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Atala – René by François-René de Chateaubriand

August 14, 2011 26 comments

Atala / René by François-René de Chateaubriand.  (1768-1848). I read the edition reviewed by the author in 1805.

I read Atala and René as part of the Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge hosted by Sarah, category A book that paralyses one with dread. These two novellas belong to a wider literary project entitled The Natchez, but Chateaubriand eventually published them as stand-alone. In 1805, the aristocrat Chateaubriand is 37. He’s been through the French Revolution – his brother Jean-Baptiste has been guillotined, he has spent seven years of exile in Great-Britain and has visited the French colonies in America. Bonaparte has become Napoleon. Chateaubriand has experienced different states of wealth from rich to filthy poor. Now the novellas.  

Atala or how I discovered that Chateaubriand was in favour of kibbutz.

There are classics we know only by name, some whose plot we know even if we haven’t read them. I knew Atala by name but had no idea of the plot. According to its English edition, it can be considered as the first American novel although it has been written by a Frenchman. Indeed, it is set in the French colonies in America at the beginning of the 18th C. The old Sachem Chactas relates his tragic love story with Atala to his adopted son René. He was a prisoner from Atala’s tribe, she fell in love with him, set him free and eloped with him. That’s the pitch.

It’s full of Romantic descriptions about the fauna and flora of the country, a sort of Eden. According to the footnotes, Chateaubriand was inspired by his own trip and by the books of other travellers. I rather enjoyed the descriptions. The way Chateaubriand bent geography to meet his own narrative goals made me smile and I marvelled at the outdated spelling of the Mississippi River. (Meschacebé). All this is right in the same line as Paul & Virginie, a novel I found so corny that I couldn’t finish it. Atala isn’t corny though. The useful footnotes enlightened me about the political and literary references of the text. Chateaubriand admired Rousseau and was the heir of the Enlightenment. Philosophical concerns are mixed in the novel as he uses this form to promote ideas. I liked the tolerance and humanism filtering through the text. Yes Atala stems from Voltaire and Rousseau.

Atala is an Indian girl whose mother was a Christian who had had a relationship with a white man. She baptised her daughter and had her swear on her dying bed that she would become a nun. The vows pronounced by the daughter are supposed to save the mother’s soul. Atala’s promise gets in the way of her genuine love for Chactas. Chateaubriand clearly criticises Atala’s mother for her selfishness: she disposed of her daughter’s life for her own benefit. It’s treacherous as Atala isn’t free any more and it is in contradiction with Chateaubriand’s moderate vision of Christianism. Because Atala is also a promotion of Christianism. When Atala and Chactas reach the community ruled by Father Aubry, Chateaubriand describes his ideal Christian society as opposed to a society based on the “contrat social” by Rousseau.

“Je ne leur ai donné aucune loi ; je leur ai seulement enseigné à s’aimer, à prier Dieu et à espérer une meilleure vie : toutes les lois du monde sont là−dedans. Vous voyez au milieu du village une cabane plus grande que les autres : elle sert de chapelle dans la saison des pluies. On s’y assemble soir et matin pour louer le Seigneur, et quand je suis absent, c’est un vieillard qui fait la prière, car la vieillesse est, comme la maternité, une espèce de sacerdoce. Ensuite on va travailler dans les champs, et si les propriétés sont divisées, afin que chacun puisse apprendre l’économie sociale, les moissons sont déposées dans des greniers communs, pour maintenir la charité fraternelle. Quatre vieillards distribuent avec égalité le produit du labour. Ajoutez à cela des cérémonies religieuses, beaucoup de cantiques (…) vous aurez une idée, complète de ce royaume de Jésus−Christ. “

I didn’t impose any law; I only taught them how to love, pray God and hope for a better life. All the laws of the world are there. You see a bigger house in the centre of the village: it is used as a chapel during the rain season. We gather there on mornings and evenings to celebrate the Lord and when I’m away, an old man says the prayers. Indeed old age is, like maternity, a sort of calling. Then we work in the fields and if the estates are divided so that everyone can learn social economy, harvests are deposited in a common barns, to sustain brotherly charity. Four old men distribute equally the product of the fields. Add to this religious ceremonies, a lot of carols, (…) you shall have a full vision of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

I didn’t know Chateaubriand was in favour of the kibbutz. It’s a sort of utopia, incredibly naïve or should I say candid?. Only Pangloss is missing with his famous “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”

The surprise was that I enjoyed his style much more than I thought I would. He manages to instil poetry in his sceneries:

La nuit était délicieuse. Le Génie des airs secouait sa chevelure bleue, embaumée de la senteur des pins, et l’on respirait la faible odeur d’ambre qu’exhalaient les crocodiles couchés sous les tamarins des fleuves. La lune brillait au milieu d’un azur sans tache, et sa lumière gris de perle descendait sur la cime indéterminée des forêts. Aucun bruit ne se faisait entendre, hors je ne sais quelle harmonie lointaine qui régnait dans la profondeur des bois : on eût dit que l’âme de la solitude soupirait dans toute l’étendue du désert.

It was a lovely night. The Génie of the air was shaking off his blue hair that smelled like pine trees. One could breathe in the light scent of amber coming off the crocodiles laying under the river tamarinds. The moon was shining amid an immaculate azure and her pearl-grey light was falling on the hazy canopy of the trees. No sound could be heard except for a kind of remote harmony that prevailed in the deep woods. One could think that the soul of solitude was sighing in the whole desert.

What a delightful description of an enchanting summer night! All senses are invited in. First, taste as in French, “délicieux” means “delightful” or “lovely” but also “delicious”. Second, the sense of smell with the odours of the trees and animals. Third, sight with the moonlight. And the absence of distinct sound addresses our ears. The whole human being is engulfed in a whirl of sensations.

After Atala, I thought I could read more of him and reading his memoirs now tempts me but I’ll have to wait at least until I have finished In Search of Lost Time. It’s a long-term project. But time for us to move on to …

René or how Chateaubriand missed the opportunity to invent tissues.

In René, the roles are changed. Chactas, the Indian who has been to the court of Louis XIV now listens to René, the white man who left France behind to live in the woods with Native Americans.

Ah René! Let’s say it right away, fortunately, it’s short. It met my expectations of moaning Romanticism. René has le mal du siècle. Not the same mal du siècle as Octave, the hero of Musset. He has le mal de son siècle, the 18th C, coming from growing under a declining political regime where nobility had no serious occupation. As a consequence, René has no profession and thus has too much time to think. He has the spleen, the blues, the vague à l’âme, whatever you call it. He’s alone and lonely. He’s tired of everything and bored. His only human bond is with his sister Amélie but she shies away from him until he writes such a depressing letter that she runs to him, fearing he might commit suicide. She starts living with him and the more he blooms by her side, the more she withers, until she leaves him to become a nun after telling him about her inappropriate feelings for him. Well, that was unexpected from that primp and proper Christian writer. Or so I thought. Now I start thinking he was more twisted than I imagined. And back to the nagging idea of discovering the Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe.

Of course, Chateaubriand complains. I expected a whining author, I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, my dear Chateaubriand, hearts vary. Fortunately they do. They move on, otherwise we couldn’t heal, recover from losses and keep on living for those who remain and count on us. He thinks the society is rotten. Life in nature is pure. Blah blah blah. I don’t like the myth of the Good Savage corrupted by civilisation in opposition to a innocent life in nature. I notice that those descriptions of nature never include volcano eruptions, hurricanes or tsunamis. It is only gentle Mother nature generously providing food and shelter to humans. How handy. The tyle is full of “O”, exclamation marks, cries and sighs. Get the tissue box, please.

So yes, René irritated me and I love the conclusion of René by Father Souël:

On n’est point, monsieur, un homme supérieur parce qu’on aperçoit le monde sous un jour odieux. On ne hait les hommes et la vie, que faute de voir assez loin. Étendez un peu plus votre regard, et vous serez bientôt convaincu que tous ces maux dont vous vous plaignez sont de purs néants.

One is not a superior man because they see the world in a hateful light. One only hates men and life because they look at them with distant eyes. Widen you look and you shall be soon convinced that all the troubles you complain about are sheer nothingness.

Hear that Michel Houellebecq? That’s exactly what I wanted to say at the end of The Elementary Particles.

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