St. Onge on Laisney (2002)

Laisney, Vincent. L’Arsenal romantique. Le salon de Charles Nodier (1824–1834). Paris: Honoré Champion, 2002. ISBN: 2-7453-0562-x. pp. 839

A study of the literary salon hosted by the writer Charles Nodier at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, from 1824 to 1834, at first appears to be a relatively restricted champ d’étude, focused on ten years surrounding the social circle of one man who has declined in Romantic studies to a comparatively minor status. However, as Laisney proposes, the Arsenal phenomenon can be conceptualized as a multifaceted kaleidoscope, offering a plurality of insights into the literary movement of Romanticism. Indeed, the Arsenal can thus signify many things, including a place, a practice, a group, a period, a spirit, a history and a literary topos. Due to the complex nature of the Arsenal, Laisney deploys a variety of methodological approaches in his study, including the tools of literary history, the sociology of literature, and psychology. The extensively documented work is organized into seven sections, entitledfestivité, amitié, célébrité, médiocrité, communauté, fraternité, pluralité, with a final conclusion, moralité

The Arsenal was, aside from a literary salon where poets met and read poetry, a festive social event which provided a variety of entertainments. Marie Nodier offered musical diversions to the crowd, setting romantic poems and ballads to her own original compositions on the piano. Near the end of the evening, young ladies would claim the stage, and dancing continued late into the night. As well as providing a variety of social diversions, the Arsenal salon was notable for its openness – Nodier and his family welcomed individuals from both Paris and the Provinces and from all social classes. The anecdotal and descriptive evidence utilized by Laisney in this section provides a humanistic touch to literary history of the era. 

In terms of amitié, Laisney offers a sociological analysis of the Arsenal salon. Rather than figuring the dynamics of the salon as being circular in nature, revolving around one central figure, Laisney represents the Arsenal as an ellipse, with Nodier at one end, and the overwhelming figure of Victor Hugo at the other end. As a final and illuminating reflection on the relationship between the two men, which moved from mentorship, to friendship and finally to rivalry, Laisney concludes that psychologically, Hugo “comble un manque” in the psyche of Nodier, who was scarred by the early loss of a son. 

The Arsenal is remembered generally for its inclusion of romantic celebrities. Laisney devotes one section of his study to such luminaries as Alfred de Vigny, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas, among others. Each is examined in a separate chapter that examines both their attendance of the Arsenal salon and their activities therein, as well as how such revealing activities offer new insights into their literary careers. Laisney’s reflection on the Romantic celebrities and their participation in the Arsenal salon provides a nuanced analysis of the internal dynamics of the literary movement as well as revealing the lasting influence of Charles Nodier on a younger generation of writers. 

In his section on the mediocrités of the Arsenal, Laisney refers to the “petits et humbles,” the now forgotten but then celebrated salon poets and characters who attended the salon. Provincial poets, prestigious in their own social spheres, often arrived in the capital to find themselves rejected by insular Parisian intellectual circles. Nodier, of provincial origin himself, was one of the few Parisian figures to offer hospitality to provincial poets and writers, who he saw as authentic and close to the ancient sources of poetry and storytelling. Thus, to provincial writers, “l’Arsenal est perçu comme un îlot d’humanité dans le désert parisien” (401). 

In the section entitled communauté, Laisney widens his focus to analyze the association of various groups of individuals – individuals hailing from Nodier’s home region (Franc-Comté), les hommes du livre (editors, publishers and journalists), artists and women. For example, in terms of le monde du livre, Laisney points out that the Arsenal served as a meeting ground in which, while engaging in lively diversions such as dancing, editors would make contact with writers; where “entre deux contredanses, prennent forme de vrais engagements” (517). 

In the closing sections of his study, Laisney moves outwards to consider the Arsenal as it related to several important developments in the literary movement of Romanticism. Under fraternité, he discusses the debate that arose in the press surrounding the idea of “la camaraderie littéraire.” Several literary critics deplored the new forms of sociability associated with romantics like Nodier and his circle, “sociabilités” which were seen as pretentious and false.  The debate around literary camaraderie continued for some years, leading up to an 1834 article published in the Revue des Deux-Mondes by Gustave Planche, in which the ascension of Hugo to a “royal” status is seen to break the (false) sense of equality amongst the Romantic camarades

Laisney’s work, as well as being richly documented, informative and entertaining, is refreshingly polyphonic. In fact, Laisney succeeds in his original project, to “mette fin à l’idée – trop répandue –, que la théorie romantique serait la propriété et l’œuvre d’un seul homme (Victor Hugo et sa préface de Cromwell!), et non le produit discordant et tâtonnant d’un groupe d’individus” (702). The literary movement of Romanticism, viewed through the lens of the Arsenal salon, emerges as a plurality. 

Ruth-Ellen St. Onge
PhD Candidate
Volume 37