Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Balzac's Algeria: Realism and the Colonial

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Balzac's Algeria: Realism and the Colonial

Article excerpt

Characters in Balzac's La Comedie humaine seldom make it whole through a stint in Algeria. Philippe Bridau, the incurable reprobate of La Rabouilleuse (1842), joins the Algerian colonial campaign in search of a generalship--and gets decapitated for his troubles. The mediocre Oscar Husson of Un debut dans la vie (1842) finally returns to France after an Algerian career that costs him an arm. Johann Fischer, the naive instrument of Baron Hulot d'Ervy's Algerian machinations in La Cousine Bette (1846), commits suicide in an Oranian prison.

These lives and body parts cut short evoke the status in the Comedie humaine of Algeria itself. An absent setting that never attracts the Balzacian narrator's famously topographic eye, the nascent colony nonetheless registers on what might be called the work's proprioceptive map--that is, on the narrative's internal sense of its own disposition in space. Algeria lingers there with the ontological strangeness of something missing but still felt: a phantom limb, as it were, and a big one. It is fitting that the only Balzac story set in Algeria, Le Programme d'une jeune veuve (c. 1843), should appear among the fragments linked to the Comedie humaine but ultimately abandoned by Balzac. Cut from the whole, and yet a part of the whole, this most sustained incarnation of Balzac's Algeria epitomizes the fate elsewhere reserved in the Comedie humaine for a colony whose perception by the text only ever suggests an excision.

I say "colony" because Balzac was never interested in Algeria as anything else. And that, this essay will argue, has everything to do with the paradoxical nature of Algeria's place in the Comedie humaine. For all the critical ink spilled these last decades over the engagement with the colonial of the modern European novel, a vexed question remains: if without empire "there is no European novel as we know it" as Edward Said so provocatively declared (Culture and Imperialism 69), why are the colonies relegated to the margins in so many of the nineteenth century's great realist novels? Said himself proposed that the European novel, with its totalizing ambitions of spatial and narrative mastery, emanated from a same underlying impulse for mastery as the colonial project (69-71). This hypothesis impressively annexes even those texts in which the colonies do not appear: empire and the novel sharing a common psychosocial parentage, the novel could reinforce a colonial imperative without extensively figuring the colonies or even figuring them at all. Said partially subtracts France from his analysis on the grounds that for most of the nineteenth century empire enjoyed a tighter grip on the cultural imaginary in Britain than in France (71, 97-98). Yet Balzac's various assessments of France's Algerian project--more on these in a moment--suggest that, at least in the case of Algeria, France's destiny was for Balzac already bound up in substantive ways with colonial expansion.

Still the question persists: whither Balzac's Algeria? Said's conjecture about the imperialist foundation of the novel's claims to spatial and narrative mastery--claims never more evident than in the Comedie humaine's epic intention to render the entirety of French life--would locate in the Comedie humaine's Algerian references merely the most visible sign, like the tip of an iceberg, of an imperialist posture looming everywhere beneath the surface. And yet, Algeria's status in the Comedie humaine hints less at a literary project ever-expanding in ambition than atone whose North African reach observed certain self-imposed limits. To be sure, Algeria's emergence as a dimension of the Comedie humaine in its later volumes represents an expansion of the cycle's geography. The expansion, however, doubles as contraction, insofar as Algeria eludes the cartographic precision with which the Comedie humaine usually integrated new locales.

Understanding this ambiguous staging of the colonial is the task at hand--and one that clears a path, I think, for understanding the similar, century-long reticence by Balzac's realist inheritors to situate their novels in the colonies. …

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