Scott Lee
Traces de l'excès. Essai sur la nouvelle philosophique de Balzac
Romantisme et modernités Series
Paris: Champion, 2002. Pp. 180. EUR 37.00

Reviewed by Anthony R. Pugh

The novellas and short stories that Balzac categorized as "philosophical" are less well known than the stories and novels of "manners" that represent his realistic fiction, generally set in nineteenth-century France. Scott Lee, in this tightly argued book, examines five of the nouvelles philosophiques in detail, and goes a long way to filling this gap in our awareness of Balzac's oeuvre.

The first thing to say is that Lee is an excellent reader. Faced with works that often seem to split into episodes of primary and secondary interest (many of them have narratives within narratives, the outer level appearing no more than a useful convention for justifying the drama that it frames), Lee gives careful attention to all the threads, and finds the most unexpected and convincing parallels between them. One reads all five stories with fresh understanding after following Lee's perceptive exposés. He is particularly adept at probing the motivation of the characters, scrutinizing the odd and unexplained, and finding, often through those parallels, an explanation of the vision which led Balzac to settle for the unexpected. Occasionally, however, he is guilty of a questionable reading of details.

The key to the labyrinth through which he guides us is in the word of the title, excès. Balzac's explanation of his distinction between manners and philosophy (études de moeurs/études philosophiques) is that the latter show people guided by an idea. This idée is really an idée fixe, something which drives the character to see and act in the light of a desire that deforms reality. This is the area that Lee explores with great skill. But though he never loses sight of the text, his explanations of what he finds there, leaning heavily on Paul de Man, Derrida, and Schehr, can lead us into abstractions that I for one found difficult to follow and to summarize.

Lee focuses on the gap between desire and realization, which leads the principal characters into an "excess" that finally destroys them. This thesis is obviously of prime importance to Lee, as it explains not only the title of his monograph, but the nonchronological order in which he treats his five chosen stories. He chooses the early nouvelles because they show the pattern in a concise form. The obsessive characters in these stories are also more violent than the obsessive people who inhabit the études de moeurs. Moreover, there is an element of reflection on the act of narration that is less apparent in the later novels.

Lee's originality can be illustrated from his opening chapter on Un drame au bord de la mer (A seaside drama). Here Lee notes the shocking contrast between the excessively Romantic tone of the opening, where the principal narrator (actually Louis Lambert) seeks in nature support for the promptings of his vivid imagination, and the brutal story recounted factually by the fisher. Lee finds the unity of the story in the different manifestations of desire, including the desire to tell a tale, shared by both the fisher and Louis himself, who sets it down in a letter to his uncle. Lee proceeds to an equally careful reading of the drama itself, bringing out the ambivalent quasi-incestuous relations within the family of the man who killed his son for ruining the honor of the family name. The fisher too has a desire, which Lee finds in subtle details of the text that indicate a love for Hermit's deceased wife. Obliged to sacrifice any thought of marriage in order to care for his aged father, the fisher relives his desire in telling the story. Louis is critical of the fisher's narrative skills, but they turn the story into a drama that profoundly affects him, not by the telling but by the thing told. Lee's reading enables him to fit every single detail into an overall interpretation. He sees in all levels of the story unsuccessful attempts to eradicate something (shame, depression, obsession, etc.), unsuccessful because of a mechanism of appropriation (of nature, of people); only the fisher, he argues, is free from it. The least sophisticated and educated of the characters, he is the one who knows how to "read" what is outside himself without confusing the different levels of reality. This is neat, but I find myself wondering why the fisher's telling of the tale (whose secret subtext Lee uncovers so well) should be seen as radically different from Lambert's method. It suits Lee's overall purpose to have a "neutral" reader in each story, but I am not convinced that his conclusions flow inevitably from the evidence he so expertly marshals.

Lee's use of the word 'read' suggests a link between the text and the duty of us, the readers. This becomes increasingly the focus of his own readings. An equally exhaustive analysis of Le chef d'oeuvre inconnu (The unknown masterpiece) leads him to note again the failure of excess (here the extravagant theorizing of Frenhofer, which inhibits him as creator), and to see in Porbus the ideal. But his final emphasis on this point seems to me to involve a deformation of Balzac's text; Lee says that "Porbus arrive à créer ... la figure parfaite: 'un pied délicieux, un pied vivant' ... le pied que peint, ou plutôt qu'écrit Porbus" ("Porbus manages to create ... the perfect figure: 'a delicious foot, a foot that is alive,' the foot that Porbus paints, or better, that Probus writes," 75). That last retraction is curious: Porbus recognizes the foot in Frenhofer's wild and confused painting, but it is surely Frenhofer who painted (created) it. That observation apart, it seems to me that the chapter on Le chef d'oeuvre inconnnu is the most successful of all, in the sense that the detailed reading, which is magnificent, suggests the conclusions with the minimum of theorizing from outside the text.

In Adieu, Lee again finds in the structural intricacy of the multilayered text countless suggestive leads to follow, and again he finds in one character the ideal "reader," untouched by the extravagant desire of the man at the centre of the story. Lee's point is that the main character's attempt to reconstruct the past (a figure of the realist novelist's attempt to represent reality) is driven by idealization. There were two witnesses, but one has blocked out all memory of it, and the extravagant attempt to get her to relive it fails. It is important for this thesis that we believe that Stéphanie's recognition of her former lover should be inauthentic. Once again, I fail to see how Balzac's very explicit text supports such a reading.

In the last two nouvelles considered, Lee argues that the question of realism gives way to the question of self-reference, texts which tackle head-on the problem of narrative. L'Auberge rouge (The Red Inn) is a perfect example to examine, as it revolves around the existence of stories implicating characters in the present, and the reliability of the stories being told and the degree of appropriation allowed by the character whose own story is still being lived (or told) are crucial issues. Melmoth réconcilié (Melmoth reconciled), finally, is so far removed from anything we could call realistic (it concerns Faustian pacts, a generation of men willing to barter their souls for immediate financial satisfaction) that it is usually treated as a "fantastic" story. Lee's reading gives full weight to the realistic elements, explains how they generate the fantasy, and once again reconciles the levels by his close attention to details of the text.

Scott Lee finds in Balzac characters who by excess of desire distort reality by projecting onto it their own ambitions and appropriating it, and others, placed in the margin, who illustrate how one can "read" correctly. In his conclusion, Lee draws inferences concerning the act of reading itself. He writes that the reader must "respecter le texte tout en essayant de réaliser à travers lui un certain désir, une certaine théorie quant à son fonctionnement" ("respect the text while attempting to realize through it a certain desire, a certain theory concerning the way it functions," 167), but he warns against "l'excès qui consiste à le subordonner à quelque théorie, ou désir, que ce soit" ("the excess which consists in subordinating it to any theory or desire," 16768). The text must not illustrate "un parti-pris, un prétexte à un désir de maîtrise, de totalisation" ('a prejudice, a pretext for a desire for mastery, for totalization," 168). What kind of reader is Lee himself? He is capable of reading with a discipline and an acuity that commands the greatest admiration, but in the way in which his readings are made to serve a different discourse, I wonder if he has not finally succumbed to the temptation he so perceptively denounces.