Franco Moretti
Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900

Verso, London & New York, 1998
(Atlante del romanzo europeo 1800-1900
Einaudi, Torino, 1997)
206 pp. ISBN 1-85984-883-4

Arie Altena

Anyone who's read a lot of novels has doubtlessly pondered the idea of mapping out what happens in these novels: Bloom's ramblings through Dublin, or Julien Sorel's journey through France. A glance at such a map would provide a wealth of information about the interlacing of place and event, of setting and plot. Yet it seems there's not really anyone who draws these kinds of maps. For whatever reasons, it seems too simple, trivial, banal.

Franco Moretti, an Italian literary theorist and professor at Columbia University, has ignored these objections and has indeed drawn just these kinds of maps, supplementing them with argument. His book, which traces the geography of the 19th century novel, is based on an extremely simple idea: "geography is not an inert container, is not a box where cultural history Œhappens', but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes it in depth." Via his maps, Moretti makes the connections between space and literature explicit -- and visible -- and thereby tries to shed light upon meaningful relationships that would otherwise remain hidden.

Moretti discusses both the distribution of literary forms over geographical space as well as the effect of space in literature. In the first chapter, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott are the subjects of his investigation into the link between a novel's plot and the locales where the story takes place -- the countryside, the frontier, and the colonies. The second chapter concerns a comparison of Balzac's Paris with Dickens' London, while the third is dedicated to a sociological investigation into the scattering of genres throughout Europe.

The book consists of simple, mostly black & white maps which show, for example, the settings of historical novels, the routes that are covered in "colonial romances" (as opposed to the existing Arabic trade routes), the places where the objects of desire in Balzac's Paris are located, or the percentage of novels in 19th century English libraries.

Moretti is a born researcher into narrative forms, and he never renounces his origins. With reference to Propp, he shows that most narratives are based on a binary model. In popular fairly tales, for example, the plot's tension is based on the opposition between the world of the hero and the world of the villain. The city of the realistic novel, however, is a "random environment," which in literature is often structured by a binary narrative matrix that holds the chaos in check. The major progress in the novelist's art is witnessed in Balzac, whose polycentric Paris generates "stories of the third," tales of an in-between world that is complex and indeterminate, not good or bad.

Moretti is convinced that geography determines the literary form. "Without a certain kind of space, a certain kind of story is simply impossible." Geography is the informational space that structures the narration and programs the plot's possibilities. Thus in his maps, Moretti shows that the structure of Dickens' novels is connected to London's geographical (and social) structure. Balzac's Paris (with its left and right banks of the Seine) programs others longings and plots than does Dickens' socially stratified London, or the frontier in the novels of Scott.

In the third chapter, Moretti shows that space also influences the development of literary forms in another way, a way which has to do with the operative market mechanisms in the distribution of literary forms: his research demonstrates that the smaller the market, the smaller the variety in forms and genres. A smaller library not only contains fewer works, but there are also fewer genres represented. What is present in the smallest libraries is what succeeds in the cultural median. Thus market mechanisms create a kind of imperialism of the cultural mid-ground. In regard to the novel, then, there's an absence of a literature that consists of many local systems or distinct circuits; there is clearly one single literature. And this literature also penetrates into the colonies, where it becomes the model towards which the local literature strives. This can sometimes lead to fiascoes: locale and model are actually incompatible. On the other hand, this is precisely what creates the breeding ground for new forms: this incompatibility between form and locale -- between the model of the European novel and Brazil -- produces bastards which establish a new life for the novel.

In his argument, Moretti uses maps as analytical instruments, not as metaphors, and definitely not as ornaments. The maps dissect the texts in an unusual way and bring connections into focus that would otherwise remain hidden. The maps form the basis of his arguments, and of the diagrams that he interprets and illustrates with words.

The maps pose questions about the form of the novel and its internal connections, and demand that new answers be considered. For Moretti, every map is an experiment, an attempt at gaining insight. A successful map is, much in the same way as a successful territorial map (which is also an abstraction of space), one that yields a pattern which renews, refreshes, and deepens perception.

It would be a mistake to classify Moretti's book with tomes such as Malcolm Bradbury's The Atlas of Literature -- amiable books about literature in which the maps ("the Greece of Odysseus" or "the Dublin of James Joyce") are nothing more than nice pictures. Moretti's attention to maps also differs from that of literary theorists, who consider a map as a text that can be interpreted in the same way as a literary text. Moretti is interested in maps because they change the way we read novels.

"In this book, clearly enough, the method is all," he writes. Every paragraph of his argument is the result of a map. This makes his book pleasant to read; it appears light as a feather because it doesn't seem burdened by a truckload of theory and current discussions. He never mentions the findings of colleagues as his basis, and he only rarely touches on what others have to say about the 19th century novel. Moretti doesn't position his argument within the framework of, say, a feminist reading of Jane Austen, or a postcolonial reading of Walter Scott. Which isn't to say that his findings are irrelevant to the discussion. Moretti sails his own course; he is investigating, tracking down information. He formulates a hypothesis, collects data, makes a map out of it, and then begins the task of interpreting the map. And he then writes down what he believes to have deduced from the maps. Straightforward and clear.

The most amusing aspect of the book is seeing how its various elements are arranged, and how they interact with one another: the maps, the legends, the selected quotes (which are listed separately as a kind of illustration), Moretti's argument, and the notes. The book is an almost textbook example of good harmony and good interaction between the elements. Though Moretti himself finds that the rhythm, the variation between verbal and visual information, if often raw and uneven, he's wrong.

Furthermore, Moretti writes clearly. He takes you along on his initial exploration of the possibilities and the territory, which also makes his book exciting. And because he doesn't try to pass off his findings as ironclad law, it's hard to get annoyed when you disagree with his conclusions. It's not without reason that he describes his book as "half methodological manifesto, half pragmatic example." It's also a call towards further investigation, and a proposal for a method -- geographic maps as instruments for analysis and discovery -- and Moretti demonstrates this method's viability with luster and simplicity.

Arie Altena, october 1998

translation Douglas Heingartner

Published in Mediamatic Magazine, 1998