Saturday, October 07, 2006

"The City as Novel in Balzac" by Italo Calvino


The enterprise which Balzac feels impelled to undertake when he starts to write Ferragus is a vast one: to turn a city into a novel; to represent its districts and streets as characters, each endowed with a personality totally different from the others; to summon up human figures and situations like spontaneous vegetation burgeoning from the pavements of this or that street, or as elements that provoke such a dramatic contrast with those streets that they cause a series of cataclysms; to ensure that in every changing minute the real protagonist is the living city, its biological continuity, the monster that is Paris.

... What now obsessed Balzac was a topographical epic about Paris, following the intuition that he had been the first to have of the city as language, as ideology, as something that conditions every thought, word and deed, where the streets 'by virtue of their appearance impress upon us certain notions which we are powerless to resist', the city as monstrous as a giant crustacean whose inhabitants are merely the limbs which propel it. Already for some years now Balzac had been publishing in journals sketches of city life and portraits of typical characters: but now he had the idea of organising this material into a kind of encyclopedia of Paris in which there was space for a mini treatise on following women in the streets, a genre sketch (worthy of Daumier) of passers-by caught in the rain, a survey of street vagabonds, an account of the grisette, and a register of the various kinds of language spoken (when Balzac's dialogues lose their usual rhetorical emphasis they are able to imitate the most fashionable phrases and neologisms, even down to reproducing the intonation of people's voices - for instance, when a streetseller claims that marabou feathers give to women's coiffure 'something airy, almost Ossianic and very much up to date'). To these exterior scenes he adds a similar range of interiors, from the squalid to the luxurious (with studied pictorial effects such as the vase of wallflowers in the widow Gruget's hovel). The description of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery and the labyrinthine bureaucracy connected with funerals rounds off the picture, so that the novel which had opened with the vision of Paris as a living organism closes on the horizon of the Parisian dead.

Balzac's History of the Thirteen turned into an atlas of the continent that is Paris. After Ferragus, he went on to write for different publishers two further stories in order to complete a trilogy. These are 2 novels which are very different from the first and from each other, but which have in common, apart from the fact that their protagonists turn out to be members of the mysterious club, the presence of long digressions adding other entries to his encyclopedia of Paris: La Duchesse de Langeais (a novel of passions written on an autobiographical impulse) offers in its second chapter a sociological study of the aristocracy of the Faubourg Saint-Germain; La Fille aux yeux d'or (which is much more important: one of the key texts in that line in French literature which starts with Sade and still continues today, down to, say, Bataille and Klossowski) opens with a kind of anthropological museum devoted to Parisians divided into their various social classes.

... The work's whole strength as a novel is supported and enhanced by being founded on the myth of the metropolis, a metropolis in which every character still appears to have a distinctive face, as in portraits by Ingres. The age of the anonymous crowd has not yet begun: and it really is a short period, those 20 years that separate Balzac and the apotheosis of the city in the novel, from Baudelaire and the apotheosis of the city in poetry. In order to offer a definition of that transition, two quotations will suffice, by readers from a century later, both arriving at an interest in such problems by different routes.

"Balzac discovered the big city as something bristling with mystery, and the sense which he always keeps alert is that of curiosity. This is his Muse. He is never either comic or tragic, simply curious. He immerses himself in a tangle of things but is always capable of sniffing out and promising us a mystery, and he sets about dismantling the whole machine bit by bit with keen, lively and in the end triumphant enthusiasm. Look at how he approaches new characters: he examines them up and down as though they were rare specimens, describing, sculpting, defining and commenting on them until he conveys all their individuality and guarantees us marvels. His conclusions, observations, tirades and bon mots, do not contain psychological truths, but the hunches and tricks of a presiding magistrate flailing away at the mystery which dammit must be cleared up. For this reason, when the quest to solve the mystery is at an end and - at the beginning or in the course of the book (never at the end because by then all is revealed, along with the mystery) - Balzac discourses on his own mystery complex with an enthusiasm that is at once sociological, psychological and lyrical, he is wonderful. See the opening of Ferragus or the beginning of the second part of Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes: here he is sublime. His work is the overture to Baudelaire."

The author of this passage was the young Cesare Pavese, writing in his diary on 13 October 1936.

Almost at the same time Walter Benjamin, in his essay on Baudelaire, writes a passage in which all one has to do is to substitute for Victor Hugo's name the even more appropriate one of Balzac, for Benjamin to develop and complete Pavese's point:

"One looks in vain, in Les Fleurs du mal or in Spleen de Paris for something analogous to those large frescoes of the city at which Victor Hugo excelled. Baudelaire decribes neither the people nor the city. And this very refusal allowed him to conjure up the one in the image of the other. His crowds are always those of the metropolis; his Paris is always overpopulated ... In Tableaux parisienes one can, almost always, sense the secret presence of the masses. When Baudelaire takes as his subject the morning dawning, there is in the deserted streets something of the 'swarming silence' which Hugo senses in Paris at night ... The masses were really the fluttering veil through which Baudelaire saw Paris."

From: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was one of the most important Italian fiction writers in the 20th century.

For the works of Balzac, go here.

For the works of Baudelaire, go here.

Image: Pont Neuf, from Balzac’s Paris.

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