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.

Any description of Moretti’s work in terms of these concerns would render it unrecognisable, however. If Frank and Hamon go unmentioned, it is presumably not mere oversight, but because Moretti has no interest in this approach to the category of space. An index of his disdain is that, apart from a brief excursus on a couple of passages in Scott, he has nothing to say about description in the novel, the area on which others of a de-temporalising disposition tend to dwell – on the arrest of narrative flow that allows the literary eye to settle on a constellation of objects in space. Moretti is far too picaresquely busy staying on the move to stop and look at anything, and his discourse is mercifully free of the contemporary fetishism of the Gaze. He is drawn not to the descriptive content of spaces (nor – via Bachelard – to the phenomenology of lived space) but to movement and transition between spaces. His journey is plots not pictures. He never forgets that space in fiction is meaningful only to the extent that it is crossed by time, although such is his enthusiasm for promoting the idea of ‘literary geography’ that he sometimes appears to want us to think that he has forgotten this. Thus he quotes Bakhtin’s remark about Scott’s ‘ability to read time in space’, but then immediately revises Bakhtin’s formulation. The revision is complex and interesting but its terminus is close to being a reversal: ‘Geography as the foundation of narrative form’. Bakhtin’s model of the ‘chronotope’ could never have come out like this. More to the point, despite the programmatic statements, Moretti’s superlative readings are superlative precisely to the extent that they replicate and confirm Bakhtin’s terms.

This of course is to pit the argument of the book against the grain of its title. Geography remains the mot d’ordre, and we must attend to what is claimed in its name. First, what an atlas primarily contains: maps. Moretti shares Marlow’s passion for maps in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (though not the fantasies that animate it). The front cover carries a map of Europe (taken from ‘a 19th-century board-game’) and, punctuating the text, are a hundred more maps (mostly home-made by Moretti). Unlike the semioticians (who delved briefly into cartography), Moretti insists that his maps are not there to be ‘read’ but to alter the conditions under which we read (for example, novels): ‘maps don’t interest me because they can be “read” more or less like a novel – but because they change the way we read novels.’ Maps, moreover, are not just an experimental heuristic device. They furnish an explanatory ‘matrix’ and are the basis of a ‘method’. Just how far Moretti is willing to push his methodological foundationalism isn’t entirely clear, since at one point he admits to making it up as he goes along: the maps provide ‘variables that I kept changing and changing ... until I felt I had a good answer’ – that impressionistic ‘felt’ doesn’t exude the sort of confidence we associate with the more strenuous business of establishing a ‘method’.

Here, however, is the method in action, initially hooked up to maps of the places where the stories of Jane Austen’s heroines typically begin and end:

Please take a few moments to look at the figure, because in the end this is what literary geography is all about: you select a textual feature (here, beginnings and endings), find the data, put them on paper – and then look at the map. In the hope that the visual construct will be more than the sum of its parts: that it will show a shape, a pattern that may add something to the information that went into making it.

And a pattern does indeed emerge: at the beginning, a country place of residence, at the end, the country home of the husband-to-be with, in between, journeys to the city (Bath, London). The restricted geographical space of Austen’s narrative trajectories conjure up an image of ‘England’ (not Britain) centred on the functioning of the national marriage market and in turn giving form to something previously imagined and represented in literature only with great difficulty – ‘the geopolitical reality of the nation-state’. In Austen’s world ‘local gentry’ (Elizabeth Bennet) marries into the ‘national élite’ (Darcy) and, through that transaction, what in Northanger Abbey Austen calls ‘the central part of England’ comes to serve as a metonym for ‘England’ tout court. The maps are designed to shed light on exactly how this exclusionary image of the nation is fabricated and naturalised.

One of Moretti’s big themes is the emergence of the novel as the only form capable of representing the nation-state. How and why it did so seems for Moretti to be akin to a process of natural selection: the nationstate ‘needed’ a new symbolic form and ‘found’ it in the novel. The same line of thinking governs his review of the different narrative forms which participate in the cultural project of nation-building. The taxonomy here is familiar: historical novel, picaresque, colonial romance, Bildungsroman. What is new is the matching of genre to space and morphology to maps. The historical novel gravitates to the border country, a site of tension and conflict at a time ‘when borders are simultaneously hardening and being challenged as “unnatural” by the various nationalist waves’. The picaresque, though an earlier genre, also belongs here by virtue of its structural commitment to the space of the road, to travelling characters who meet and form provisional communities. ‘A country of roads ... It’s the great symbolic achievement of the picaresque: defining the modern nation as that space where strangers are never entirely strangers.’ The colonial romance, on the other hand, prefers the straight line to aleatory wandering; the unilinear form of its narrative describes a determined pull, across seas, up rivers, towards the object of imperialist desire (‘colonial romances have no bifurcations’). Finally, the Bildungs-roman, also road-centred but where what matters is less the journey than the port of arrival, usually as a movement from the provinces to the capital, the commanding centre of the nation-state.

This recension of narrative genres is a stunning marriage of historical reflection and morphological analysis. I know of no other book which combines so fruitfully the perspectives of literary history with the legacy of structuralism. There are things one might want to argue with, however. I am not persuaded that picaresque properly belongs to the story of nation-formation: it was disabled before this project began, precisely because nation-formation required a transcendent, synthesising perspective that an episodic structure could not supply. Then there is the question of the 19th-century novels and novelists who are absent from Moretti’s taxonomy. How would his system cope with, say, Daniel Deronda or the novels of Henry James? Or, in a different register, with the novels of Tolstoy or Hardy (the latter gets only one footnoted sentence on Jude the Obscure)? In the case of Tolstoy and Hardy there is, I think, an explanation. Ports, bridges, roads, itineraries, transitions, flows, circulations, these are the terms of Moretti’s Europe, a Europe-on-the-move. He has an exemplary contempt for the complacency of certain ideologies of ‘settled’ community, especially English ones. There are other versions of space and landscape, however, which are stamped with the signs of settled human presence: Scott’s Highlands (but not Scott in the flashpoint of the border), Tolstoy’s peasant villages, Hardy’s Wessex. In another connection, Moretti cites admiringly Braudel’s vision of historical process as longue durée, but where longue durée leaving a mark on the ‘geography’ of the novel is concerned, that admiration fades away to nothing.

I suspect this is because Moretti is a city-boy at heart, and when he moves on to the novel in urban space, the tone gets altogether more excited. Real cities are places of jostling co-existence, of randomness, disorder and surprise, the flâneur’s paradise (provided he is not mugged). The urban novels of the 19th century, on the other hand, are literary machines for ‘reducing randomness’, they seek to make the city legible (true, but not the whole truth: many 19th-century novels leave us with an irreducible sense of opacity and unreadability). Once again, juxtaposed maps of the real and fictional city carry much of the burden of Moretti’s argument. First, we have Booth’s colour-coded map of London (gold for wealthy districts, black for poor), in which the social classes are often separated only by the width of a street or a block. Alongside Booth, we have Moretti’s cartography of the fictional city, as represented, for instance, by that quintessentially 19th-century genre, the mystery novel (Eugène Sue and Conan Doyle are his main examples), which redraws the map in accordance with a binary logic of polarisation, making the city at once safe and intelligible by keeping the classes in their properly appointed place. But what of this Foucauldian logic in the work of the two great novelists of the 19th-century city, Balzac and Dickens?

Balzac is the hero of Moretti’s story. In Balzac’s Paris one circulates on a grid shaped by the mobility of the parvenu, whose energies of desire and reverie connect social worlds otherwise held apart. Balzac reduces randomness, but without sacrificing ‘complexity’, by inventing a new narrative morphology that preserves multiple lines of force even as it seeks to master them. In structural terms, his stroke of genius was to have modified the binary order of narrative through the introduction of a third term, a process of mediation (bridging, for example, the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Germain) which, according to Moretti, captures and discloses the true nature of a modern market society.

Dickens reduces randomness in a more conventional manner, by projecting simplicity rather than complexity. The London of his early novels is polarised into East and West, with an ‘excluded middle’: namely, the middle class, which, under threat from the two extremes (of criminal anarchy from the East and aristocratic decadence from the West), is allowed to migrate to the tranquil pastures of the suburbs. The later novels attempt more complex ‘connections’ (a term taken over from Raymond Williams’s account of Dickens in The Country and the City), but again in the direction of simplification: usually a version of the family romance (the re-connecting of parents with long-lost children and so forth). What they offer is a sentimental ‘humanising’ of the city that expels disorder and heals the wounds inflicted in the urban jungle.

In this contrastive reading of the two novelists, Moretti is up-front about his own preferences: ‘What can I do, I like Balzac better than Dickens. Forgive me.’ Well, I, too, prefer Balzac and even sympathise with the view that Illusions perdues is ‘the greatest novel ever written’. But surely we have here a tendentious reading of Dickens (and also of Raymond Williams). Williams was alert to the problem of sentimental evasion in Dickens’s ‘magical’ happy resolutions, but sought to deepen the issue by making the interesting point that ‘goodness’ often appears in Dickens’s world as inexplicable, another form of the opaque and the random, seeing in this Dickens’s admirable ability to find terms of resistance to the great calculating machine of modernity. Williams also developed the argument – nowhere acknowledged by Moretti – that the later plots are not just about the recovery of family connections, but are there also to reveal the systemic, fully social character of the inhuman. Their purpose is not to evade but to expose (for example, the link, otherwise hidden, between the death of Little Jo and the life of the Dedlocks in Bleak House). Although different from Balzac’s version, Dickens’s mature novels do possess their own kind of ‘complexity’, and Moretti’s failure to recognise this makes for a disconcerting contradiction at the heart of his own enterprise: namely, that at certain junctures, his book remains a prisoner of the reductive, incarcerating strategies he so impressively analyses.

Moretti’s impatience with Dickens may well be related to his otherwise engaging hostility to England and its insular myths of Englishness. This surfaces powerfully in the last chapter. Here we move from space in literature to literature in space: that is, to various sites of the production, distribution and consumption of novels in the 19th century, or to what he calls the formation and functioning of ‘narrative markets’. Here Moretti displays a robust positivism, with much talk of ‘data’ and ‘quantitative methods’ – the kind of talk that would have endeared him to the late 19th-century literary historians, to Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Lanson (the latter would have been especially cheered by Moretti’s injunction that we investigate the 99 per cent of novels that are never now read). Moretti, however, gives a new twist to this branch of inquiry. Traditionally, the sociology of literary production and reception has been confined within national boundaries, but he concerns himself with the geopolitics of the narrative market. His method is to take samples of novels translated into foreign languages and then track them through the library catalogues of different European countries, with a view to constructing the map of a complex import-export trade.

His findings, though provisional (due to gaps in the data base), are remarkable. The spread of the novel across Europe on the back of translation produced a striking homogenisation of reading habits. Relatedly, the market was also highly centralised, the capital dominating the provinces within the nation-state, England and France dominating the transnational flow, with a special place granted to Denmark at the importing end of the field. This gives the lie to what Goethe and Marx announced as the advent of a ‘world literature’. In the case of the novel, what we have is rather a Europe-wide and, finally, ‘planetary reproduction of a couple of national literatures’. In the global marketplace, the nation-state, with its extension into empire, thus continued to rule.

It ruled also in another way, and here we come back to Moretti’s dislike of England. England exported large numbers of novels through the medium of translation. In the first half of the century it also imported many (principally French). Imports declined dramatically, however, as the Victorian epoch entered its most confident and self-regarding phase. Keeping foreign (i.e. French) novels out became the watchword. Moretti’s marked distaste for England derives from its cultural insularity (sustained in our own time by F.R. Leavis’s ludicrous prejudice against ‘foreign’ novels) and the paradoxical provincialism associated with its political and economic centrality. This is also the moment at which Moretti’s argument turns full circle, back to its point of departure, in a gesture of bridge-building across the categories of space in literature and literature in space. In Victorian England, the external structure of the market joins with the internal structure of narrative morphology, both dedicated to preserving the integrity of the nation as an island state.

Moretti delivers here on the promise made in his introductory chapter. But, for all his ingenious use of maps and related apparatus, there is still the question as to what we make of the notion of ‘literary geography’. Moretti claims that it ‘explains’ cultural history. But it doesn’t. What explains cultural history is history, and his own book is a distinguished contribution to this explanatory task. Atlas of the European Novel is unlike previous literary atlases in that it is happily saturated with historical consciousness and what it gives us, under the heading of geography, is in fact a brilliantly original form of literary history. At a time when the question ‘is literary history possible?’ is doing the fashionable rounds, it is no mean feat to have given so resoundingly affirmative an answer to that question.