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A Painterly View of Balzac

ISSUE:  Spring 1992
Balzacian Montage: Configuring La Comédie humaine. By Allan H. Pasco. Toronto. $45.00

One would hardly believe it possible to say something new about La Comédie humaine without taking a poststructuralist tack, and yet that is what Allan Pasco has done. This is one of the Balzacian critics hammering out arguments for the organization of the opus, as his title promises. While many modern readers deconstruct a fragmentary or scriptible Comédie humaine, and such strategies are undeniably persuasive, Pasco rises in opposition to an uncontrolled freedom to create: “Balzac designed his system to prevent the reader from creating in ways that would deviate from this design.” In the debate opposing the modern to the 19th-century Balzac, this reader stands squarely on the side of the 19th-century realists, without betraying the least narrow-mindedness about the modern reader’s view. Indeed, Pasco needs the poststructuralist achievement of a non-linear, anti-Aristotelian conception of literature to support his contention that La Comédie humaine is structured by a Gestalt. While acknowledging the obvious, that the vast work is incomplete, Pasco believes there are principles configuring the whole and boldly spells them out.

For a stunning opener, which will come as a jolt to casual readers of Balzac (and to some studious ones), Pasco contends that Balzac had a weak commitment to his plots. This is the first of six principles structuring the configuration: “Narration is subordinated to description, though description is usually illustrated by one or more narrations.” Pasco takes Balzac at his word: the stories of La Comédie Humaine are primarily tableaux, not plots; the Études are pictorial studies for the vast portrait of French society, or rooms in a gallery. Description is keyed, according to the second rule, by one or more central images: “Whether as concept or image, Balzac consistently sought some sort of principle that would unify all aspects of his works.” The third principle further specifies that “Images are linked to each other and to the whole by repetition”; several forms of repetition create “empty plots” or narrative armatures, two of which, Pasco will later show, are monsters.

Each work has an “appropriate place” in the total design, “a non-Aristotelian world, where causal and chronological sequences are subordinated to the entire configuration or Gestalt.” Thus Pasco’s fourth principle: “The unchronological arrangement of La Comédie humaine can be explained by the consistent esthetic vision of the entire work.” It needs to be said that Pasco believes “the author’s intention” is clear, and he does not hesitate to use the phrase. His “authorities” are Felix Davin, certain prefaces, and the many metaliterary comments that Balzac sprinkled throughout the stories; his evidence lies in the stories themselves. Though it does not realize a final meaning or closure, La Comédie humaine displays an intention of a unifying configuration. It’s up to the reader to find it.

The reader is helped by framing, according to the fifth principle: “Balzac’s works, often placed within an explicit frame, are always set within an implicit context, which is essential to the creation.” Pasco’s four workmanlike pages defining literary frames are too many, especially since they give little hint how he will intelligently broaden the term to encompass the entire social context of La Comédie humaine.

Envisioning the whole at every moment, Balzac left many directions for combining his fragments. Others have spoken of his several metaphors of constructions made from pieces, but Pasco has given a precise sense to the fragment: “For Balzac, all fragments trail thoughts of glory. They imply the whole from which they come and through which the genius, seer, magus can grasp the previous whole as well as the present one into which the fragment has been inserted.” Pasco rightly sees how this structural configuration is also metastructural: “Balzac developed a means of portraying disintegration, fragmentation, and destruction within a whole, a process within a picture.” The lack of obvious links reflects fragmented reality, and structural fragmentation represents the seeds of destruction Balzac saw in society. The final principle articulates this pictorial method and formulates the overarching rule: “Balzac was the master, not of collage . . .but of montage: he regularly constructed wholes from other wholes.” “Montage” is modern, but Balzac would have embraced the term to describe his “histoire complète, dont chaque chapitre eût été un roman, et chaque roman une époque” (“Avant-Propos,” 1:11). Hence his fluid definition of the book. The fine distinction between collage and montage is borne out in the very structure of Pasco’s book; the coherence of its six principles makes manifest the strength of this vision of Balzac.

I am not overly troubled by incompatibility between such a realistic apprehending of La Comédie humaine and various poststructural perspectives. All identify a level at which a common element is found. For Pasco, the unifier is description; for a Jean Paris or a Lucien Dällenbach, it is writing. For the former, unity arises in mimesis; for the latter, in semiosis. Thus where Paris would write, “L’inachèvement de La Comédie humaine précisément la sauve de toutes les récupérations, sémantiques, esthéthiques, idéologiques,” Pasco would claim on the contrary that his montage is not a recuperation; it merely follows the line that Balzac drew for his reader. That line is esthetic, and of course it is also ideological to the extent that an esthetic is ideological. It is not that Pasco would like to impose a final meaning, close a work that every reader recognizes as unclosed, or turn its multiplicity into a monad. It is that Balzac has repeatedly left unmistakable guides, making it possible for the reader to grasp potential final meanings, the closing upon images, or the unification of multiplicities. Yet this is not entirely a readerly view of Balzac, though it is certainly not a writerly one; let us say it is a painterly one.

The analysis of some 15 “representative stories” supports the theses of the opening chapter. In these études, which together produce the whole picture, Pasco cites a very wide range of published analyses of Balzac, springboards to his commentary. He reads Balzac as a broad body of work continually interpreted by others. I find a certain integrity in this strategy: Pasco is inspired to write in the same or a different vein; he would not think to suppress the connection of his ideas to this material. Clearly this is a reader for whom the texts and interpretations of Balzac are a source of pleasure. Except for the occasional straw man, conscientious, balanced, and scrupulous scholarship illustrates the principles.

In its totality, this is a convincing and satisfying view of Balzac. Finding pleasure in description is a “mature” reading style—is it not a truism that casual readers of Balzac think his descriptive passages boring and too long? Subordinating narration to description may astonish, but Allan Pasco proves his contention forcefully, and it is remarkable how, in the course of the analyses, the doctrine becomes self-evident.

Yet, while the argument for Balzac’s belief in a cohesive design cannot be faulted, there is a need to consider how his practice of writing approached that goal. When one recognizes that Balzac took Frenhofer’s risk in seeking perfect fidelity to his model and completeness in his product; when one applies to the entire Comédie humaine Balzac’s admission that “toutes les proportions ont été dépassées à l’exécution” (preface to Le Cabinet des Antiques, IV:961), then the urge to attend to the “exécution” above and beyond the intention is great indeed. Good readers study the canvas and save Balzac from Frenhofer’s fate. Whether the execution takes place on the level of mimesis or semiosis is for the individual reader to decide. Pasco decided for mimesis, and I see him at his best when he shows that mimesis also concerns how the stories reflect the processes of Balzac’s creation. He would show us wholeness when he finds in La Comédie humaine what only Frenhofer saw in his painting: a technique, with a succession and accumulation of moments. With Pasco’s guide, readers of Balzac will contemplate “the process evident only to readers who have followed his descriptions and to the artist himself,” as Pasco says of Frenhofer.

Readers will add Balzacian Montage to the canon of Balzac criticism. There are no radical revisions of the analyzed stories, but this book is never dull; its value resides in the integrity of its vision. This is surely not the last word on La Comédie humaine, nor does it pretend to an exhaustive consideration of its organization, but its authoritative, consistent, and logical discourse is instructive and constructive, and a pleasure to read.


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