Note to readers: You may choose to read this commentary on Antoine Furetière’s Le Roman Bourgeois here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article
Many works published over the ages could justifiably make a claim to being the Parisian novel par excellence. From the 19th century, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables spring to mind, or Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot, or Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir. In the 20th century, Marcel Proust’s devastating satire of salon life in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is inseparable from the city in which it is set. More recently, Yasmina Reza’s extraordinary novel Babylone is Parisian to its core, despite its portrait of people who feel like outsiders in the city. For me, however, the quintessential Parisian novel dates from 1666, and has largely passed under the radar of both scholars and general readers: Antoine Furetière’s Le Roman Bourgeois.
Furetière (1619-88) is probably best known for the monolingual dictionary he produced in opposition to the dictionary that was being compiled at the same time by the Académie Française. When Furetière published extracts from his work in 1684, he was expelled from the Academy. Even though the full dictionary was published after his death in 1690, he still had the last laugh, as it appeared four years before the Academy’s version was eventually published.
The first translation of Le Roman Bourgeois appeared in London in 1671 under the translated name City Romance, which shows rather well the central role played by Paris in the book. However, the English title is in many ways deceptive, as you might be expecting a rather conventional rehearsal of the stereotype of Paris as the city of romantic love. The reality could hardly be further from the truth. When I mentioned earlier that I see Le Roman Bourgeois as the quintessential Parisian novel, it was somewhat misleading of me to call it a “novel” at all, because that meaning of the word “roman” did not exist in 1666. Furetière was reacting against the long tradition in the 17th century of writing idealized romances.
Furetière was not alone in writing an anti-novel (or, more accurately, anti-romance) and engaging with and confronting narrative conventions of the time, but Le Roman Bourgeois is the most prominent text that situates itself explicitly in a contemporary, unromanticized urban setting, deliberately refusing to embrace the pastoral situation of works like Honoré D’Urfé’s mammoth romance L’Astrée (1607-1627) or the historical and aristocratic setting of heroic narratives like Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654-61) or Le Grand Cyrus (1648-53). Seventeenth-century Paris, which, as we are told, “is so full of filth,” is in many ways the text’s central character. As the narrator/author tells us in the opening pages, “I want the setting of my book to be mobile, in other words at one moment in one district and at another moment in another district of the city.” Explaining why he located the tale more specifically in Place Maubert, the narrator says,
I will only say that that is the center of all bourgeois flirting and courting in the district and that many people go there because of the ample freedom to talk there.
Unlike the picaresque novel, which usually ranges across wide geographical and often fictional locations, Le Roman Bourgeois remains firmly rooted in factual Paris, but the variety of Parisian outdoor settings – among them the Pont-Neuf (animated by street theater, puppet theater, song performances and gossip, and one of the few spaces where people of all classes mingled); the Marais district, where young lovers were afforded more liberties than elsewhere in the city; and the Saint-Germain Fair – gives space to the narrative and freedom to talk away from the confines of constricted interiors.
The narrative itself continuously goes off on many digressions and refuses to follow one central plotline. In a typical upsetting of conventions, the author places a preface addressed to the reader not at the beginning of the book, as in almost all novels, but in the middle, before the second part. He tells us not to expect any link with what has come before and not to expect heroes or heroines but rather just middling people from ordinary backgrounds with very few redeeming characteristics.
The grittiness and grottiness of the Parisian setting, together with the book’s self-declared independence and refusal to conform to traditional expectations, might explain why Le Roman Bourgeois is not widely read or appreciated, but for me, these are the very reasons it should be better known and called one of the great Parisian novels.
Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris, is now available in paperback and as an e-book here and from online vendors.Favorite