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University of Oklahoma

Review: [untitled]
Author(s): Herbert S. Gershman
Source: Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), pp. 69-70
Published by: University of Oklahoma
Stable URL:
Accessed: 20/03/2010 09:29

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PierreBarberis.Balzacet le mal du siecle. merely with fact but constantly searching

Contributiona une physiologiedu monde out underlyingmotives and significance,Bar-
moderne.I: 1799-1829.Une experiencede beris' work is an overwhelming ambitious
Vabsurde:alienationset prises de consci- undertakingand a massiveachievement,sev-
ence. II: 1830-1833. Une experience de enteen years in the accomplishment.Despite
Vabsurde:de la prise de consciencea Vex- its voluminouscontent,this two-volumestudy
pression. Paris. Gallimard. 1970. 1,990 coversonly the years 1799-1829and 1830-33,
pages, numberedcontinuously.55, 75 F. respectively,and constitutesthe initial panels
If Pierre Barberishas not written the defini- of a "quadriptyque,"which will eventually
tive work on Balzac, it is not for want of include two works now in preparation:"Le
trying. His 2,000-page opus entitled Balzac monde de Balzac"and "Mythesbalzaciens."
et le mal du siecle is far more extensive in Given fortitudeand staminaenough, we can
scope than its title would imply. "Le mal du look forwardto the appearancein its entire-
siecle . . . c'est l'insatisfactioneternelle."Be- ty of Pierre Barberis'mammothcontribution
ginning with this broadest of definitions, to Balzacianscholarship.
Barberisenlargesthe concept of "le mal du GretchenR. Besser
siecle" to embrace every aspect of life in LehmanCollege,CUNY
which the reality fails to match the dream;
he includes not only the changing literary
scene, but the entire historical, social, eco- Jean-ClaudeChevalier. Alcools d'Apolli-
nomic, and political backgroundof France naire: essai d'analyse des formes poeti-
during Balzac'slifetime. Consistentwith his ques. Paris. Lettres Modernes. 1970. 280
own pro-Marxistapproach,he sees "le mal du pages.
siecle" as a void, a cultural impoverishment Apollinaire is neither the best known nor
and moral regression inseparablefrom the the most obscurepoet of the twentieth cen-
ascendancyof bourgeois power and a con- tury, yet with the exceptionof Valeryhe has
comitantof the capitalistsystemin its infancy. probablyput throughthe mouli-grindermore
ProteanBalzac,who assumesas many forms than any of his predecessors,the best of
as there are critics to interprethim, becomes which are very honorably mentioned and
for Barberis an anti-bourgeoispro-revolu- put to use- Decaudin and Durry among
tionary whose active conception of liberty others.A word of cautionis perhapsin order,
and belief in the possibilityof constructinga especially given the somewhat ambiguous
more just and equitablesociety lead him to title: this is not an explication of all the
castigate and condemn middle-classvalues. poemsof Alcools,but ratheran attemptto see
This is not a book for the casualreaderof a structurewhere others have on occasion
Balzac;it will be appreciatedby only a small been contentto see a collection.What makes
coterieof fanaticalBalzacians.The specialist this specific work so valuable is its experi-
will not mind hacking his way through an mental nature. Chevalieris convinced,as is
all but impenetrablethicketof facts and foot- the reviewer,that certaininsights of modern
notes, to arriveat a treasureof new informa- linguistics can be used to elucidate texts
tion and insight. Among his rewardsfor per- which might otherwiseremainobscure.This
severancewill be a fascinatinginquiry into is not to deny- nor does he- the importance
the genesisand significanceof Balzac'syouth- of other data, biographicaland statistical,for
ful novels,with a perceptiveunscramblingof example,but the primaryconcernhere is the
themes that were subsequentlyto be devel- text, the poetic "messages,"the unity and
oped in the Comedie humaine. Barberis'ac- diversityof Alcools. The only problemwith
cess to unpublishedletters and manuscripts such an approachis that sufficientlinguistic
and his scrupulouscomparisonbetweenearly informationis unfortunatelynot yet available
and later stages of the same text provide a to permit a thorough analysis based on the
valuableclue to Balzac'schangingconception methods proposed. Chevalier must know
of his oeuvre. this, though he prudently refrains from
Thorough in its attention to detail, im- stressingit. So what we have here is a care-
peccablein its documentation,concernednot fully reasonedcommentaryon one of the most
influential works of poetry of this century, ences to Sartre's later views, to place the novel
using stylistic insights borrowed from Chom- in his intellectual evolution; the commentary
sky, Barthes, and even R.-L. Wagner; all closes with a number of cross-references to
this is combined with analytical techniques other relevant listed works.
and data drawn from the world of literary Relatively minor works are often given
criticism. Scherer is quoted on Mallarme, equally comprehensive treatment; indeed, a
Borges is not forgotten, nor the recently pub- number of brief and fairly inaccessible ones
lished anagrams of de Saussure. The author are reproduced in full at the appropriate
being extremely well read and the approach chronological point. Even more valuable,
highly eclectic, the readings are regularly new however, is a long appendix reproducing
and interesting, less often completely per- much more substantial and elusive works.
suasive. My major objection is that the very One notes particularly the entire text of the
eclecticism serves to disorient; Barthes is not early play "Bariona," and a fragment of Sar-
Durry who is surely not Breunig or Guiraud. tre's war diary (largely lost, alas,) which
And the occasional reference to A.-J. Greimas gives valuable insight into the composition of
and Co. is at best distracting. Many stylistic parts of Les chemins de la liberte (see BA
studies are ponderous in style and frivolous in 21:2, p. 180). This dynamic and readable
result. Chevalier suggests he is going to try bibliography, this "true portrait," as Sartre
to break the pattern, but somewhere along calls it in his Lettre-Preface, must be unique
the line he realized, given the state of the in its genre.
profession, that a compromise among the Rhiannon Goldthorpe
several approaches would be preferable. It Oxford
is. The end result, while not always easy read-
ing, is sufficiently valuable to merit the at-
tention of all serious scholars. Samuel Beckett. Le depeupleur. Paris.
Minuit. 1970. 55 pages.
Herbert S. Gershman Depeupleur, Assomoir, Inferno, you name it!
Washington University Beckett's brief prose piece depicts a world at
once primitive and hypermodern. The people
who dwell there live cramped in niches in
Michel Contat, Michel Rybalka. Les ecrits large cylinders connected by corridors, biding
de Sartre. Chronologie, bibliographie com- time on the ground or on ladders while they
mentee. Paris. Gallimard. 1970. 788 pages. seek places to lie down or sit. The whole
All students or dartre at whatever level will place is like an immense erector set and the
be deeply indebted to this monumental piece niche-dwellers seem to be in "durance" in a
of research. To be given a virtually exhaustive kind of cyclotron atmosphere. The beings
list of Sartre's writings and their various edi- themselves are dehumanized in this environ-
tions up to the end of 1969 is alone a matter ment and move about without apparent emo-
for gratitude; to have it associated with what tion or sex differentiation. Throughout my
amounts to an engrossing intellectual biog- reading of Beckett's book I was reminded of
raphy is a matter for rejoicing. Almost every Abner Dean's wonderful drawings of naked
reference is perceptively and economically people moving compulsively but aimlessly
situated not only in Sartre's own development, through drawingroom or landscape. That we
but often in the context of contemporary in- are dealing with a definition of Hell is evident
tellectual and political history. For instance, by the very nature of the place and the sense
where a particular work gave rise to contro- of eternal sameness and repetition, by the
versy, references, sometimes with quotations, similarity to such existential hells as that in
are given to the pronouncements of Sartre's Sartre's Huis-dos, and by the fact that Beck-
adversaries. ett mentions by name the author of our liter-
The entry for La nausee suggests the range ary proto-Inferno:
of commentary involved. Apart from the Ce sont paradoxalement ces sedentaires qui
purely bibliographical data, it includes Sartre's troublent le plus par leurs violences le calme du
priere d'inserer for the first edition, short cylindre. Quatriemement ceux qui ne cherchent
accounts of the novel's genesis (with refer- pas ou non-chercheursassis pour la plupart contre
ences enabling one to follow up this docu- le mur dans l'attitude qui arrachaa Dante un de
ses rares pales sourires.
mentation), of the circumstances of its pub-
lication, and (again with quotations) of its Within this Hell, second cousin to the
early critical reception. There follows a brief geodesic dome, people have different defini-
but suggestive attempt, with supporting refer- tions of the exit they have heard tell of but