Rosa Mucignat, Realism and Space in the Novel, 1795-1869: Imagined Geographies

Rosa Mucignat, Realism and Space in the Novel, 1795-1869: Imagined Geographies (Oxford: Routledge 2013) 192 pp. £95.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781409450559

The title of Rosa Mucignat's Realism and Space in the Novel 1795-1869: Imagined Geographies only palely suggests the nature of this careful, well documented, and very pertinent literary study. Mucignat's book reflects the hybrid nature of the novel in which multiple factors and vectors come to influence its delicate economy. In the play of forces establishing the solidity of characters in the realist novel, space emerges as a newly significant element, rather than a mere backdrop. Striving for an effet de réel – as it will be duly interpreted and called by Barthes – and finally attaining that objective, a spatial dimension is constituted which is consistent and meaningful and alters the reader's perception of the construction of the characters and, obviously, the narrative logic. Mucignat’s work seeks to analyze the strategies that the writers use in order to create a textual cartography, symbolic, conscious of and representative of European realism, from its beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century, up to its most pure and critical form in the work of Gustave Flaubert.

Based on the conviction – introduced in the first page – that the insertion of a geographic space, imagined or real, 'gives texture and feel to a story' (1), Mucignat develops a convincing analysis of her chosen texts over the five chapters. The first chapter, 'Making Worlds', is concerned above all with the understanding of the transformative power of the physical agent (also psychological and phantasmatic) called space, utilizing the different perspectives previously analyzed by critics like Barthes, Auerbach, and, in an idiosyncratic way, Bakhtin: visibility, depth, and movement. Following the concept of the chronotope developed by Bakhtin, as well as the Barthesian observation that detailed description changes the narrative code of understanding, Mucignat shows that space contains in itself a more profound and relevant meaning than merely a symbolic, decorative, or representative function: made visible by vivid and accurate descriptions, space comes to play 'a role in the general economy of the diegetic-mimetic unity of the text' (5). Consequently, it constitutes an element that is able to materialize the story that it sets out to tell. In the same way, the depth reached by realist description allows the reading of novelistic space along a vertical axis, capable of traversing the lives of the characters, which previously were impenetrable. With respect to the construction of this new verticalized dimension of the fictional universe, Mucignat evokes the influence of other scientific knowledges that interfere with it, reverberations of the natural world in the very discursive context of the novel: from geological and archeological metaphors to the manifestations of the nascent biological sciences, distinct spheres of thinking that converge in the production of a modern episteme that echo freely in the countryside, as well as in the urban centers portrayed in realist literature. This spatial dichotomy (rural versus urban) is used by Mucignat to develop a fruitful analysis of movement, that kind of movement which can be employed in order to dictate the tempo of the narrative/narration (22), but which can also refer to immobility and displacement, an opposition serving as material for the creation and destiny of diverse characters, such as Frédéric Moreau, Pip, and Julien Sorel.

The engaging theoretical reflections outlined in the opening of Mucignat’s study are deepened in the second chapter, 'Our Daily Adventure'. The theoretical models of Franco Moretti and Roland Barthes are placed in dialogue with some of the principles of realist narrative: how to relate space (especially the trio previously mentioned, visibility, depth and movement) to ordinary life. In the novel, that hybrid and democratic genre, the insertion of real elements, such as urban toponyms from the same century, creates a powerful mechanism of identification for the reader. Likewise, the presence of distinct cameos and social scenarios, ephemeral or perennial, conveys the mobility of the characters among different sectors in society (34), bringing agility, emotion, and even disappointment to the narrative. The novel is no longer solely concerned with unlikely adventures in the unreal land of Cockaigne, but the triumphs and the failures of contemporaneous and true-to-life characters. Punctuated with concrete examples from the realist prose under analysis, the chapter illustrates how nineteenth-century novelists successfully managed to blend ordinary life with a historical and, obviously, spatial context as well.

In the last three chapters, the author analyzes six novels from an individual and, above all, a comparative perspective, centered along three axes related to geographic space, but following a chronological thread that cannot be overlooked. Mucignat thus divides the novels into contrasting pairs grouped around a central perspective:  'Space and the Symbol' (Goethe's Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park), 'Space and the Map' (Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir and Manzoni's I promessi sposi), and, lastly, 'Space and the Field' (Dicken's Great Expectations and Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale). In each of these chapters, Mucignat traces an itinerary in which the conceptual understanding of space increasingly solidifies as the narratives come closer to realism in its most definitive manifestation. From Austen to Flaubert, spatial perspective acquires new contours, more precise and meaningful, and exhibiting different levels of concreteness. The novel is shown as moving from an abstract level, encompassing an essentially symbolic and descriptive dimension, but already aware of new patterns of realist visibility, depth, and movement (Lehrjahre and Mansfield Park), as passing through a functional and mappable use of space (Le Rouge et le Noir and I Promessi Sposi), until, finally it reaches a dynamic and deft treatment of these, proving that topography – physical and social – constitutes, from now on, the backbone of the realist novel (Great Expectations and Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale).

Mounting a penetrating analysis of these works, Mucignat points to a new spatio-temporal relation established in European literature during the nineteenth century, from the most incipient movements of circularity in the observable personal journey of the characters (and thus the discrete opposition between the rural environment and the city) to the fictional representation of internal and social conflicts, motivated, or affected, by geographic and temporal conditions. Beyond a specular or mimetic connotation, space in the realist novel is, undoubtedly, an essential element for anchoring a reality, but, above all, it is a powerful agent acting on human and social relations, as well as on the fragile internal equilibrium of individuals. From the psychosocial imbalance represented in the novels studied here (some possible examples are ambition, inadequacies, prejudice and everything else that results from these), to the predictable repercussions in the characters’ destiny according to a historic context, passing through the very flux of writing, space acts on different levels of the realist narrative. Visibility, depth, and movement characterize the construction of a fertile space that becomes increasingly influential in the novelistic economy as the century moves forward, until it is deconstructed and reinvented into a new narrative object by naturalism and modernism' (164). In the seventy-four year period considered in this delightful study by Mucignat, the imagined geographies break with previous centuries' vague and anodyne conceptualization of literary space, renewing and transforming themelves into a consistent epistemological cartography - on the symbolic and concrete levels – that will render the novel identical with the very space of reality.

Vanessa Schmitt. Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil (Federal University of RS)