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Chapter Five Balzac's Spectacular Revolution As Honore de Balzac set off to research details about the Breton countryside for his historical novel Les Chouans (1829), about the Counterrevolutionary uprising of the 1790S, it seems he saw himself embarking on a career as a French Walter Scott.1 In the initial preface Balzac wrote for the work in 1828, a fictional authorial persona named Victor Morillon looks to Scott as a model: "A novel by Sir Walter Scott fell into the hands of M. Victor Morillon, and he was delighted by it, having fully shared in the secrets of its composition."2 The novel described by this preface is promised to be the first in a series by Morillon that would apply Scott's technique of painting the picturesque details "of landscapes, costumes , and real people" to the "generous, melodious, cheerful, and warlike " (495) history of France. Such a project corresponds to Balzac's own ambition of producing a series of Romantic historical novels devoted to French history. This ambition was never realized. In 1830, just a year after the publication of Les Chouans, Balzac began publishing fiction set in the present, or in the not too distant past of the Restoration, that later scholars labeled Realist and that formed the bulk of La comedie humaine. The classic theorists of the historical novel, Louis Maigron and Georg Lukacs, have min1 . Les Chouans was the first novel Honore de Balzac published under his own name. His previous pseudonymous literary production was also composed almost entirely of Romantic historical fiction. The style of works such as L'heritiere de Birague (1822) and Falthurne (1823) is reminiscent of Walter Scott, even if at times it verges on parody or pastiche. 2. Honore de Balzac, Les Chouans (1829; reprint, Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 496. Subsequent quotations are cited in the text. I96 The Spectacular Past imized the importance of Balzac's shift from past to present, defining Balzacian Realism as the continuation of Scottian Romanticism. According to Lukacs, Balzac's Realist novels are essentially historical because they reveal an understanding of how the past affects the manners and morals of contemporary life.3 For Maigron, the Balzacian Realist novel is simply "the novel of Walter Scott emptied of its archaic substance and filled with modern material."4 In this chapter, I argue that despite certain commonalities between his Romanticism and Realism, Balzac's shift from writing about the past to writing about the present did indeed signify a turning point, not only for literary history, but also for the history of historical representation. What gets left out of traditional accounts of the neat filiation between Romanticism and Realism is the way that Balzac's post-I83o fictions call into question the spectacular forms of history that dominated the popular imagination of his time and that had given shape to his own work as recently as I829. In order to make my case, I look at Balzac's fictions before and after I 83o in relation to the events of that year. I show that the shift in his subject matter and style from Les Chouans to such texts as Adieu (I83o) and Le colonel Chabert (I832) relates not only to the events of the July Revolution , as many scholars have suggested, but also to contemporary developments in historical representation-in his early Realist texts, Balzac offers a critique of the spectacular past. Written at the very moment that Romantic dramas could be seen all over Paris, that Scott's novels were at their peak of popularity, and that the panorama was about to stage a comeback, Balzac's early Realist fictions could not have been more different from these forms of historical representation. Balzac's early Realism, I suggest, can best be defined not as a history of the present, as Lukacs and others would have it, or as an aesthetic of verisimilitude, as other scholars have advanced, but rather as a rejection of the way Romanticism viewed the past. The Novel as Spectacle: Les Chouans Balzac's pre-I 83o historical novel, Les Chouans, follows Scott's formula quite closely.5 Like Scott's Waverley (I8I4), set in the mid-eighteenth cen3 · In The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell (1937; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 ), Georg Lukacs writes, "This continuation of the historical novel, in the sense of a consciously historical conception of the present, is the great achievement of [ ... ]Balzac" (81). 4· Louis Maigron, Le roman historique al'epoque...


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