Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions perdues may not seem like a novel of the “rue.” There is no highway on which gallivant the beat generation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, no boulevards on which the urban flâneurs found their place in Charles Baudelaire’s “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” no Arcade hallways where those dandies would suffer Walter Benjamin’s capitalist critique. And yet this novel turns on the road, one modern and mercantile, on which and by which Lucien, our poet-ingénue, drives forth his plot. His illusions concerning literary grandeur can only be lost once he has placed them in motion, departing provincial Angoulême for the Parisian center, then returning, then departing once again.
Balzac’s road is neither narrative motor nor allegorical object, no mere member of the codes Roland Barthes would call “proairetic” and “symbolic” when diagramming his story Sarrasine. No, the Barthesian code of Balzac’s road is the “gnomic”: the cultural fabric underpinning the text, the tissue of its social era. For the very same road linked center and periphery for the author, letting him first move from Vendôme to Paris, then from Paris to Angoulême.
It is thanks to the road, to the very infrastructure of movement, that Balzac became a sociologist avant-la-lettre: a 33-novel-penning “secrétaire” of his era, crystallizing the mores at each axis of the Hexagon. In Illusions perdues, his ear for the linguistic ticks of Angoulême, his observation that its habitants pronounce “vers” instead as “verse,” prefigures the works of Émile Durkheim, Ferdinand de Saussure, even William Labov. Like those who would work in their stead, Balzac was constantly unseating his own binaries. Angoulême, he cautions, should really be separated into Angoulême-proper and its upstart, the nouveau-riche Houmeau. He knows, after all, that few readers called either town their home: “Ces paroles doivent paraître obscures, à ceux qui n’ont pas encore observé les mœurs particulières aux cités divisées en ville haute et ville basse.”
Over 150 years and several Republics later, contemporary French writer Édouard Louis has taken up the same polarity between the metropolis and its rural environs. His sociological literature travels a different road—he calls it a “trajet”—translating and transmitting the mores of his hometown Hallencourt to what, for better or worse, is a deeply cosmopolitan readership. Louis’ two novels, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule and Histoire de la Violence pose a harsher version of the question haunting La Comédie humaine : What divides a nation? What social savagery, what injustice makes someone flee—and can that violence be healed?
For Louis, the primary violence is the inability to pursue a trajet
For Louis, the primary violence is the lack of flight, the inability to pursue a trajet. The narrator of Histoire de la violence arrives at this conclusion by noting the coherence between his condition and that of Temple Drake, the rape victim in Sanctuary by William Faulkner. “Comme si la violence de l’enfermement, la violence de la géographie était première,” he observes, “et que les autres formes de violence ne faisaient que découler de celle-ci, n’en étaient que des conséquences, des excroissances, comme si la géographie était une histoire qui se déroulait sans nous, hors de nous.” Louis, though, refused to let geography play out beyond his control, escaping first to Amiens then to Paris. And though his narrator-analogs are propelled not by Lucien’s aspirations but by desperation, their ends are of a piece. En finir avec Eddy’s epilogue deconstructs any latent fantasies by deconstructing the novel’s very form—constant rejection at Paris’ L’École Normale Supérieure is recounted in fragmented sequences by a dissociating self.
Like Lucien, Louis is made canny by the road, the curricula at first Picardie then the ENS arming him with the sociological tools he needs to place his own habitus in a distinctive, polarized field. Anecdotes blend into deterministic chronicles when his narrator realizes the stories his mother “appelait donc des erreurs n’étaient en réalité que la plus parfaite expression du déroulement normal des choses,” that they were nothing but the repetition of a script written long before her birth. But learning the normalizing modes of the center, reveals the codes for Louis’ own conquest. The strategy: Place sociology back in literature; make Pierre Bourdieu speak through his mother speaking through him.
That success—one that has come to far surpass the meager publishings of Balzac’s Lucien—means nothing back in Hallencourt. For Louis, capital at the center only depreciates as it takes the road back to the periphery. At the close of the first section of En finir avec Eddy, a stunning two-page parenthetical passage recounts that return. No words come to the narrator as he confronts his own habitus in flux. He is paralyzed, unable to describe the odor of the surroundings; so horrified by a glass’ dirt that he dare not bring it to his lips. ENS-honed pretensions only receive the spite of his family, his recent displacement to a different Bourdieusian quadrant only deepening the field’s divide.
In 2018 as in 1843, France is plagued by the question of national unity
In 2018 as in 1843, France is plagued by the question of national unity—of how to cure the violence of entrapment, how to build a single imagined community that could obviate the very need to flee.
La Comédie humaine was itself a harbinger of that unity, not in the roads it represented but in the ones it filled. By mixing regional realities with romanesque exploits, Balzac’s novels sparked an unprecedented wave of literary tourism. The so-called “balzaciens” scoured the Hexagon for the novels’ referents; they wanted to compare Angoulême to Houmeau, to hear for themselves “vers” pronounced “verse.”
t seems wrong to hope for a set of “louis-ians,” a new wave of literary tourists making their way to Hallencourt. And yet there may be something productive in such a movement, in readers extending their bodies along with the minds. For even Edmund’s White’s flâneur forgets the paradoxes of France when he focuses on those of Paris, when he reduces all roads to those winsome boulevards.
Following Louis’ rue, inversing his trajet, demands we took once more at Baudelaire’s definition of the dandyish idyll—“être au centre du monde et rester caché au monde”—and recall that the dandy had be first to be hidden at the Parisian center; that “faire du monde sa famille” can quite often mean abandoning one’s family’s world.