Counter on Mas (2015)


Mas, Marion. Le Père Balzac: représentations de la paternité dans La Comédie humaine. Classiques Garnier, 2015, pp. 343, ISBN 978-2-8124-4625-2

Andrew J. Counter, University of Oxford

Fatherhood in the works of Honoré de Balzac has hardly suffered from a lack of critical attention. In this accomplished first book, however, Marion Mas offers stimulating and often fresh readings of some of the author’s most familiar works and themes. Sensibly abandoning the influential but ultimately repetitive psychoanalytic approach that for so long dominated accounts of the Balzacian family, Mas turns instead to the various intertexts that shaped his fictional fathers (and father figures), and emphasizes in particular his juridical intertexts—most obviously and importantly the Civil Code of 1804. In this, her work owes a particular debt to Michael Lucey’s The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality (2003; translated into French by Didier Éribon in 2008). Indeed, Mas situates her own work in dialogue not only with Lucey, but with the broader field of “law and literature,” a sub-discipline that remains predominantly if not exclusively Anglo-American in character. While a couple of gaps reveal her unfamiliarity with relevant work that has yet to be translated into French (reference to texts by Armine Kotin Mortimer, Michael Tilby, and others might have benefitted Mas’s accounts of inheritance in general and Ursule Mirouët in particular), this engagement with Anglophone scholars and methodologies is an encouraging sign, and promises much fruitful trans-Atlantic (and cross-Channel!) dialogue for the future.

Traditional accounts of paternity in Balzac, Mas claims, tend to identify two epochs in the author’s treatment of the theme; more precisely, they tend to locate a watershed in about 1840, after which the paternal archetype disappears or becomes marginalized, having dominated the author’s fictional output during the 1830s. (Most versions of this argument interpret the shift as inscribing within the fictional chronology of La Comédie humaine the conservative perception that “true” fatherhood died with the advent of the July Monarchy.) Mas’s book sets out to nuance this schema somewhat by proposing instead three phases: a preliminary phase from the juvenilia until about 1836 in which the author engages anxiously with the paternal archetypes of the past, in particular those of the eighteenth century; a parodic or caricatural period during which Balzac’s representations of fathers tend to lampoon the bourgeois values of post-July society; and a final phase in which he imagines a reorganization of the family—based, as Mas elegantly shows, on a “jurisprudence fictive” (301) that the author’s legal fictions offer as a challenge to a deficient Code. Though the book is structurally rather congested, with many levels of often otiose divisions and subdivisions, the thrust of the argument follows this sequence in a chronological arc that is clear enough, and ultimately persuasive.

Mas’s intertextual or contextualist approach requires a constant back-and-forth between Balzac’s texts, on the one hand, and external images, narratives, and ideologies—be they older or contemporaneous—of fatherhood, on the other. Yet Mas carefully avoids the dissipated, choppy effects this methodology can occasionally entail; instead, her arguments are consistently rooted in scrupulous and perceptive close readings of the novels. Her focus in these is less on the novels’ language (one might fussily wish for a little more consideration of language as such, especially in those sections dealing with the Code, where Balzac’s lexical borrowings seem essential to his purpose) than on what Mas calls his scénarisations, a concept that she fruitfully understands as encompassing both Balzac’s pseudo-pictorial tableaux, and his narrativizations, of fatherhood. Thus an early, excellent section considers Balzac’s use (and distortion) of the recurrent eighteenth-century artistic topos of the daughter-on-her-father’s-knee; while a later section considers how the plot of Ursule Mirouët presents in narrative an argument in favor of testamentary liberty. Her account of the fiction is thus as attentive to its internal dynamics, and to the author’s craft, as it is to the external discourses and sources she adduces; Mas succeeds where so many historicist critics fail, and never becomes mesmerized by her contexts, remaining faithful throughout to the brilliance of La Comédie humaine.

In short, this is a worthy, well-researched contribution to the field of Balzac studies, and will most certainly be welcomed by specialists. Yet it also deserves to be read, alongside Lucey’s Misfit, by the many scholars who are called upon to teach Balzac’s most popular novels of fatherhood—most obviously Le Père Goriot and La Cousine Bette—and hanker after a post- (or more accurately non-)psychoanalytic account of those novels’ intricate family dynamics.