Massol, Chantal. Une Poetique de l'enigme: Le Recit hermeneutique balzacien.
In Une Poetique de l'enigme: Le Recit hermeneutique balzacien, Chantal Massol probes the historical emergence and use of a poetics of the enigma in Balzac's works. This technique is prevalent in Balzac's stories, in which the suggestion of a secret instigates the hermeneutic impulse to decode. In the first third of the nineteenth century, the use of the undisclosed in prose slowly transforms from a physical quest to an intellectual inquiry, thus binding together the Romantic form and the modern narrative. Massol elaborates on the "poetique historique" and the elements that compose a recit a enigme in her reading of Balzac; she classifies this narrative especially in his novellas of the 1830s, though not limited to that genre or that era, as she traces in her chapter entitled "Questions d'ordre generique."
The recit a enigme surfaces in a variety of genres, including the gothic novel, the popular novel, the detective novel and the realist novel (34). Massol declares that the presence of the enigma as hint of a secret (49) in Balzac's work induces a dual process, where the enigma is composed simultaneously with the search for its truth. The recit a enigme tells the story from a retrospective point of view: the reader of Balzac's stories, along with the characters in them, investigates causality, a process that is thus what Jean-Claude Vareille calls "progressive-regressive" (qtd. in Massol 53). In Balzac's stories, characters and readers alike find themselves implicated in a narrative where both are in search of a lost narrative, "le recit d'une absence de recit" (65). The reconstruction of this lost story, fragmented because of the practice of retrospection, creates a dependence on the narrator in this hermeneutic activity. The recit a enigme is a product of the unconscious, and the secret pertains to identity; a power-play is activated by the narrator (perhaps unreliable in his accounts) and the other diegetic and metatextual actors of the story (110).
In the second part of her book, entitled "Questions d'ordre generique," Massol engages us in a cultural history, a presentation of epistemic models, a psychoanalytical assessment of the secret, and an in-depth study of the figure of the author and the role of origins. The introduction of an enigma presents us with a search for depth and a search for origins that actively involves all actors: novelist, narrator, character, and reader. There exists an "episteme de la profondeur" (127), where the inquiry into the puzzle leads to what Pierre Macherey terres a "litterature des profondeurs" (qtd. in Massol 125). Metaphors of modern science and medicine, of the subterranean decor, of archeology take all actors on a journey to find what is hidden beneath the surface. A gaine of show and tell contributes to a realistic conception of society and to a new way of writing of what is knowable (132-33). By taking part in this hermeneutic activity of reading, we are rewarded with knowledge: archeological, linguistic, detective, and scientific models. Knowledge of the secret, and its subsequent revealing and suppression, translate to a power exercised by the narrator and create an erotic dimension in the reading of the story. In turn, the desire on the part of the reader underscores a modern concept of the function of the "auteur-en-fuite" (176). The enigma laid out in Balzac's stories often is fixed in issues of origins, identity, and memory.
Massol takes up a number of these themes again in the third part of her book, entitled "Fonctions." Here she further analyzes through close readings the playful, socially critical, probing, and aesthetic parameters of the hermeneutics in Balzac's works. Although the exposition of ideas revisits many of the same issues (desire for knowledge, the issue of origins, the simultaneous unveiling and veiling, the emphasis on social codes), the reader is rewarded by Massol's close readings. Her most interesting contribution here is in the last part, dealing with aesthetics. Massol extends Dallenbach's "metaphore d'origine" (274), metaphysical in nature, to an analysis of the "Center" and the "Circle" in La Grande Breteche that is both topographical (places of secrets) and structural (the recit-cadre). She leads us into a fascinating reading of the role of fragments in the reconstruction of a whole, Cuvier's model of paleontology, the model of archeology and Dante's model of the sphere.
In the final and crowning part of her book, Massol canvasses the poetics of the enigmatic in close readings and elaborates on the "Center." The recit a enigme proposes a "fiction de totalite" (283). The "edifice-texte au centre inaccessible (ou peut-etre vide, ou inexistant)" (297), becomes a space of melancholy, where questions of origins attempt to be resolved, but seem inaccessible. Massol cleverly categorizes many of the "deceptive endings" as resisting resolution (La Grande Breteche), decision (Le Chefd'oeuvre inconnu), solving (La Peau de chagrin), expression (La Fille aux yeux d'or), and naming (Sarrasine). The poetics of the enigma expresses the romantic melancholy of the years 1830-48, where inquest of meaning leads to unclear answers. Following several tantalizing parts considering totalizing metaphors ("le corps a remembrer," "le liber mundi"), Massol concludes her book with a final chapter on the Sphinx, CEdipus, and the fundamental question of origins. The enigma of origins is propounded, recalling CEdipus's family origins and the Sphinx's positing of the enigma, however, in the case of Balzac's works, the enigma is not always resolved. The poetics of the enigma, as exposed in Balzac's works, is remarkably modern; the post-revolutionary world that Balzac gives us to read appears indecipherable, and the reader of Balzac, involved in the hunt, remains faced with the obscurity of the enigma (372).
Massol's work on the poetics of the enigma in Balzac's stories engages readers of Balzac brilliantly through her sophisticated and multi-layered appraisal of Balzac. She skillfully broaches a wide range of Balzac's work to highlight and validate the role of the enigma. Her incorporation of literary and cultural history gives substance to her close readings, and her approach to reading Balzac's novels by using the idea of the enigma as a point of departure intelligently illuminates how we are all involved in this game of decoding. This momentous work will not only prove to be of interest to scholars of Balzac, as it elucidates the recit a enigme and unveils the hermeneutic process to which we are held through this approach, but also to genre theorists.
Raina Uhden, Amherst College
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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