Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Judith Lyon-Caen

Lyon-Caen, Judith. La Lecture et la Vie: Les usages du roman au temps de Balzac. Tallandier: Paris, 2006.

In her introduction, Lyon-Caen positions her project through reference to two of the leading lights of French intellectual history—Pierre Rosanvallon and Roger Chartier. Chartier, who was on the examination committee for the thèse from which the present volume developed, ‘justifies’ the history of reading. It seems to me that her engagement with Rosanvallon is more ambiguous. On one level it is clear enough: anyone working on the political-cultural universe of France between the first and second Empires must take up some position in regard to his work. Lyon-Caen at least rhetorically begins her investigations from a remark Rosanvallon makes in Le Peuple introuvable about how during the July Monarchy, the novel served the same function as the discipline of sociology later would. La Lecture et la Vie is presented as an extended gloss on this quip. (Is it, indeed, the fate of the historian to spend a decade testing and giving nuance to the casual bon mot of the great thinker? I hope not.) The conclusions of her book, however, at least in my reading, suggest a politics that takes the perception of successful self-representation a great deal more seriously than it is my impression that Rosanvallon does. All this should be taken with the caveat that I don’t know the work of either senior scholar well enough, really, to be justified in what I say.

At any rate, the book is excellent. The ambitious goal is to recover something of how readers read novels in the 1830s and ‘40s, that is, in the subtitle, to understand the usages of Balzac’s novels. This is done in a number of ways, but above all by close reading of archives of letters sent by ‘average’ readers to writers, in particular Balzac and Eugene Sue. Lyon-Caen is well aware of the partial, pre-selected nature of her archive, and supplements it with extensive critical reading, historical background from the secondary literature, and theoretical finesse. Her central argument is that readers of Balzac and Sue used the novels to decipher the social confusion and dislocation brought on by industrialization, juridical equality, and any number of other socio-political changes over the previous generation. The letters, she demonstrates, should be read as attempts to carry through the projects of social description, social comprehension, initiated by the novelists. The reader reads, and makes the language his, or more often her, own. Such were the usages of the novel. (Page 153 has an especially nice summation of this position, but it is reiterated throughout).

The book marches along at a stately pace, unfolding in a leisurely, somewhat repetitive manner. The first chapter reconstructs debates and polemics around the novel, and especially the roman feuilleton among critics of the period. The next three chapters dive into the archive of letters, approaching it from different angles—in contrast to earlier, Rousseauian reader-to-writer letters, in terms of the reader’s evaluation of the truth-value of novels in describing the social world, and finally, the effect of novels on reader’s experiences of their own location in that world. The final chapter concerns itself first with the aspirations of, or provoked by, the novel in the social world and second with the controversy ignited by Eugene Sue’s Mystères de Paris.

Indeed Lyon-Caen puts forward this book as a privileged ‘moment’ in the period. According to her, there is a long-durée history of the ‘romantic’ novel, in which the reader has an intimate and intense relationship to the text and author, and regards the text as a sort of mirror. The ‘30s and ‘40s are a special period in which the author is perceived to hold the mirror of the novel not to the face of the reader, as did Rousseau, but rather to a social universe which seemed more complex and inscrutable, more dangerous and unstable, than ever before. That is, in these years readers read in order to understand society and their place in it—in order to think society, and their place in it—in a way usually applied to the individual. The novel did indeed, as Rosanvallon said, have the place sociology would take. Mystères is special, Lyon-Caen says, because Sue integrated the responses of his readers, their aspirations and visions, into this novel in a particular way. It had an ‘authentically pluralist’ political message. Although I am convinced that Lyon-Caen is correct in her general argument about the mimetic function of the novel for its readers, her claims for Mystères seem somewhat overblown.

There were temporal limits to this form of novelistic experience. The Restoration was too aggressive about censoring the press to allow for the kinds of stories told by the roman feuilleton. Further, of course, a certain form of print culture—nascent mass culture, cheap newspapers—was necessary. With 1848, things changed radically. During the open period of the 3rd Republic, all the newspapers printed explicitly political material. The censorship of the 2nd Empire and the advent of the penny-press effectively split literature into entertainment and art, forever putting an end to the kind of reader-writer interaction Lyon-Caen investigates.

As I have said, I am essentially convinced by Lyon-Caen’s central argument. In the last part of the book, and in the conclusion, she pushes the further view that the novels of Balzac and Sue (among other less important writers) were avenues for the otherwise frustrated democratic aspirations of the great mass of people who remained more or less excluded from the political process. This seems to me to be a conceptual leap, and one that is connected to an argument she makes about women reading Balzac (see in particular pgs 228-230). She says, with much evidence, that women who read Balzac found characters with whom they could identify, and thereby ways to articulate their particular experiences, that is, being a widow, a precipitous drop in rank, supporting a family...this sort of thing. Lyon-Caen insists, for reasons that probably have to do with polemics within Balzac scholarship of which I’m unaware, that the form of this was an appreciation or validation of individual experience through identification with a type; it was not, by any means, the subsumption of each woman’s experience into a universal ‘feminine condition.’

This stand is relevant to the larger issue of the social-political use of the novel because it relies on the idea of type as a way to articulate individuality. Rosanvallon’s treatment of Guizot and the doctrinaires, in Le Moment Guizot, suggests that those who dominated the July Monarchy would have been quite comfortable with this formulation. Society is an organism; therefore individuals may be—ought to be—classified according to their function. This is extremely provisional. I should go back and look at Rosanvallon. This is an avenue, however, to explore further. Types, certainly, are literary. Function, on the other hand, sounds quite sociological to me. How would Guizot have expressed it? No doubt he disapproved of these novels, though I seem to remember her citing Royer-Collard, somewhere, in favor of the roman feuilleton.

A final objection, then, to La Lecture et la Vie: it lacks any sort of index.

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