1At a time when novels were the target of moralists who reproached them for the outlandish artifice of their plots and the potential danger of an indulgent representation of the passions, Montesquieu always professed a very nuanced opinion in respect to them, criticizing the authors and modes of writing more than the novelistic genre itself (LP, 131 ). As passions are a part of human nature, to demand that they be hidden from sight indeed appears to him absurd and vain; on the other hand, he faces the novelist with his responsibilities and assigns him the duty of “rectifying” those passions (Pensées, no. 1438), inventing, if need be, forms that can link the representation of man’s contradictory drives and a reflection on the possible uses of the energy they develop. Without exactly making a profession of it, then, Montesquieu owns up without shame to his activity as a novelist.
2His library at La Brède apparently accorded but a minor place to novels (Catalogue, nos. 2222-2273, the same rubric including poetry, mythology, etc.). Montesquieu seems to have owned most of the classics of the previous century and a few critiques of the contemporary novel (Lenglet Du Fresnoy, Bougeant or Desfontaines). On the other hand, the names of the great novelists of the first half of the 18th century, with the exception of Challe (Catalogue, n. 2247), do not figure in this Catalogue (Crébillon nevertheless appears twice in the postmortem inventory of his Parisian home). We should nonetheless interpret these data with caution, since the Pensées show that Montesquieu’s familiarity with the novels of his time went well beyond the few titles in the Catalogue.
3While he recognizes that one of his fictions is only “a sort of novel” (“une espèce de roman”, Pensées, no. 2033, referring to the Persian Letters), that another does not fit the “learned” criteria (preface to The Temple of Gnidus), he does not hesitate to situate himself, on the other hand, as the instigator of a new novelistic form. He pretends indeed to renew the genre by establishing between fiction and historical reality a relation nourished by the analysis of inter-individual relations and their political prolongations. Such is the sense of his recourse to the epistolary structure in Lettres persanes (see what he says in “Quelques réflexions […]”), to an episodic narrative of avatars of the metempsychosist in Histoire véritable, to the singular marriage of the themes of mad love and government in Arsace et Isménie.
4For his entire life Montesquieu was attracted by novelistic writing. After the Persian Letters, published in 1721, he brought out The Temple of Gnidus in 1725, composed Histoire véritable between 1734 and 1739 (he returned to it at the end of his life), and wrote, doubtless around 1742, Arsace et Isménie only to take it up again in 1747. The latter two works were not published in his lifetime but he never ceased revising and correcting all his novels with meticulous attention: non-negligible additions to the second edition of 1721, thorough notebooks of corrections which, in 1751-1754, modify the writing and complement their architecture, considerable changes made to Histoire véritable on the advice of his friend Jean-Jacques Bel; hesitations attested by the manuscripts of La Brède on the form to give to the conclusion of Arsace et Isménie. The constancy with which Montesquieu practiced novelistic writing, the numerous changes he made to his texts, while keeping some in his papers for over thirty years, his reprises or displacement of episodes (developments on the station of the eunuch that go from the Persian Letters to Histoire véritable, an “oriental story” likely transferred from Histoire véritable to Arsace et Isménie), all this invites us to situate Montesquieu’s novelistic writing, after the dazzling success of the Persian Letters, in a sort of secret laboratory of the writer’s.
5The originality of Montesquieu as novelist does not reside in the project of moralizing the representation of the passions nor even in that of grafting on the canvas of a journey lessons of morality or politics – Telemachus, “the divine work of this century” (Pensées, nos. 115, 2252: texts transcribed, the one before 1731, the other at an indeterminate date, and added into the Pensées) furnished an illustrious precedent. Montesquieu himself recalled, with respect to the Persian Letters, that the work’s real originality was to be found in the “secret chain” which links philosophy, politics and mores “to a novel” (“Quelques réflexions sur les Lettres persanes”, posthumous). In fact his entire novelistic production was applied to performing, in the almost theatrical sense of the term, their parallelism in the functioning of the relation of authority, the absolute desire to conquer or to possess being a temptation that lies in wait for the lover, by way of jealousy or inconstancy, as for the man of power, by that of despotism. In love, at least, this drift can be strongly resisted by devotion and the gift of oneself to the other. By relating love, history, and political lesson, Montesquieu seems to have wanted to experiment, on various embodiments of situations of power, the manifestations of the will to power, of the resistances it engenders as well as the reflexes or apprenticeships capable of restraining, or even blocking the fatal evolution of the exercise of power in the direction of despotism. That is no doubt one of the reasons that inclined him to choose the Orient as framework for his novels: for in warm countries, “each person will seek to take over the others all the advantages that can favor [the] passions” (“chacun cherchera à prendre sur les autres tous les avantages qui peuvent favoriser [les] passions”, EL, XIV, 2). Finally, by making use of fragmented forms of writing, Montesquieu placed the reader in the position of the historian, both invited to deduce a coherent meaning from disparate information. In so doing he lent to this manner of novelistic writing a properly epistemological function.
6So we see in what way the novels of Montesquieu, even the most unimportant in appearance like The Temple of Gnidus, take their place in the perspective of his great project of L’Esprit des lois (which is moreover suggested in a humoristic manner in the preface of the Temple of Gnidus). For a long time, however, criticism has gone wrong on what novelistic writing represented to Montesquieu. Considering that for a man of science like himself, the novel was supposed to be no more than an amusement, it regarded his fictions as marginal productions. It was only beginning in the 1960s and the remarkable essay by Roger Laufer that it became aware of the importance that the practice of the novel could assume in Montesquieu’s approach. And still this applies especially to the Persian Letters. So one can say that we only begin to take the measure of the philosophical and epistemological stakes that novelistic experimentation constituted for Montesquieu the whole length of his career.
Roger Laufer, “La réussite romanesque et la signification des Lettres persanes”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 61, April-May 1961, p. 188-203; reprinted in R. Laufer, Style rococo, style des Lumières, Paris : José Corti, 1963, p. 51-72.
Roger Mercier, “Le roman dans les Lettres persanes: structure et signification”, Revue des sciences humaines 107 (1962), p. 345-356.
Henri Coulet, Le Roman jusqu’à la Révolution, Paris: Armand Colin, 1967.
Jean Goldzink, La Politique dans les “Lettres persanes”, Presses de l’ENS, Fontenay-Saint-Cloud, 1988.
Alberto Postigliolia, “L’Histoire véritable, prélude épistémologique à L’Esprit des lois?”, in Lectures de Montesquieu, Edgar Mass et Alberto Postigliola dir., 1, Naples: Liguori, 1993, p.147-167.
Céline Spector, Montesquieu, les « Lettres persanes »: de l’anthropologie à la politique, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997.
Annie Becq, Commentaire des “Lettres persanes”, Gallimard, Folio, 1999.
Philip Stewart and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Introduction to Lettres persanes, OC, t. I, 2004, p. 15-71.
Françoise Gevrey, “Morale et politique mises en fiction: Arsace et Isménie de Montesquieu”, actes du colloquein “Morales et politique”, Jean Dagen, Marc Escola et Martin Rueff dir., Paris: Champion, 2005, p. 229-246.
Philip Stewart and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Histoire véritable et autres fictions, Paris : Gallimard, “Folio Classique”, 2011, introductions.
Lettres persanes, ed. Philip Stewart, Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2013.