Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Realism and Trompe-L'oeil in le Pere Goriot

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Realism and Trompe-L'oeil in le Pere Goriot

Article excerpt



As epigraph to the first edition to Le Pere Goriot Balzac supplied a version of the Liar Paradox: "All is true" quoth the fiction.' This paradox, of course, lies at the heart of most realist manifestos, like the Goncourts' "Le public aime les romans faux: ce roman est un roman vrai" (6), or Dickens's "It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl is natural or unnatural, probable or improbable.... IT IS TRUE" to which he adds "It is emphatically God's truth" (lxv). In his address to the reader near the beginning of the novel Balzac repeats the fictional truth-claim which, like Dickens, he hedges by removing it from an empirical to an occult location: "Ah! sachez-le: ce drame n'est ni une fiction, ni un roman. All is true, il est si veritable, que chacun peut en reconnaitre les elements chez soi, dans son coeur peut-etre." (2) The "truth" being hidden, only the fictionist can produce a version of it, exposing in the process those private and communal fictions that wear for us, characters in the social drama, the appearance of truth. The italicized claim, says Victor Brombert, is a "signal of absolute referentiality. Yet it is precisely at this point that all is inverted and converted" (21). Le vrai in Balzac, Isabelle Michelot suggests, is achieved pragmatically by means of an opposing fiction (342). In the phrase "Comedie Humaine," drama serves as vehicle, "truth" as tenor, of a metaphor supporting Peter Brooks's comparison of Balzac's "truth" with that of Gustave Courbet's "allegorie reelle" (Realist Vision 92).

The novel proceeds with an air of inclusiveness characteristic of realism, selecting as it goes the kinds of detail that express the multiplicity, the darkness, the mutability of the lower or phenomenal world. (Thus across the whole range of "realistic" art, from Dutch genre painting to film noir, darkness predominates over light, "low" over "high," with a kind of Platonic consistency that would turn the physical image into a metaphysical symbol.) The approach to the Maison Vauquer requires a physical descent ("Elle est situee dans le bas de la Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve"), the elements of whose description are repeated in a passage that converts place into picture, literal into allegorical, phenomenal into ideal truth:

   La rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve surtout est comme un cadre de bronze,
   le seul qui convienne a ce recit, auquel on ne saurait trop
   preparer l'intelligence par des couleurs brunes, par des idees
   graves; ainsi que, de marche en marche, le jour diminue et le chant
   du conducteur se creuse, alors que voyageur descend aux Catacombes.

The framing of the pension initiates its conversion into a synchronic model of Balzac's world, containing "les elements d'une societe complete" (62). The reader's exposure to this world of symbols, the work's diachronic form, is allegorized in turn as a descent into the underworld. The narrator is realism's Virgil, whose personal voice fades for the moment, leaving its Dante in the presence of a seemingly unmediated reality.

What the passage mediates in fact is the relationship between concrete phenomenon and abstract idea. The descent motif imitates the process by which realistic notation is converted into allegory. It confers on the narrative a factitious ontology in which narrator and reader as spectators share a transtextual mode of existence antithetical to that of the naturalistic figures framed and suspended between them. The ontological fiction produces an impression of depth on the flat field of the text. Reader ("vous qui tenez ce livre d'une main blanche" [50]) and narrator, tourist and guide, framed picture and inhabitants of the Maison Vauquer are all represented on the same plane notwithstanding the impression of tactile space that pages of insistent realism have labored to establish. The "unity of a milieu" claimed for these pages (Auerbach 416) must therefore be seen as suppositious: it is the unity merely of a formal composition, a narrated "picture" of men, women, and things to which the illusionist (Maupassant's word for realist [16]) has given the appearance of "les personnes et la representation materielle qu'ils donnent de leur pensee" (Balzac, "Avant-Propos" CH 1: 9). …

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