Literary Escapade: Combourg and Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand (1768-1848) is a writer that my highschool BFF and I had nicknamed Chateaubrichiant. (Chateauboring) That’s how much we enjoyed the excerpts of Memoirs of Beyond the Grave that we studied in school.

Since then I’ve read Atala and René and mused in my billet that I didn’t know that Chateaubriand was in favor of kibbutz (Atala) and missed the opportunity to invent Kleenex (René) The whole billet is here.

Chateaubriand is taught as the precursor of Romanticism and I have to confess this is not my favorite literary movement. Too much gloom and doom for my tastes. And indeed, see what Chateaubriand writes about his own birth:

Il n’y a pas de jour où, rêvant à ce que j’ai été, je ne revoie en pensée le rocher sur lequel je suis né, la chambre où ma mère m’infligea la vie, la tempête dont le bruit berça mon premier sommeil, le frère infortuné qui me donna un nom que j’ai presque toujours traîné dans le malheur. Le Ciel sembla réunir ces diverses circonstances pour placer dans mon berceau une image de mes destinées. A day seldom passes on which, reflecting on what I have been, I do not see again in thought the rock upon which I was born, the room in which my mother inflicted life upon me, the tempest whose sound first lulled me to sleep, the unfortunate brother who gave me a name which I have nearly always dragged through misfortune. Heaven seemed to unite these several circumstances in order to lay within my cradle a symbol of my destiny. 

Translation Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

Kill me now…Anyway, this house is still there, in St Malo, in what is now Chateaubriand Street. (of course)

Chateaubriand was brought up in Combourg, a castle bought by his father who made a fortune as a fisherman in Newfoundland, tunred corsair and then invested in slave trade. A man of his time. Combourg is still owned by the descendants of the family and it’s open to visit, with a guided tour. The castle was empty during 80 years after the Revolution and was renovated by Viollet-Leduc. Here’s a general view of the castle.

And here are the grounds, taken from the stairs of the castle. There’s a lot of space to run around.

The visit takes us through parts of the castle and it’s a Chateaubriand tour, with quotes from Memoirs Beyond the Grave and all.

Here’s the room where he slept as a child, in a remote tower of the castle. The poor boy had to accompany his mother and sisters to their rooms, lock doors and check that there were no monsters and then had to go back to his isolated room in the dark and on his own. I can’t imagine what scars this you-will-be-a-man kind of education leaves on a young boy. Don’t you think that his room looked like a cell?

Chateaubriand died in Paris, rue du Bac. (Like Romain Gary, btw) His furniture was moved to Combourg and they have redone his Parisian room in the castle.

It was a nice tour, telling about Chateaubriand’s early life in Brittany.

The most moving part for me was this tree. It comes from the north of Canada and it’s called a faux cyprès de Lawson in French and according to the dictionary, a Port Orford tree in English. I couldn’t help thinking about The Overstory by Richard Powers, who keeps reminding us that trees, if we don’t destroy them, often survive us.

It’s two-hundred-and-fifty-years old, it has known Chateaubriand as a child. The little stone structure is the Lucile cross, a place where Chateaubriand and his sister Lucile used to chat. She was the one who encouraged him to write.

I left Combourg with an anthology of Memoirs Beyond the Grave. I’m not up for the whole memoirs, so I’ll rely on the work of Jean-Claude Berchet who selected the parts he thought worth reading.

I’ve started to read it and I find it a lot easier than expected.

I’m very curious about the historical aspects of Chateaubriand’s life. He has lived through several political systems in France: born under Louis XV, formative years under Louis XVI (1774-1792), he lived through the Revolution and the Ist Republic (1792-1804), Napoléon and the Ist Empire (1804-1815), the Restauration (1815-1830), the July Monarchy (1830-1848). When he died, the Second Republic had just started. All this in a lifetime.

He traveled a lot, had piolitical responsabilites. I’d like to read his biography some day. (And Lamartine’s, for the same reasons)

I always wonder how common people navigated and survived all these changes.

  1. August 6, 2020 at 11:57 am

    Ha, ha, I love your nickname for Chateubriand! Haven’t been too keen to get stuck into his work, just read a few excerpts here and there. And isn’t his grave or at least a memorial just there, overlooking the sea? I saw it recently in a film (L’Avenir with Isabelle Huppert), which reminded me that I haven’t ever been to that area, despite St Malo featuring in my first ever French lesson (Bon voyage, Monsieur Dubonnet, a St Malo debarquez sans naufrage…).


    • August 6, 2020 at 12:01 pm

      Mind you, his grave fits the character. It’s on a small island off St Malo. You can walk there on low tide. The man couldn’t be in a comfy cemetery like everyone else.
      I didn’t go but took pictures from the shore but they’re not very good. (I only have a phone)

      PS: What a weird first French lesson. My first English lessons involved Brian and Jenny being in the kitchen.


      • August 6, 2020 at 12:16 pm

        I can still repeat that first lesson almost word for word.
        Nous partons en vacances.
        Ah, et quand partez vous?
        The song came at the end. The reason I know it so well is because my mother kept trying to learn French over and over again. I soon skipped ahead!


        • August 6, 2020 at 1:11 pm

          This song is old. I don’t understand how it landed in your French lesson.

          My Mom’s been doing English lessons on Duolingo for something like two years.


          • August 6, 2020 at 3:04 pm

            This was in my early childhood – my mother was trying to learn French and English, because they only ever learnt Russian at school.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. August 6, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Another one for the bucket list!


    • August 6, 2020 at 1:10 pm

      This is going to be a great tour! Vivement la fin du confinement!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 6, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Oh lovely – how fascinating and thank you for sharing! I have the whole Chateaubriand lurking and I rather like what I’ve read so far. I think part of what attracts me to his writing is the fact that he survived *so* many political changes in France – amazing!!


    • August 6, 2020 at 2:36 pm

      I like what I’m reading too, and I’m a bit surprised.
      I really wonder how it felt to live all your life in such troubled times.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. August 6, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    I’ve read very little by him, just the odd aphorism (I think; did he do aphorisms?) Lamartine was one of the poets in an anthology I studied for French A Level (pre-university entry) – all I remember, weirdly, is one line: ‘Mon coeur, lassé de tout, Même de l’esperance.’ Don’t even remember the poem it came from but I really liked those lines (I was only 17-18).


    • August 6, 2020 at 8:55 pm

      I don’t think he’s known for aphorisms.

      Lamartine is unescapable, I’m afraid. I prefer Victor Hugo.


  5. August 6, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    Not sure how I would like him now, but his writing totally fit my teen soul, I really liked him a lot back then!


    • August 6, 2020 at 8:56 pm

      Lucky you because he didn’t fit my teenage soul. Always complaining and seen the bottle half empty.


  6. August 6, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    Atala and René are the ones I’ve read. I’d forgotten that you had too. I agree his room does look a bit cell-like.

    Like you this isn’t really a genre that speaks to me (though based on WordsAndPeace’s comment perhaps teenage me would have liked him more). The visit though looks absolutely lovely.


    • August 6, 2020 at 9:00 pm

      I’ve yet to see a comment that says “I love Romanticism”; we’ll see if I get one later.

      More seriously, I’ve just read a little school manuel about Romanticism (Son has French exam next year and he’s SO not ready to discuss anything related to litterature) and discovered that Balzac belongs to Romanticism. That was new to me.

      So maybe I should review my statement about not liking Romanticism because I can’t discard Balzac that easily.

      The visit was lovely, with a passionate guide.


  7. August 6, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve not read him, like you I don’t really like Romanticism. He did live through such extraordinary times so maybe I should look into his work more. That tree is incredible.


    • August 6, 2020 at 9:00 pm

      I’m looking forward to read the passages about his professional life. I hope there are some.


  8. Vishy
    August 7, 2020 at 1:18 am

    Wonderful post, Emma! Loved all the pictures. I can’t imagine how he lived in a small room in the castle as a boy. I want to read his memoir.


    • August 10, 2020 at 11:12 am

      Thanks Vishy! I’ll let you know how the memoirs are. I think that starting with an anthology was the right move.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. August 7, 2020 at 1:29 am

    What a lovely and amusing post! I majored in French literature and I agree that Chateaubriand can be pure torture! I remember reading René when I was at graduate school- the typical Byronic hero -melancholic and wallowing in self pity!


    • August 10, 2020 at 11:13 am


      René was the worst of the two novellas, Atala and René. I really don’t like the whining / self-pitying characters.


  10. August 7, 2020 at 11:44 pm

    One to add to my list of places to visit on my next visit to France – when that will be of course is the big question. I remember driving through that area but we never had time to stop and look around the chateau. such a shame


    • August 10, 2020 at 11:14 am

      It’s a lovely castle, not a major site to visit but for literary geeks, it’s interesting.

      I hope things get better in the coming months. I don’t dare to think about “normal life” anymore. I just hope that we all find a way to adjust and makes the best of the circumstances.


  11. Samrina
    August 18, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    « To be Chateaubriand or NOTHING. » wrote Victor Hugo (his greatest fan). Even at 12-years old the young Victor Hugo could admire the Romantic style of one of France’s greatest writers. Being bilingual (French-English), I can understand why foreigners have difficulty understanding his works. He was the Shakespeare of his time and it’s nearly impossible to translate his writings from French to any other language. It’s more about how he wrote than what he wrote (although his life adventures and misfortunes are fascinating, too.) There is good reason why so many French writers wanted to follow in his footsteps but no one has ever been able to write as poetically. And the castle of Combourg in Bretagne where he spent part of his childhood is absolutely enchanting. It looked quite different during his time but since the restorations by Viollet-le-Duc, (of Notre-Dame Cathedral fame), it transformed into a magnificent home. It has an amazing history and today it is one of the few fully furnished private castles left in France–a must-see! It’s a shame there is no translation of his entire Memoirs–only excerpts. The Maison de Chateaubriand in the Vallée-aux-Loups near Paris where he wrote his famous autobiography is also worth a visit. There are beautiful trees he planted there himself. I wish everyone could fully appreciate his literary contributions for they are so appropriate during today’s turbulent times!


    • August 18, 2020 at 9:28 pm

      Thank you for your heartfeld and enthusiastic comment about Chabeaubriand’s merits!

      For the record, I’m French and French is my native language. I would never read Chateaubriand in English. There’s no lost-in-translation syndrom here.

      I know that Hugo was a great admirer of Chateaubriand’s. Good for him. I’m not a great fan of Hugo either. While I really liked Hernani and Ruy Blas, I can’t say I was blown away by Notre Dame de Paris. Is it a masterpiece? Undoubtedly. Did I love the book? Not much.

      Well it’s the same with Chateaubriand. I admire his writing but it’s not my cup of tea.

      I’m currently reading an anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave and yes, he writes beautifully. But does he have to be negative about everything? “J’aperçus le petit chariot d’osier dans lequel j’avais appris à me tenir debout sur ce triste globe”. Does he have to say “triste globe”? He can be a genius, this way of thinking doesn’t sit well with me.

      The castle in Combourg is lovely, and the grounds are beautiful. It’s awsome to be on the premises where such a great man was brought up but I was more moved by Balzac’s museum in Paris, with his teapot and stuff than by Combourg. I’ll keep in mind to visit the Maison de Chateaubriand in the Vallée-aux-Loups, though.

      As I said, I’m much more interested in Chateaubriand’s career as a politician than as a novelist. Lamartine and Chateaubriand intrigue me: their public self seems totally opposite to their literary self. They were real politicians and wrote poetry that is at odds with their daily occupation.


  1. October 18, 2020 at 10:43 am

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