Terre(ur): Reading the Landscape of Conspiracy in Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire

This article draws on Carlo Ginzburg’s conjectural paradigm to propose a re- evaluation of the dialectic between models of “surface” and “depth” reading in Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire (1841). A tale of shadowy machinations that overlap to bewildering effect, the novel testifies to the semantic multiplicity of the term plot as bearing on the topographic, the narrative, and the conspiratorial. Through close engagement with the venatic metaphoricity common to both Ginzburg’s model and Balzac’s proto-roman policier, this article argues that the conspiratorial landscape of Une ténébreuse affaire testifies to an anxiety born of the impossibility of grounding novelistic truth in a stable referent. The recurrent emphasis on the problematic materiality of the surface and its false depths belies Balzac’s fraught relationship to the severed referentiality of his narrative. As illustration of a Balzacian poetics of conspiracy, Une ténébreuse affaire ultimately points forward in literary history towards the Flaubertian aesthetic of platitude.