Academic journal article Romance Notes

Letters, Lies, and Legible Urban Space in Balzac's Ferragus

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Letters, Lies, and Legible Urban Space in Balzac's Ferragus

Article excerpt

IN his groundbreaking study of nineteenth-century Paris, Christopher Prendergast notes that "problems of readability and interpretation ... are ... in varying degrees of severity, problems in the history of the city throughout the whole of the nineteenth century" (Prendergast 11). Nineteenthcentury Parisian urban spaces, and the particular social landscapes associated with them, refuse clear interpretation. Indeed, observers who sought to make sense of Paris, to define or distill its identity as a coherent stable whole, to catalogue and classify the city and its inhabitants, were confronted with a decentred, unstable, and multifaceted city. For writers interested in urban observation, "reading" or "writing" Paris was continuously problematized; the city, unsettled by accelerating circulation and social flux, seemed to elude understanding. Balzac's 1833 novel Ferragus exemplifies on several levels this problem of readability, by which I mean the ability to decipher and interpret, and to produce a coherent meaning. In this preeminently Parisian novel, the city on the threshold of modernity is dominated by mobility, both real and symbolic. It is a site not only of constant construction and accelerating traffic, but also of rapidly shifting social class structure and of an increased circulation of money and women, a place characterized by what Prendergast calls "a developing urban phenomenology of speed" (Prendergast 193). Paris, in Balzac's words a "monstrueuse merveille, etonnant assemblage de mouvements, de machine et de pensees, la ville aux cent mille romans," repeatedly defies its characters' attempts to "read" it (Balzac 79).

This interpretative difficulty, however, is not limited to the city's physical and social landscapes. The problem of legibility is brought to the fore when quintessentially readable objects--letters--are presented as unreadable spaces. These letters circulate throughout the city and play a central role in the narrative. How can we understand letters that resist interpretation against the backdrop of the modern city that refuses to be "read"? Reading and deciphering urban space and the numerous letters become the key activities in this plot, which follows the main male characters (Auguste de Maulincour and Jules Desmarets) as they attempt to unravel the central mystery of the novel, the relationship between Mme Jules and the eponymous Ferragus. Their readings and misreadings lead them, and the reader, on a circuitous route through the city's complex topography, and the maze created by the letters.

This short novel features six letters which arrive at crucial points in the narrative and usually reverse the course of novelistic events. While there are other legible spaces in the novel, from city walls "vetus d'affiches" (79) to the title character Ferragus himself whose status as an escaped criminal is literally branded upon his body, none of these is as central to the novel's overall focus on legibility as the letters. The majority of them function as obstacles in the characters' search for transparency and for knowledge. Rather than serving as sources of revelation and discovery, the letters in Ferragus resist interpretation and function as tools of deception and duplicity. The most readable objects thus paradoxically come to embody unreadability. The unreadable modern city and the misinterpreted letters serve as mirror images of each other, as the letter plot is mapped onto an urban space in flux. Through a complex interplay between reading and misreading of letters and urban space, the novel questions the transparency of language and points to an instability of writing as a vehicle of truth within this ostensibly realist text. The letters, I propose, function as signposts of Balzac's faltering trust in the ability of visible--indeed, written--signs, to convey a coherent meaning. I do not, of course, suggest that such faltering was "intentional." It is, however, striking that a narrative that purports to understand and explain the visible world through meticulous observation and analysis contains numerous moments of crisis of interpretation that stem from characters' failure to interpret a written word: here, a letter. …

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