Bell on Bray (2019)

Patrick Bray. The Price of Literature. The French Novel’s Theoretical Turn. Northwestern UP, 2019, pp. 147, ISBN 9780810139336

The Price of Literature is written as an essay in the classic sense of the term: trying out a central set of ideas through readings of key novels written by five important post-Revolutionary French novelists—de Staël, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust. Patrick Bray takes a step back from normalized academic writing to assume a different authorial voice in part to make a point: literary studies in the university are in question, and one should not hesitate to perform the literary in order to highlight its particular discursive forms. 

Broadly speaking, Bray argues that the novel is the quintessential literary form that emerged in France after the French Revolution. Novelists had to confront the democratic broadening of a readership created by the fall of the Ancien Régime and could do so only by radically loosening the strictures of Aristotelian representation. The influence of Jacques Rancière’s thought is evident here. Rancière has argued that literary language, particularly in the novel, took on the task of democratizing the subjects of literature, that is, of redefining who could be the subject of fictions. Bray acknowledges his debt to Rancière, but charts his own path. If indeed the new regime of literature allows the novel to narrate and represent just about anything, then this new situation imposes on the novel the task of articulating a theory of itself.

The resulting dialectical back and forth between the novel and its own theory becomes a fundamental way of defining the novel as a literary form. The novel is hybrid and highly conscious of its own impossible struggle towards form. Since the notion of the literary is at the heart of Bray’s analysis, Germaine de Staël is a crucial first figure because of the foundational influence of her essay, De la littérature dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800). Staël situates literature at a point that straddles philosophy and imagination, somewhere between a carefully reflexive self-awareness and an attempt to generate sentiment and feeling by appealing to imagination. While at times Staël maintains a distinction between reflection and imagination and posits that they require different types of argument and presentation (philosophy on one side, literature on the other), at other times she blurs the line between them and reveals the impossibility of sustaining a strict distinction. Her two major novels, Delphine and Corinne, are works in which theory as reflexivity and fictional narrative as the generation of sentiment and imagination interact.

Bray turns next to Hugo’s great historical novel, Notre-Dame de Paris: 1482. He argues that Hugo often juxtaposes earlier historical moments with contemporary moments in an implicit theory of history that highlights points of rupture. If the end of the Middle Ages represents for Hugo a moment of crisis when the architecture of the cathedral can no longer encompass all meaning and belief, the post-Revolutionary dissolution of the Aristotelian structure of literary representation is a comparable moment of crisis for literature itself. Bray analyzes Hugo’s preface and the well-known chapter “Ceci tuera cela” in order to suggest how the novel attempts to give language to concepts.  Literary language liberates concepts, but it also exposes them to the disorder of emerging democratic struggles. Hence, for example, Hugo’s fascination with le peuple as a site of disorder intimately linked to the emerging culture of print and literacy.

The chapter on Balzac focuses strategically on La Peau de chagrin. The preface to the first edition of the novel begins with a claim that some literary works reflect the personal character of their author, while others differ radically from the author’s character. This potential confusion makes it quite impossible to distinguish between the ideas of the author and what Balzac calls “the fantasies of his works.” In other words, the perpetual conundrum of literary criticism is expressed on the threshold of La Comédie humaine: what is the relationship between the idea and its transformation into literary form? The magic animal skin at the heart of the novel, which grants wishes to its owner, is both an emblem of a theory of will and a magical talisman that blocks all theoretical explanation. The third part of the novel stages major scientific theories of the period, impressed into service by the main character in the novel to prevent the talisman from shrinking to nothing. The theories systematically fail, as if Balzac were insisting on the fact that approaching a novelistic work in search of a theory is a strategy that will run aground of the imaginative language of literature.

Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet provides Bray with the occasion to demonstrate the impossibility of a novel that would be devoted almost entirely to theoretical explorations. That is precisely what the eponymous brothers in the novel undertake, but they fail repeatedly to translate the theories gleaned from their voracious reading habit into any enduring narrative synthesis with a purchase on reality. Flaubert’s novel undercuts what literary critics seem to want to do: to claim that literature gives us a way of explaining the world. Bray focuses on the two chapters in Bouvard et Pécuchet devoted to literature and literary criticism. They portray the two brothers celebrating the experience of reading as delighting in the illusion created by the literary text. Ultimately, however, they must ask how one can judge the quality of a literary work, and a brief exchange abruptly ends in a tautology: taste is taste. In a fascinating extrapolation from this seemingly hilarious deduction by the brothers, Bray suggests that a model for democracy, broadly defined as a leveling of social categories, emerges surprisingly from this discussion.

Bray’s title, The Price of Literature, was taken from Proust, who in a passage of À la Recherche du temps perdu had remarked that leaving any commentary about the theory of the novel within novelistic narrative itself is akin to leaving the price tag on a purchased object. Bray is, of course, acutely aware that there is a considerable tradition of attempts to analyze theories of memory or of time in the Recherche. But that tradition seems to fly in the face of Proust’s own conception of his project—to create a narrator who is continually caught in contradictory conceptual perspectives without closure, and who ultimately must take the plunge into literary form.

Patrick Bray’s readings in The Price of Literature are deeply invested in the question of where literary studies as a field can be located within the present academic curriculum of the university. “Theory” over the past half century seemed to be a means for literary critics to participate in the exponential growth of scientific disciplines. But the price for committing too fully to theory has been to silence the complexity and disruptive nature of literary language. Patrick Bray invites us, on the contrary, to flaunt the literariness of the novel for what it really is: a clustering of discursive aporias through which readers must navigate tactfully, eavesdropping attentively on a tradition created by other readers, foregoing ambitions of mastery in favor of the rumor of literary voices.

David F. Bell
Duke University