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Balzac et la Revolution francaise: Aspects ideologiques et politiques.

Balzac et la Revolution francaise. Aspects ideologiques et politiques. By RENE-ALEXANDRE COURTEIX. Preface de Madeleine Ambriere. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 1997. xi+ 459 pp. 198 F.

As the magisterial socio-political surveys by Bernard Guyon, Pierre Barberis and Andre Wurmser recede into the past, it is refreshing that Rene-Alexandre Courteix should reappraise Balzac the political thinker by situating the Revolution at the centre of his works. Given Balzac's acknowledgement of 'l'enchevetrement des causes' (p. 58), no one individual can access these causes singlehandedly, even with a 'vision providentialiste' of history (p. 59). Thus although Courteix shows the Revolution to be a nodal point for Balzac, and, indeed, a trauma from which many of his characters never fully recover, its importance derives not just from its own violence but from the complexity of responses that violence provokes, and from the violence committed on all sides of the political spectrum. For example, the monarchy that preceded the Revolution was no less absolute than the Revolution itself (pp. 145, 216) and both chouans and bleus commit violence in the name of national unity to which they can both, from their different perspectives, legitimately lay claim. Although there is an irredeemable break between old and new regimes, (the) Revolution disturbingly represents both hiatus and repetition, reaching back into the eighteenth century and characterizing at least the first half of the nineteenth, hence the ambivalence of Balzac's responses: although rejecting 'l'ideologie egalitaire de la legislation revolutionnaire' (p. 111), he favours equal opportunity. While advocating Catholicism as restraint, 'sur l'egalite entre les individus, la religion catholique n'etait pas fondamentalement en contradiction avec la Revolution' (pp. 249-50). If Robespierre both contradicts and continues Catherine de Medicis, then, paradoxically, '[i]n abstracto, Balzac reconnait la monarchie et la republique comme les seuls regimes politiques authentiques' (p. 160).

To his credit, Courteix's own strongly structured narrative gives a clear, richly detailed picture of Balzac weaving through these revolutionary and counterrevolutionary positions. After exploring the causes of the Revolution, the decline of the nobility, of the clergy, the rise of the Tiers E tat, and the personality of Louis XVI, major sections cover equality, liberty, and fraternity (something of an afterthought: Lynn Hunt is regrettably not cited here), and the violences of the Terror, the chouans and the bleus. A third section treats 'les effets negatifs, les plus durables de la Revolution' (p. 240), from the relative respite offered by the first Empire (where permanent Revolution is however replaced by permanent war) to the failed 'Union et oubli' of Louis XVIII and Charles X, where renewed conflict between royalists and liberals culminates in the bourgeois victory of 1830. For Balzac, 1830 is both the inevitable outcome of the Revolution, since it marks the triumph of revolutionary individualism, and a betrayal of the Revolution's libertarian and egalitarian ideals: that individualism is exploited by a self-serving bourgeoisie. Perversely, 1789 thus prepares the defeat of those it promotes, leading to 'l'arrivee des barbares' in 1848 and to 'une Revolution a caractere universel sans limites dans le temps ou l'espace' (p. 416). Unlike Ronnie Butler in his Balzac and the French Revolution (London: Croom Helm, 1983) Courteix shows Balzac's indebtedness as well as his hostility to (the) Revolution and thus illuminates Balzac's dynamic, dialogic relationship with history.

<ADD> OWEN HEATHCOTE UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORD </ADD>
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Heathcote, Owen
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:550
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