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The Collector in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Representation, Identity, Knowledge


Emma Bielecki

The collector was one of the archetypal figures of the nineteenth-century French cultural imagination. During the July Monarchy (1830-48) a new culture of collecting emerged, which continued to develop over the course of the century and which attracted the attention of a wide range of social commentators and writers. From the sketch-writing of the 1830s to the late nineteenth-century decadent fictions of Jean Lorrain, from Balzac’s Cousin Pons to Proust’s Charles Swann, the literature of the period abounds in examples of men (and occasionally women) afflicted with what the Larousse Grand Dictionnaire called in 1869 ‘la collectionnomanie’.
This book examines these representations of the collector. It shows that woven into them are fundamental anxieties generated by the experience of modernity, involving the nature of identity and selfhood, the relentless accumulation of commodities in a capitalist system of production and the (in)ability of language to translate experience accurately.


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Chapter 3Collecting the Self 75


Chapter 3 Collecting the Self At one point in Jean Lorrain’s 1900 novel Monsieur de Phocas, a minor classic of the decadent canon, the protagonist, the Duc de Fréneuse, is invited to a party hosted by the society painter, Claudius Ethal. Ethal lures Fréneuse to his studio by promising him that, ‘j’ai tout un lot d’excentriques à vous montrer’.1 A glance at the guest-list confirms Ethal’s claim: an actress and the brother with whom she is incestuously involved, lesbian countesses, an aristocratic dandy, aesthete, and composer of second-rate experimental verse, opium eaters, ether-addicts, and a number of Ethal’s compatriots, Englishmen who, in order to establish a reputation in fashionable Parisian society, have set themselves up as collectors. As Ethal explains to Fréneuse: ‘Tous collectionnent quelque chose: celui-ci les fourreaux de sabre; celui-là, les boucles de ceintures de la reine Anne; cet autre, les souliers du roi de Rome ou les sabretaches du beau prince Murat; il faut bien faire quelque chose et, sinon s’occuper, occuper le monde de sa petite personne’.2 Ethal’s comments point towards the relationship between collecting and identity that is at the heart of much of the discourse surrounding collecting. For his guests, collecting is intended to function as a means to fashion and display a specific identity. This project does not seem to succeed, however, as none of these English collectors, discussed so contemptuously by Ethal himself, are named in the text; they are merely anonymous extras. In fact, they are presented chief ly...

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