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About the Author
Franco Moretti is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he founded the Center for the Study of the Novel. He is the author of Signs Taken for Wonders, The Way of the World, Modern Epic, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, and Graphs, Maps, Trees.
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The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
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Chapter OneUMBERTO ECO
Excess and History in Hugo's Ninety-three
In 1902, a small review, L'Hermitage, asked two hundred French writers who their favorite poet was. André Gide replied, "Hugo, hélas!" Gide would have to go to great lengths in the years to come to explain his statement. In the present essay I am not particularly interested in this episode, since Gide was speaking of Hugo the poet, but his cry (of pain? disappointment? begrudging admiration?) weighs heavily on the shoulders of anyone who has ever been invited to judge Hugo the novelist-or even the author of a single novel. Such is the case with this revisitation of Ninety-three.
Alas (hélas!), however many shortcomings in the novel one can list and analyze, starting with its oratorical incontinence, the same defects appear splendid when we begin to delve into the wound with our scalpel. Like a worshiper of Bach and his disembodied, almost mental architecture, who discovers that Beethoven has achieved mightier tones than many more temperate harpsichords ever could-why fight the urge to surrender? Who could be immune to the power of the Fifth or Ninth Symphony?
Was Hugo the greatest French novelist of his century? With good reason you might prefer Stendhal, Balzac, orFlaubert. Reread Ninety-three, however, and you become enthralled by the power of excess. It is this attraction that we shall explore, in a book that, like Hugo's other novels, turns excess into a golden mean and thrills us through sheer excess. You could avoid entering a Pantagruelian feast, but once you are in the game, it makes no sense to recall your dietician's advice or to yearn for the delicate flavors of nouvelle cuisine. If you have the stomach to join in an orgy, the experience will be memorable. Otherwise it is better to leave immediately and fall asleep reading the aphorisms of an eighteenth-century gentleman. Hugo is not for the faint of heart. While the battle of the Hernani may be a belated form of Sturm und Drang, the shadow of that storm and stress was still illuminating the last romantic in 1874, the date of the novel's publication, though not of its gestation.
I am well aware that I love Hugo because of his sublime excessiveness, which I have celebrated elsewhere: Excess can transform even bad writing and banality into Wagnerian tempests. To explain the allure of a film like Casablanca, I have argued that while a single cliché produces kitsch; a hundred clichés, scattered around shamelessly, become epic. I once remarked that while the Count of Monte Cristo may be badly written (unlike other novels by Dumas, such as the Three Musketeers), redundant, and verbose, it is precisely because of these bad qualities, pushed beyond reasonable limits, that it borders on the sublime dynamic of Kantian memory and justifies its grip on the attention of millions of readers. Going back to Ninety-three, let us try to understand what is meant by excess. Before doing so, let me summarize the story that, at its heart, is elementary, sufficiently melodramatic, and, in the hands of an Italian librettist, could have produced the equivalent of, say, Tosca or Il Trovatore (but without the musical commentary that allows us to take the verses seriously).
It is the annus horribilis of the revolution. The Vendée has risen in revolt. An elderly aristocrat, a skilled warrior, the marquis of Lantenac, has come ashore to take command of the peasant masses, who are emerging from mysterious forests like demons, firing their weapons while saying the rosary. The revolution, which is expressed through the Convention, has sent its men against him. First comes Gauvain (Lantenac's nephew), a young aristocrat turned republican, of a feminine beauty, blazing with war yet also an angelic utopian who still hopes that the conflict can be settled through mercy and respect for one's enemy. Next is Cimourdain, whom we would call a police commissioner today: a priest as ruthless in his way as Lantenac, he is convinced that the only way to achieve social and political regeneration is through a bloodbath, and that today's pardoned hero is tomorrow's murderous enemy. Cimourdain, in yet another coincidence (melodrama has its demands), was once the tutor of the young Gauvain and loves him like a son. Hugo never conjures up a passion that is anything other than the total identification of a man-chaste because of his faith and later because of his revolutionary fervor-with spiritual fatherhood. But who knows? Cimourdain's passion is fierce, total, and carnally mystic.
In this struggle between revolution and reaction, Lantenac and Gavuain attempt to kill each other, clashing and fleeing in a spiral of nameless massacres. Yet this story of multiple horrors opens with a battalion of republican soldiers coming upon a starving widow and her three children. They decide to adopt the little ones on a radiant day in May. The children will later be captured by Lantenac, who shoots the mother and takes the little republican mascots hostage. The mother survives the execution and wanders about desperately looking for her children. The republicans fight to free the three innocent prisoners, who are locked in the gloomy medieval tower where Lantenac will later be attacked by Gauvain. Lantenac manages to escape through a secret passageway, but his followers set fire to the tower. With the children's lives hanging in the balance, the distraught mother reappears, and Lantenac (who undergoes a transfiguration from Satan into Lucifer, the guardian angel) reenters the tower, rescues the children, and brings them to safety, allowing himself to be captured by his enemies.
Cimourdain arranges for a trial right then and there, bringing in a guillotine for the occasion. In the meantime Gauvain wonders whether it is right to execute a man who has already paid for his errors through an act of generosity. He enters the prisoner's cell, where Lantenac reaffirms the rights of the throne and of the altar in a long monologue. In the end Gauvain allows him to escape and takes his place in the cell. When Cimourdain learns of this gesture, he has no choice but to put Gauvain on trial and cast the deciding vote for the death of the only person he has ever loved.
The recurrent motif of the three children accompanies the tormented adventures of Gauvain, who in the name of kindness and mercy submits to the punishment he has brought on himself. Both motifs cast a ray of hope on a future that can only be ushered in through human sacrifice. The entire army raises its voice, demanding grace for its commander, but to no avail. Although he is deeply moved, Cimourdain is a man who has dedicated his life to duty and law. He is the guardian of the revolutionary purity that has come to be identified with terror, or rather, with the Terror. Yet at the moment that Gauvain's head rolls into the basket, Cimourdain takes his own life with a pistol: "And those two souls, tragic sisters, took flight together, the shadow of the one blending with the light of the other."
* * *
Is that it? Hugo only wanted to make us weep? Not at all. My first observation has to be made in narratological rather than political terms. Today the repertory of every scholar of narrative structures (I promise to avoid erudite references to secondary theoretical variants) includes the idea that while there are indeed actors in a story, they are embodiments of "actants," narrative roles through which the actor goes, perhaps changing his function in the plot structure. For example, in a novel like The Betrothed, the forces of evil or human weakness can act against the forces of providence, which controls everyone's destinies, and an actor like the Unnamed One can suddenly change from being an Opponent to being a Helper. Hence, by comparison to actors tethered to an immutable actantial role, such as Don Rodrigo, on the one hand, and Fra Cristofero, on the other, the ambiguity of Don Abbondio makes sense: an earthenware crock in the midst of iron pots, he constantly drifts from one role to the other, ultimately making him seem worthy of our forgiveness.
By the time the elderly Hugo finally started to write the novel he had long contemplated (he had mentioned it some years earlier in the preface to the Man Who Laughs), his youthful political and ideological positions had undergone a profound change. As a young man he had expressed legitimist ideas and sympathized for the Vendée, seeing 1793 as a dark spot in the blue sky of 1789. He later shifted toward liberal and then socialist principles. After the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon, he gravitated toward socialist, democratic, and republican positions. In his 1841 admission speech to the French Academy, he paid homage to the Convention, "which broke the throne and saved the country ... which committed acts and outrages that we might detest and condemn, but which we must still admire." While he could not understand the Paris Commune, after the Restoration he fought for amnesty for the communards. The gestation and publication of Ninety-three coincide with his completed evolution toward more radical positions. To understand the Commune, he also had to justify the Terror. A long-standing opponent of the death penalty, he was mindful, nevertheless, of the reactionary lesson of an author he knew well, Joseph de Maistre: he knew that redemption and purification also come about through the horrors of human sacrifice.
Hugo's mentions de Maistre in book 1, chapter 4 of Les miserables, in the scene where Monsignor Myriel contemplates the guillotine:
He who sees it quakes with the most mysterious of tremblings.... The scaffold is a vision.... It seems a sort of being which had some sombre origin of which we can have no idea; one would say that this frame sees, that this machine understands, that this mechanism comprehends; that this wood, this iron, and these ropes have a will.... The scaffold becomes the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, and it drinks blood ... a spectre which seems to live with a kind of unspeakable life, drawn from all the death which it has wrought.
But in Ninety-three the guillotine, which will claim the life of the revolution's purest hero, passes from the side of death to the side of life. A symbol of the future in contrast to the gloomiest symbols of the past, it is erected in front of the Tourge, the stronghold where Lantenac is under siege. The tower condenses fifteen hundred years of feudal sins, a tough knot to untangle. Before it stands the guillotine, as pure as the blade that slices the knot. The guillotine was not born ex nihilo: it was fertilized by blood spilt for fifteen centuries on that same land. It arises from the depths of the earth, an unknown vindicator, and says to the tower, "I am your daughter." And the tower senses that the end is near. This was not a new analogy for Hugo. It recalls The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Frollo compares the printed book to the cathedral's towers and gargoyles: "Ceci tuera cela." While the guillotine is always and still a monster, in Ninety-three it takes the side of the future.
What do you call a ferocious, death-sowing monster that promises a better life? An oxymoron. Victor Brombert has commented on the many oxymora that populate the novel: rapacious angel, intimate disagreement, colossal sweetness, odiously helpful, terrible peacefulness, venerable innocents, tremendous misery, hell in full daybreak, and Lantenac himself, who at one point shifts from being an infernal Satan to being a celestial Lucifer. The oxymoron is "a rhetorical microcosm that affirms the substantially antithetical nature of the world," although Brombert emphasizes that the antitheses are ultimately resolved into a higher order. Ninety-three relates the story of a virtuous crime, a healing act of violence whose deep purposes must be understood for its episodes to be justified. Ninety-three aims to be not the story of what some men did but rather the story of what history forced those men to do, independently of their will, which is often fraught with contradictions. And the idea of those purposes justifies even the force ostensibly opposed to such purposes, the Vendée.
This leads us back to the relationship between small actors and actants in the novel. Each individual and object, from Marat to the guillotine, represents not so much itself as the great forces that are the true protagonists of the work. Cocteau once claimed that "Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo." He was exaggerating. Victor Hugo merely believed that he was God, or at least God's official interpreter, and every story he told tries to justify itself from God's perspective.
On every page Novantatré repeats that the true actants appearing on the stage of his novel are the people, the revolution. Behind the scenes, implacable, is God.
Whatever Hugo's God may be, it is always present in his narrative to explain the blood-drenched enigmas of history. He might never have written that everything real is rational, but he would have agreed that everything ideal is rational. Hugo always adopts a Hegelian tone, recognizing that history marches toward its own purposes, above and beyond the heads of actors who are condemned to personify its intents. Take, for example, the symphonic description of the battle of Waterloo in Les miserables. Unlike Stendhal, who describes the battle through the eyes of Fabrizio, a youth in the thick of it unable to comprehend what is happening, Hugo describes the battle through the eyes of God, who sees it from above. He knows that if Napoleon had known that beyond the ridge of the Mont-Saint-Jean plateau there was a cliff (which his scout failed to mention), Milhaud's cuirassiers would not have been defeated by the English Army; that if the shepherd boy who had guided Bülow had suggested a different route, the Prussian Army would not have arrived in time to decide the fate of the battle. But who cares? Once Hugo has described Waterloo as a first-rate battle won by a second-rate captain, who cares about the miscalculations of Napoleon (actor), the ignorance of Grouchy (actor)-who could have returned but did not-or the tricks, if any, of the actor Wellington?
This madness, this terror, this falling to ruins of the highest bravery which ever astonished history, can that be without cause? No. The shadow of an enormous right hand rests on Waterloo. It is the day of Destiny. A power above man controlled that day.... This disappearance of the great man was necessary for the advent of the great century. One, to whom there is no reply, took it in charge. The panic of heroes is explained. In the battle of Waterloo, there is more than a cloud, there is a meteor. God passed over it. (296)
God also passes through the Vendée and the Convention, gradually taking on the actorial guise of fierce Bushman peasants or aristocrats converted to égalité, shadowy nocturnal heroes like Cimourdain or solar ones like Gauvain. At the rational level, Hugo saw the Vendée as a mistake, but since it was a deliberate mistake held in check by a providential (or fatal) plan, he was fascinated by it and made it into an epic. He is skeptical, sarcastic, and petty about the small men that populated the Convention, but as a group he saw them as giants. At the very least, he gives us a giant image of the Convention.
Excerpted from The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
On The Novel ix
2.1. THE LONG DURATION
The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology by THOMAS PAVEL 3
Epic, Novel by MASSIMO FUSILLO 32
The Poetry of Mediocrity by SYLVIE THOREL-CAILLETEAU 64
The Experiments of Time: Providence and Realism by FREDRIC JAMESON 95
Massimo Fusillo, Aethiopika (Heliodorus, Third or Fourth Century) 131Abdelfattah Kilito, Maqamat (Hamadhan FD, Late Tenth Century) 138Francisco Rico, Lazarillo de Tormes ("L zaro de Tormes," circa 1553) 146Thomas DiPiero, Le Grand Cyrus (Madeleine de Scud ry, 1649-1653) 152Perry Anderson, Persian Letters (Montesquieu, 1721) 161Ian Duncan, Waverley (Walter Scott, 1814) 173Paolo Tortonese, The Mysteries of Paris (Eug ne Sue, 1842-1843) 181Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, The War of the Worlds (H. G. Wells, 1898) 189Ambrosio Fornet, The Kingdom of This World (Alejo Carpentier, 1949) 196
2.2. WRITING PROSE
Forms of the Supernatural in Narrative by FRANCESCO ORLANDO 207
The Prose of the World by MICHAL PELED GINSBURG AND LORRI G. NANDREA 244
Excess and History in Hugo's Ninety-three by UMBERTO ECO 274
Minor Characters by ALEX WOLOCH 295
324Toward a Database of Novelistic Topoi by NATHALIE FERRAND 324
2.3. THEMES, FIGURES
The Fiction of Bourgeois Morality and the Paradox of Individualism by NANCY ARMSTRONG 349
The Death of Lucien de Rubempr by A. S. BYATT 389
A Portrait of the Artist as a Social Climber: Upward Mobility in the Novel by BRUCE ROBBINS 409
A Businessman in Love by FREDRIC JAMESON 436
Readings: Narrating Politics
Benedict Anderson, Max Havelaar (Multatuli, 1860) 449Luisa Villa, The Tiger of Malaysia (Emilio Salgari, 1883-1884) 463Edoarda Masi, Ah Q (Lu Hs n, 1921-1922) 469Thomas Lahusen, Cement (Fedor Gladkov, 1925) 476Piergiorgio Bellocchio, A Private Matter (Beppe Fenoglio, 1963) 483Simon Gikandi, Arrow of God (Chinua Achebe, 1964) 489Jos Miguel Oviedo, Conversation in the Cathedral (Mario Vargas Llosa, 1969) 497Klaus R. Scherpe, The Aesthetics of Resistance (Peter Weiss, 1975-1981) 503
Readings: The Sacrifice of the Heroine
April Alliston, Aloisa and Melliora (Love in Excess, Eliza Haywood, 1719-1720) 515Juliet Mitchell, Natasha and H l ne (War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1863-1869) 534Sylvie Thorel-Cailleteau, Nana (Nana, mile Zola, 1880) 541Valentine Cunningham, Tess (Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891) 548Peter Madsen, Elsie (The Dangerous Age, Karin Micha lis, 1910) 559
2.4. S PACE AND STORY
Over-writing as Un-writing: Descriptions, World-Making, and Novelistic Time by MIEKE BAL 571
The Roads of the Novel by HANS ULRICH GUMBRECHT 611
The Chronotopes of the Sea by MARGARET COHEN 647
667Torn Space: James Joyce's Ulysses by PHILIP FISHER 667
Readings: The New Metropolis
Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai (Midnight, Mao Dun, 1932) 687Ernesto Franco, Buenos Aires (Ad n Buenosayres, Leopoldo Marechal, 1948) 693Ernest Emenyonu, Lagos (People of the City, Cyprian Ekwensi, 1954) 700Roger Allen, Cairo (The Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz, 1956-1957) 706Ardis L. Nelson, Havana (Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, 1967) 714Homi Bhabha, Bombay (Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie, 1981) 721Sibel Irzik, Istanbul (The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk, 1990) 728
2.5. UNCERTAIN BOUNDARIES
Form and Chance: The German Novella by ANDREAS GAILUS 739
Inconceivable History: Storytelling as Hyperphasia and Disavowal by FRANCIS MULHERN 777
Innovation: Notes on Nihilism and the Aesthetics of the Novel by JOHN BRENKMAN 808
Narrative Literature in the Turing Universe by ESPEN AARSETH 839
Readings: A Century of Experiments
871Andreina Lavagetto, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910) 871Myra Jehlen, The Making of Americans (Gertrude Stein, 1925) 880Ann Banfield, Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) 888Jos Luiz Passos, Macuna ma (M rio de Andrade, 1928) 896Seamus Deane, Finnegans Wake ( James Joyce, 1939) 906Declan Kiberd, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (Samuel Beckett, 1951-1953) 912Beatriz Sarlo, Hopscotch ( Julio Cort zar, 1963) 919Ursula K. Heise, Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon, 1973) 926
Author Index 937
Works Cited Index 944