Färnlöf on Larroux (2021)

Larroux, Guy. Le Récit réaliste et ses lieux. Classiques Garnier, 2021, pp. 352, ISBN: 978-2-406-11191-7.

Literary realism is one of the aesthetic currents most closely linked to questions of space, spatial representation, and the specificity of place. Because the field of reference for realistic prose includes the real world and its proper function, within a framework where this world itself contains the reasons for its own evolution (as Balzac was one of the first to claim), the depiction of concrete reality naturally becomes more important and more present in the narrative. Whether the author portrays Charles Bovary entering the classroom or Georges Duroy making his way through the masses on the streets of Paris, the character is necessarily understood partly—and sometimes even mostly—with regard to his or her relation to the place from or in which he/she evolves, all according to the metonymic-synecdotic “dominant” of realistic discourse (as theorized by Roman Jakobson).

The examination of different lieux in the realist narrative by Guy Larroux relies on this specific relationship between spaces, characters, plot, and poetics. He sets out to scrutinize its features in the writings of the canonical authors who represent the French realistic school, or are associated with it in some way (Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, Goncourt, Zola, Daudet, and Maupassant). The nineteen sections of this book, most of them presumably earlier studies regrouped here, are organized around four different kinds of lieux: the poetics of spatial representations (Lieux du texte), the sociology of territories (Territoires), orality and speech (Lieux de parole), and finally moral implications (Lieux de la morale). Thus the field of investigation is vast: roads, streets, small crowds, encounters, receptions, meetings, discussions, discourses, transitions, thresholds, salons, living rooms, hovels, etc. However, thanks to his text-centered approach and his recurring reliance on certain critics (Erving Hoffmann for territorial rituality; Mikhail Bakhtine for the chronotope; Roland Barthes, Philippe Hamon and Henri Mitterand for diverse socio-poetic and semiotic approaches in the French structuralist tradition), the essays in Larroux’s volume are well tied together. As a minor note, one could point out the difficulty of separating the four variations of lieux, and thus some sections of the book could potentially belong in another section (Balzac’s “micro-scenes” could be part of territories; Hugo’s chronotope of the road could be subsumed into either poetics or territories, etc.). Be that as it may, all four main topics certainly remain relevant to our understanding of realism.

Throughout his book, Larroux presents several critical analyses of space and realist prose. Of note among these are: the discussions about spatial rituals as described by Goffman, which clarify and deepen the plot in Balzac’s triptych Les Célibataires; the alternation between high and low spaces in Madame Bovary, from the portrait of characters to the overall worldview; the chronotopic imagination as it is linked to both the genre perspective and specific motives in Les Misérables; the presence, precision and function of sounds in La Fortune des Rougon; the study of the theme of death in Maupassant as a compositional feature, with its different placements and repercussions. These are but a few examples of the rich content of Le Récit réaliste et ses lieux, which should indicate the multi-layered dimension of the work, as well as reflect the broad scope of realist literature.

Larroux’s arguments are convincing; his examples precise and articulated with clarity. The absence of unnecessary jargon or convoluted sentences will certainly be appreciated by the reader. In addition, although Larroux enters into details about setting, plot, and character, he always makes sure to convey the context of the situations analyzed. This characteristic makes his work accessible to non-specialists of French realism and to students who might be discovering this genre. Another positive aspect is the wide range of texts studied in the book. Larroux displays an extensive knowledge of French realist prose, highlighting in particular the works of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. His book provides a collection of important features, texts and lieux to discover for students as well as for experts in the field.

Despite these excellent qualities, Larroux’s erudite work has its limitations. The critical stance that so clearly defines the direction taken by the author significantly reduces its theoretical and methodological scope. Larroux relies on important but somewhat older French critics (Barthes, Hamon, Mitterand, for example) and stays closely within that tradition. He includes few instances of recent or non-francophone criticism. The analyses consolidate established literary criticism in France rather than challenge it, looking back instead of looking forward. In addition, although sometimes present or briefly mentioned, the theoretical dimension is diminished, leaving most of the critical space to (an indeed very fine) textual commentary. To be fair, and to quote Ezra Pound, to “make it new” is not necessarily a guarantee for producing high quality research. However the rather traditional aspect of Larroux’s work is noteworthy.

Despite these minor criticisms, one cannot but recommend the reading of Larroux’s essays in this expertly edited volume, with an index of the authors and critics as well as specified bibliographies for each lieu. His style is most agreeable, the analyses are enlightening, the themes covered are relevant, as are indeed the authors studied. Although the work does not offer new ways of understanding realism in literature (and that is not Larroux’s purpose), it nonetheless constitutes an excellent synthesis of French realism, as well as French criticism of realism. Larroux’s volume is the perfect guide for a graduate student seeking to dive deeper into French realism as well as for any scholar who desires to refresh and broaden his or her knowledge of French realism.