begins with a curious digression. A hero of the Napoleonic Wars has recently returned to Restoration-era Paris only to discover that everyone believes he is dead. Distraught and disheveled, the man attempts to hire a lawyer to prove that he is in fact still alive and to help him recover his name, his fortune, and his wife. His pathetic appearance, however, fails to inspire confidenee in the lawyer's clerks. After taunting the would-be hero and sending him on his way, they interrupt the story with a debate over his true identity: "I'll bet everyone tickets to a spectacle that he was not a soldier ,"1 declares one of the clerks, Godeschal. This challenge then provokes a discussion of the stakes of the wager: "What theater will we go to?" one of the clerks asks. "To the Opera!" another responds with glee. Alarmed at the ruinous proposition of taking the whole office to the Opera, Godeschal tries to hedge his bet by defining his terms, pointing out that the word spectacle means more than just a theatrical performance: "What is a spectacle?" replies Godeschal. "Let's first establish the facts of the matter. What did I bet, gentlemen? a spectacle. What is a spectacle? Something you see" (32). r. "Ah! je parie un spectacle pour tout le monde qu'il n'a pas ete soldat." Honore de Balzac, "Le Colonel Chabert," Le Colonel Chabert suivi de trois nouvelles (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), 31. Subsequent quotations are cited in the text. I have elected to use the English word spectacle in my translation, rather than the more common show, to retain the resonance of the original French. All translations from the French throughout this book are my own unless otherwise specified. 2 The Spectacular Past The clerk's parody of a legal inquiry into the nature of spectacle fails to convince his comrades. "But in your system," one of them complains, "you could satisfy the bet in bringing us to see water flow under the Pont-Neuf" (32). Godeschal is then forced to admit that not everything that can be seen constitutes a spectacle, but only things "that one sees for money" (32). A commercial character distinguishes spectacles from sights that are merely visible. As Godeschal points out, however, such a definition includes even an inexpensive form of entertainment such as the Curtius wax display. The other clerks protest, but Godeschal defends his claim: "I'll bet a hundred francs [ ... ] that Curtius's display contains all the qualities that constitute a spectacle. It consists of a thing to see at different prices according to the place from which one looks" (33). With no further objections to this definition of the spectacle, the clerks finally return to their jobs and to the story: "To work, gentlemen!" (33) one of them finally declares. Scholars of literature have ignored this passage in a text that has otherwise been analyzed minutely, both as an exemplar of Balzac's early Realist style and as a commentary on the Restoration's effort to put the Revolutionary and Imperial past behind it, to "turn the page" of history.2 Godeschal 's musings on the spectacle seem to take the reader on a detour, away from the story of a man attempting to recover an identity lost amid the chaos of revolution and war and into the irrelevant realm of nineteenthcentury popular culture. This book is located at the intersection where Balzac's text goes astray-or rather at the point where the seemingly diverse threads of the narrative converge. As I show, the search for historical identity and knowledge about the past during and after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led to precisely such spectacles as the Curtius wax display discussed by Godeschal and his fellow clerks. Far from being a meaningless interruption in the narrative, the question "What is a spectacle?" lies at the heart of Chabert's attempt to recover his former self, as well as at the center of my inquiry into the invention of the modern historical imagination in nineteenth-century France. I began this book as an attempt to understand the references to history in fictions that have traditionally been called "Realist," such as Le Colonel Chabert.3 Why do certain works by Balzac and Stendhal depict 2. One such analysis can be found in the 1974 preface by Pierre Gascar to Balzac, Le Colonel Chabert (7-18). Gascar...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781501729836
Related ISBN
9780801442490
MARC Record
OCLC
1080549685
Pages
296
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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