Home > 19th Century, Chateaubriand François-René de, Classics, French Literature, Novella, Romanticism > Atala – René by François-René de Chateaubriand

Atala – René by François-René de Chateaubriand

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 The way Chateaubriand bent geography to meet his own narrative goals made me smile and I marvelled at the outdated spelling of the Mississippi River.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.

  1. August 14, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Another author I’ve never read. He sounds too much on the romantic side for my tastes, so I can understand how he fit into your challenge.


    • August 15, 2011 at 6:58 am

      The memoirs are really famous and probably more in your range of interest. But as Caroline pointed out they’re huge. It’s a project in itself.


  2. August 15, 2011 at 5:59 am

    I am so not sure whether I read it or not, I think maybe Atala. I got also the complete Mémoires d’Outre Tombe. I inherited it. Every excerpt I have ever read of it sounded great but the sheer mass of it is somewhat paralyzing…
    I like the quotes you chose. I even liked Paul et Virginie, I would decidedly like this.


    • August 15, 2011 at 7:06 am

      I have a lot of quotes which is a good sign for me. I couldn’t find a translation online, I had to translate the quotes. Too bad for the readers who don’t speak French. (But most of the people who follow this blog speak French anyway)
      The memoirs must be great as he is a talented writer but also because he lived at such a critical period in France’s history. You’re right they’re huge but I wouldn’t have considered reading them without this first try with Atala.


  3. August 15, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I really enjoyed both of these. I thought Atala was a rather beautiful rendering of the sublime in literature and as for poor old Rene, well, he was the first depressive in literature, I felt. It read to me as it it was almost a case study in melancholy, rather than just someone whining. But that’s okay, the world would be dull if we all liked the same things. 🙂


    • August 15, 2011 at 9:20 am

      René, the first depressive in literature? And what about Rousseau walking in the mountains near Chambéry full of self-pity and thinking about his mistress he called Mom?


      • August 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm

        I do like memoirs but I have others I need to read first. Do you like memoirs?


        • August 16, 2011 at 7:17 am

          I don’t know if I like memoirs, I haven’t read any except Mme Roland and Sachs.

          When I think “memoirs” the 4 names that come to my mind are Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand, de Gaulle and Simone de Beauvoir. But I haven’t read them, mostly because of the length. ( And yet none are longer than Casanova’memoirs…)


  4. August 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    W. G. Sebald, drawing on the memoirs, uses Chateaubriand as a character, sort of, in The Rings of Saturn. I have been curious about the memoirs ever since. I know there is at least one abridgment in English.

    I’m with you on the relative merits of the two novellas, and also thought the natural descriptions in Atala were genuinely excellent.

    Have you thought about trying The Genius of Christianity? I read it, although I am not quite sure why. There is a short chapter on bells that is amazing – an abridgment would help here, too.


    • August 16, 2011 at 5:35 pm

      That was my first Chateaubriand except for excerpts in school. I’m interested in the memoirs for his take of France in that time. I’m not sure I’d be as interested if he had lived in a more stable time. Plus he was involved in politics.
      I’m not tempted by Le Génie du Christianisme. Any blind praise of religion is a put off for me and I suspect that’s what it is from the footnotes in Atala linking the two.


    • August 16, 2011 at 5:37 pm

      I’d never heard of Sebald before reading Anglophone blogs. I’m not sure I should read him.


      • August 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm

        I have many free memoirs on the kindle. Incl. those of Margot.


        • August 16, 2011 at 7:38 pm

          I have Mémoires d’outre tombe on the kindle. I’ve found many classics I’d like to read but never took the time to or never tried because I think they are a bit daunting or very long. Like Les Essais by Montaigne or Le Journal by les frères Goncourt.


  5. August 16, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    But Sebald is German.


    • August 16, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      I know but they seem to admire him a lot.


  6. August 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    No wonder… It’s not the same writer in English. I have a review upcoming but it’s non-fiction and I’ve been reading Auschwitz for a while now. I truly like it but the writing in German is quite strange, this is all lost in the translation.
    I dare say nobody who reads Sebald in translation has read Sebald.


    • August 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      That would be interesting if you browsed through a French translation. (PS : Isn’t it Austerlitz? Napoleonian battle, it stayed in my mind)


  7. August 21, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve read both of these. I found them interesting from the point of view of better understanding Romantic literature (they were very influential I understand) but I can’t say I loved either.

    Perhaps ironically the reason I read them was because someone I knew online had written a satirical roleplaying game based on Rene (ie a game like D&D but where you played romantic heroes feeling sorry for themselves). He had captured Chateaubriand very well it turned out – which of course made his game funnier.

    Interesting comments on Sebald. He’s much loved (perhaps respected is the better word) among English language literary readers. The idea that none of them may actually be reading him is an intriguing one, but of course that’s a risk one runs with any work in translation. One only ever sees them as through a glass, darkly.


    • August 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      I bought it for the same reason. My copy has good footnotes and essays. For me, René was the cousin of Octave (Musset, Confession d’un enfant du siècle). But the teacher who wrote the essays explained that René’s mal du siècle was not the same as Octave’s mal du siècle. It is not linked to the 19th Century but to the 18th Century. Then I was lost because for me, René was a landmark for Romanticism.
      What’s D&D? Donjon and Dragons?
      From what I read on other blogs, I’m not tempted by Sebald. But I’d be really curious to see what it looks like in French.


  8. August 22, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Donjon and Dragons, precisely. In this case though a satirical game in which people play protagonists of a romantic novel. I’ve not played it, but I believe it has been played as a sort of party game.


    • August 22, 2011 at 8:37 pm

      I wonder what the Romantic writers who took their misery so seriously would have thought of that game. So far, I haven’t noticed that self-depreciating humour is their trademark.


      • August 22, 2011 at 9:05 pm

        I imagine they would have been horrified. I think it was affectionate, but I can’t swear to that.

        The guy behind it wrote an English language version too, but instead of Rene he based it on Wuthering Heights.


  1. December 10, 2011 at 5:59 am
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