In the late 19th century—as in the early 21st century—ordinary people were swept up in the new craze of portrait photography. “Our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus,” writes Charles Baudelaire, “to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate.” It’s easy to laugh at this sentence, both at how familiar and how distant it sounds today. Baudelaire’s disgust does echo our contemporary gripes about iPhones and selfie sticks. And yet, it does so in a loftier, more genteel idiom. Baudelaire’s unintended proto-image of the smartphone (as a steampunk “metallic plate”) carries Romantic force. The quotation—like, perhaps, the selfie itself—seems to capture a crucial, undefinable moment: the split second of our loss of technological innocence.
What else can the 19th century teach us about the present? Both Orlando Figes’s Europeans and Jonathan Paine’s Selling the Story share a preoccupation with such primal scenes of our contemporary existence. These books’ pleasures come from a mixture of voyeurism and speculation, as they examine the roots of our contemporary culture: including serialized content creation, self-branding, celebrity artists, and globalizing culture driven by mass media. Figes and Paine think their way back into a time and space where the cultural conditions at which their subjects marvel—and in which, today, we remain hopelessly mired—were still new.
Best of all, both books illuminate how the artists in question—including Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Émile Zola, Pauline Viardot, and Ivan Turgenev—didn’t simply experience profound cultural and technological changes of the era. Indeed, we see how they adapted to them, and how these changes worked their way into the art that we still enjoy today.
Over the span of a single generation in the 19th century, trains, telegraphs, and cultural diplomacy unified Europe’s arts and letters into a shared, continent-wide conversation. Figes’s 600-page The Europeans takes us through that pivotal period.
A professor at University of London, Figes first became famous for his eminently readable histories of Russia. A People’s Tragedy (1998) chronicled the Russian Revolution; Natasha’s Dance (2003) recounted the country’s cultural history; The Whisperers (2008) described everyday life under Stalin. These earlier books—as well as Crimea (2011), Just Send Me Word (2012), and others—refract huge historical narratives through the prism of a few representative individuals’ lives.
These individuals are representative in the sense of being caught in the middle strata of the historical changes Figes describes. Neither solitary monks nor powerful dictators, they are swept up by social forces that they describe with considerable awareness. Figes’s subjects do navigate these vast forces with some agency. Yet they also need to accommodate themselves to their changing times.
Seven years in the making, The Europeans, in some respects, forays beyond Figes’s comfort zone. The book focuses not on Russia exclusively, but, instead, on all of Europe, in one of its busiest and most transformative centuries.
In formal terms, however, Figes sticks to familiar territory. The Europeans has three carefully chosen main characters: the French writer, critic, and translator Louis Viardot (1800–1883); his wife, Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), a celebrated opera singer, teacher, and composer of Spanish descent; and Pauline’s lover, the famous Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). Around this international, multitalented love triangle, Figes constellates a web of correspondents, admirers, friends, and acquaintances: George Sand, Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, and countless others.
As trains, steamboats, and telegraphs improved conditions of travel and communication, writers could attain unprecedented levels of recognition.
Pauline Viardot, born Michelle Ferdinande Pauline García, came from a family of opera singers and impresarios. Her marriage to Louis Viardot, 20 years her senior, was one of passion on his end, but only friendship and professional convenience on hers. From the start of this marriage, Pauline took on lovers.
The most persistent of Pauline’s lovers was Ivan Turgenev, who, when she met him, was a brash young Russian poet. Turgenev and Viardot developed a prolonged affair, punctuated with other trysts and assignations on both sides. Eventually, the Viardots and Turgenev settled into a barely covert ménage à trois, in which Pauline maintained the upper hand over both men. In the process, Pauline Viardot and Turgenev became internationally famous, while Louis faded into old age and obscurity.
Pauline Viardot’s and Turgenev’s meteoric rises to fame—as well as their adventurous, cosmopolitan, socially tolerated relationship—are emblematic of the era’s broader cultural shifts. “The arts,” Figes points out, “played a central role in [the] evolving concept of a European cultural identity. More than religion or political beliefs, they were seen as uniting people across the continent.”
As trains, steamboats, and telegraphs improved conditions of travel and communication, writers and performers could attain unprecedented, continent-wide levels of recognition. With the rise of cheap printing technologies and mass literacy, reading audiences expanded, which, in turn, brought writers and artists more profit.
Many authors, including Turgenev himself, actively promoted literary translation and established canons of “European”—that is, not just national—music and literature. Amid these transformations—so goes Figes’s argument—the Europe we now take for granted, epitomized in the European Union, emerges.
That said, The Europeans takes much of its entertainment value from the high-cultural gossip with which it peppers these sweeping narratives. Throughout The Europeans, Figes makes us feel intimate with cultural giants, using a combination of reviews, letters, photographs, literature, and painting. We learn that Sand is regal; Hugo is grandiose; Flaubert can be catty, making gentle fun of Turgenev, to Sand, for his “picture-buying mania”: “He is a man of passions: so much the better for him.”
The book’s appeal also stems from a sense of familiarity, as we watch these 19th-century lives become increasingly like our own. The grand, public funerals of Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky represent the dawning of literary celebrity culture. The story of Pauline, Louis, and Turgenev’s three-way relationship—full of dramatic reversals, but also emotional candor, self-awareness, and sexual exploration—reads like a 19th-century “Modern Love” column.
Figes triumphantly highlights this transgenerational intimacy—between his readers of today and his subjects in the past—in a surprising, even startlingly way. Toward the end of the volume, he breaks the spell that has allowed us to connect so profoundly with this earlier era. This moment of estrangement concerns Pauline Viardot herself. It takes place when Figes reminds us that—in all the pages we have spent intimately following her life—we have been deprived of something quite essential:
There is no surviving evidence of Pauline’s art. We can never know what her singing sounded like. The phonograph arrived too late to record it. The earliest recording of the great bass Feodor Chaliapin dates from 1901; the tenor Ernest Caruso made his first recording in 1902. Perhaps the closest we can get to Pauline’s style of singing are the crackly recordings made in 1905 by Pauline’s former pupil Marianne Brandt, then aged sixty-three, whose young voice had reminded Turgenev of Viardot’s.
Pauline outlived both Turgenev and her husband by almost three decades. By the end of her life (she died in 1910), technologies existed that could have preserved her voice for us. Yet by the time the phonograph arrives, Pauline was past 70, her vocal powers long gone.
Figes’s first mention of Edison’s instrument in the book’s final pages makes one hope, for a split second, that he will direct the reader to some vintage recording, perhaps even a crackling YouTube video. The disappointment that follows is teasing and theatrical, but it makes the point Figes wants it to make. It shows how deeply Figes has otherwise convinced us of the intimate resemblances between the Viardots’ lives and our own experience of today’s Western cultural public sphere. The illusion is so complete, in fact, that we might have forgotten with just how few senses, and with what imperfect mediation, we can access this earlier period.
As in The Europeans, the pleasures of Jonathan Paine’s Selling the Story come from moments of transhistorical recognition. Paine studies the intimacies and codependencies between readers and writers created by the 19th-century rise of serial fiction. This changed market structure made the novelist unprecedentedly, immediately reliant on his readers, since a few unsuccessful installments could sink a novel in the making.
Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Émile Zola fought for their readerships and obsessed over them with insecure passion, which prefigures the fragile stardoms of YouTube vloggers and Instagram influencers. These writers learned to master a new media world—authorial self-branding, protoclickbait, and instant microfeedback—in which contemporary authors remain deeply immersed. Balzac tried to adapt to this new world begrudgingly and mercurially, by making his prose more episodic, more like Eugène Sue’s bestselling The Mysteries of Paris (1842–43). Dostoevsky did so with similar hesitation but more spirit, trying to give his readers as many potential stylistic and generic points of entry into his novel as possible. Zola, the youngest and most savvy of the three, self-consciously turned his style and themes into a brand.
Paine is an unusual, late-blooming academic. Selling the Story is his first book and stems from a recently defended PhD dissertation. Before he wrote it, Paine had a long, highly successful career in finance; even now, in addition to a supernumerary fellowship at Oxford, he remains a senior advisor at Rothschild & Co. Clearly aware that his background might irk literary purists, he does due diligence to show how his expertise provides him with the right tools for a literary-historical task. “This book,” Paine tells us, “is not an attempt to impose economics on literature. It is, simply, a demonstration of how narrative is inseparable from the creation of economic value.”
Much is meant by this statement of inseparability. Novels, as Paine argues—especially serial ones—cannot survive if they cannot sell. Therefore, it is naive to pretend that economic pressures do not subtly shape novels, installment by installment and cliffhanger by cliffhanger. Much as Balzac might disdain Sue’s attention-grabbing vignettes, he needs to attract similar numbers of subscribers to keep his purse full and his publisher satisfied. Despite Zola’s refined social consciousness, the capitalist free market whose effects he occasionally deplores is his fiction’s necessary medium of transmission.
“It seems justifiable,” Paine further argues, “to think of literature as a form of transaction.” And Paine believes that this extends considerably beyond the book’s chosen sources and period. “What is the story ‘worth’?” is a question Roland Barthes poses in S/Z (1970). Paine elaborates on this question: “How do we judge the ‘value’ of texts? How can we relate economic to aesthetic value? What role does the reader, or the author’s perception of the reader, play in establishing value? And how can the text itself provide clues to its own economic activity?”
These questions about fiction, value, and creation are addressed by Paine’s authors with a variety of rhetorical and economic responses. At times, the authors assert their works’ value within the text itself, hoping to predetermine their readers’ responses to it. Such self-aggrandizing statements are the most time-honored of these writerly strategies, harking back to Horace’s “Exegi monumentum” ode and well beyond it.
At other times, the writer “recognizes that in many circumstances authors have no way of knowing the value of their work other than through reader reception,” and adjusts to this reception as nimbly as he can. In The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (1838–47), Balzac does so clumsily; in Les Rougeon-Macquart (1871-93), Zola makes such adjustments with greater ease. A third, “speculative approach” involves hedging one’s bets against the general reader’s relative unpredictability, by trying out several narrative strategies all at once: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (1879–80), for instance, does so by surrounding each of the novel’s titular brothers with a different narrative style, pace, and ambiance.
Balzac and Dostevsky make these various judgment calls with a sense of dread, but also with increasing self-awareness. Building on that generation’s insights, Zola “combines the techniques of the populist press with a highly commercial approach to the business of writing … to release the book, as an independent commercial format, from a half-century-long subordination to the newspaper serial, completing the cycle of which Balzac had recorded the beginning.”
Under what conditions is an economic metanarrative a useful point of entry into a novel’s form?
Paine’s survey of these three novelists is masterful, based on careful close readings as well as deep archival research. His book deftly avoids the many pitfalls that an analysis like this one might stumble on. As he depicts them, Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola are neither puppets of an inexorable free market nor puppeteers of their readers’ false consciousness. Instead, Paine shows how economic concerns, as one guiding force among many, influenced their creative impulses, but did not—in naive Marxian fashion—overdetermine them.
However, a second-order question of value lingers in one’s mind while perusing Selling the Story: How broad a literary territory does Paine’s argument illuminate? Are Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola special cases, or can Paine’s analysis be carried forward onto other authors and periods?
To some extent, these writers are special, and Paine acknowledges as much. These novelists gained recognition at a tipping point between different literary markets. And this led them to confront these phenomena with an exceptional sense of self-awareness, obsessiveness, and urgency.
All the same, Selling the Story also has broader ambitions. Paine claims that we can describe literature in general in economic terms, as a sequence of transactions. “The author offers a narrative,” explains Paine, “in exchange for the reader’s attention, often mediated by a publisher who establishes a monetary equivalent for the initial value of the narrative.”
But what of novels (or poems, or plays) where no obvious evidence of market self-consciousness can be found? In Zola, Balzac, and Dostoevsky, Paine aims to “explore narrative as a self-reflexive commentary on the conditions of its own production. I ask whether a detailed examination of the story (récit) itself can provide evidence of how an author conceived of its value, constructed its value, and manipulated its value.” The “narrative” these authors create, according to Paine, is always a two-layered one: there is the “text” itself, and then, implicit within the text, there is the “pitch.”
Paine’s argument hinges on the assumption that these two meanings of narrative, text and pitch, are functionally intertwined with each other. Does a work of literature always contain a metanarrative, not unlike the initial hook or pitch that the author gives to his publishers? And if it does not, under what conditions is such an economic metanarrative a useful point of entry into its form? A Marxist would say: always. Yet Paine is not a Marxist, at least not visibly so.
This methodological uncertainty hovers over his argument as both an opportunity and a stumbling block. In Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola, Paine finds writers who are clearly, and knowingly, obsessed with their stories’ market value—but who also highlight the historical contingency of this preoccupation. Clearly, the self-marketing strategies these writers deploy could be used to diagnose the formal and stylistic choices of many contemporary bloggers and social influencers. Still, it is hard to tell how they would apply to someone like Michel de Montaigne, Franz Kafka, or James Joyce. And if these latter writers do not adopt the free-market mindset Paine describes, are they worse writers for it, or merely worse capitalists?
These questions are not meant as criticisms: a great part of the strength of Selling the Story comes from its unwillingness to hitch itself to an all-encompassing theory of commodified literature that would answer such queries more easily. So, Selling the Story—just like The Europeans—induces the reader not just to marvel at its sweeping generalizations, but also to reflect on these generalizations and the reasons why we might be tempted by them. That both books are able to incite such reflections on the limits of their own arguments, while sustaining these arguments’ internal momentum, marks their considerable achievement. Taken together, the two books powerfully remind us of the inevitable, partial subjectivity and presentism of our interest in history—as well as of our archives’ irreducible, unsynthesizable strangeness.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.