By the Width of a Street

Christopher Prendergast

  • An Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 by Franco Moretti
    Verso, 206 pp, £16.00, August 1998, ISBN 1 85984 883 4

Somewhere around the middle of An Atlas of the European Novel, in a discussion of images of London in the 19th-century novel, Franco Moretti throws in a parenthetical aside on the whereabouts of his publisher (‘in a rather bleak part of Soho’). It’s a sort of joke, consistent with the laidback tone that Moretti seems able to combine effortlessly with high intellectual endeavour. It’s not often that one can speak of the charm of an academic book: Moretti’s oozes it. Although he says that his principal aim is to be ‘useful’, he also furnishes many pleasures, as he wanders through the landscapes of (mostly) 19th-century Europe like some Bolognese equivalent of Gil Bias or the good soldier Schweik, sustaining a conversation with his reader that is endlessly informative and entertaining.

One of the narrative genres he discusses with particular relish is the picaresque, and his own work has something of the picaresque’s amiable atmosphere of roguish digression and surprise (though sometimes the location switches – from, say, Seville to St Petersburg – are so rapid that we seem to be more in the frantically mobile world of La Chartreuse de Parme). But underlying the bonhomie there is also a purpose: to press on us the claim that something called ‘literary geography’ is not only an important area of research but has a powerful explanatory value – ‘I suddenly see how geography may explain the history of culture.’ This is a strong claim and how far it stands up to scrutiny, judged on Moretti’s own terms, is moot. Everything else, on virtually every page of this book, is fascinating. But what of its theoretical bedrock?

The argument is spun out over three substantial chapters dealing respectively with space in literature (‘fictional space’) and literature in space (‘historical space’), the two being connected by a ‘bridge’ (in the literary topographies he investigates, Moretti has a predilection for bridges). But here already comes a first question: why is the second category called ‘historical’ and not ‘geographical’ space? This is something very different from what we customarily get under the heading of ‘spatial form’, a term that Joseph Frank coined many years ago in connection with the novel (Frank, incidentally, doesn’t appear in Moretti’s text or bibliography). Frank’s coining was essentially a Modernist flourish, designed to break with more traditional conceptions of the foundation of narrative, which, from Aristotle to Lessing, and from Hegel to Lukács and Ricoeur, had been temporal. In L’Education sentimentale, Lukács wrote in his Theory of the Novel, ‘time is indissolubly wedded to the form,’ and this could easily be said of the genre as a whole.

How space came to challenge the priority of time is itself an interesting historical question, doubtless linked to the emergence of a culture of display and exhibition, or to what Philippe Hamon, in his remarkable study of 19th-century French literature (also absent from Moretti’s bibliography), has called ‘exposition’. ‘Exposition’ here refers to a physical and social world: the new urban landscape of grands boulevards, great exhibitions, department stores, along with the hinterland of empire from which so many of its commodified exhibits came. It is the universe massively investigated by Walter Benjamin as the origin of what was later to be termed ‘la société du spectacle’. But ‘exposition’ also refers to a set of literary interests and methods, reflecting a new preoccupation with spatialised representation, a move away from the metaphor of ‘depth’ in favour of an attention, sometimes excited, sometimes deadpan, to the ‘flatness’ of surfaces. History is correspondingly flattened or frozen. Zola, for example, is no longer read as the chronicler of the Second Empire but as the creator of abstract geometries, all lines, aspects and superimpositions.

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