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Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – Chateaubrilliant, I should say

October 18, 2020 10 comments

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1849) An Anthology Original French title: Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Anthologie. 

I bought this anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave during my literary escapable to Combourg in July. Jean-Claude Berchet, a literary critic specialist of Chateaubriand, selected the texts of this anthology. I trust him to pick the best parts of the forty-two books of Chateabriand’s Memoirs for lazy readers like me.

This billet will not bring anything to literary critic of the Memoirs, I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that. It’ll be my experience as a reader, which is personal and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of this monument of literature.

When Chateaubriand writes about his birth and childhood, he mentions that his mother inflicted life upon him and he wasn’t happy to live. Karma is a bitch, he’ll be on this Earth during eighty years. (September 4th, 1768-July 4th, 1848) and what eighty years! Here’s a little historical digest of the times.

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

08/1830-02/1848 July Monarchy Louis-Philippe

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

Chateaubriand was a soldier in the Revolutionary wars (on the monarchy’s side), fled the country, stayed in England, came back and occupied various political capacities. (deputy at the Chambre des Pairs, minister of Foreign Affairs…)

I was really interested in his childhood, the passages related to his travels to America and his life during the French Revolution and his exile in England. He endured hardship with stride and never complained. I found the last books interesting too as he reflects upon France and democracy. The other books were about his political career and as you can see in the table before, the political scene is very complicated. All the explanations about where he stood and why he supported this or that side went over my head, due to the my lack of historical knowledge. I’m sure that the Memoirs are invaluable material for historians.

I was disappointed that there was almost nothing about his personal life. There’s a nice book about his wife, very polite. It was an arranged marriage that lasted until 1847. They rarely lived together and had no children. (I guess living apart is an efficient method of contraception.) Chateaubriand had mistresses and I hope his wife had lovers too.

Everything was centered on him and History. There were some passages about his books and their success but nothing about his literary life. Nothing about literary salons, only mentions about Mme de Beaumont and Mme Récamier, in passing. Not a word about the battle of Hernani. Almost no literary reference except Lord Byron, and a passage about George Sand. No description of Paris, its people, its changes. He lived in the Paris of Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Nerval and Stendhal and he says nothing about it. What a disappointment! (Or Jean-Claude Berchet cut all these passages)

I enjoyed reading his thoughts about political regimes, though. He was in favor of a controlled monarchy, thinking that the ultimate regime for France would be a Republic but that the country needed a transition period with a constitutional monarchy. It’ll take until 1870 for the republic to be the stable political regime for France but he foresaw that trying to reinstall a full monarchy was a pipe dream. The French population had moved on. There are fascinating thoughts about the public stance a royal family should have that could interest British readers. (Book 37)

There’s a book set in Switzerland, where he’s on holiday, walking in the mountains, trying Rousseau and Lord Byron’s paths, I suppose. And I thought, “Here we go, Romanticism and the bliss of hiking in the mountains.” And no, dear Chateaubriand surprised me with this ironic statement:

Au surplus j’ai beau me battre les flancs pour arriver à l’exaltation alpine des écrivains de montagne, j’y perds ma peine.

Au physique, cet air vierge et balsamique qui doit réanimer mes forces, raréfier mon sang, désenfumer ma tête fatiguée, me donner une faim insatiable, un repos sans rêves, ne produit point sur moi ces effets. Je ne respire pas mieux, mon sang ne circule pas plus vite, ma tête n’est pas moins lourde au ciel des Alpes qu’à Paris. J’ai autant d’appétit aux Champs-Elysées qu’au Montanvert, je dors aussi bien rue Saint-Dominique qu’au mont Saint-Gothard, et si j’ai des songes dans la délicieuse plaine de Montrouge, c’est qu’il en faut au sommeil.

Au moral, en vain j’escalade les rocs, mon esprit n’en devient pas plus élevé, mon âme plus pure ; j’emporte les soucis de ma terre et le faix des turpitudes humaines. Le calme de la région sublunaire d’une marmotte ne se communique point à mes sens éveillés. Misérable que je suis, à travers les brouillards qui roulent à mes pieds, j’aperçois toujours la figure épanouie du monde. Mille toises gravies dans l’espace ne changent rien à ma vue du ciel ; Dieu ne me paraît pas plus grand du sommet de la montagne que du fond de la vallée. Si pour devenir un homme robuste, un saint, un génie supérieur, il ne s’agissait que de planer sur les nuages, pourquoi tant de malades, de mécréants et d’imbéciles ne se donnent-ils pas la peine de grimper au Simplon ? Il faut certes qu’ils soient bien obstinés à leurs infirmités.

For the rest, it is vain for me to exert myself to attain the Alpine exaltation of the mountain authors: I waste my pains. 

Physically, that virgin and balmy air, which is supposed to revive my strength, rarefy my blood, clear my tired head, give me an insatiable hunger, a dreamless sleep, produces none of those effects for me. I breathe no better, my blood circulates no faster, my head is no less heavy under the sky of the Alps than in Paris. I have as much appetite in the Champs-Élysées, as on the Montanvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on the Mont Saint-Gotthard, and, if I have dreams in the delicious plain of Montrouge, the fault lies with the sleep.

Morally, in vain do I scale the rocks: my mind becomes no loftier for it, my soul no purer; I carry with me the cares of earth and the weight of human turpitudes. The calm of the sublunary region of a marmot is not communicated to my awakened senses. Poor wretch that I am, across the mists that roll at my feet I always perceive the full-blown face of the world. A thousand fathoms climbed into space change nothing in my view of the sky; God appears no greater to me from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. If, to become a robust man, a saint, a towering genius, it were merely a question of searing over the clouds, why do so many sick men, miscreants and fools not take the trouble to clamber up the Simplon? Surely, they must be very obstinately bent upon their infirmities.

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Chateaubriand. He is the perfect blend of the Age of Enlightenment with its Voltairean irony and the angst of the first half of the 19th century. He’s a French spirit to the core. Born in the Britany aristocracy, he embraced democracy as the final target for France. His intelligence brought us insightful thoughts about politics and the way to lead a country. Many of analyses are still up-to-date. He was true to his beliefs all his life, not compromising for a position. It left him poor sometimes but with his integrity. Freedom of speech was not something to be trifled with and he understood that King Charles X willing to suppress it contributed the 1830 July Revolution. To be honest, I expected someone a lot more conservative than he was.

Chateaubriand writes beautifully, as the quote before displays it. I wish he had dropped the frequent Greek and Latin comparisons though, because I think they weigh his sentences down. And of course, but that’s not his fault, they are mostly obscure to the modern reader.

So, what’s the verdict? I’m on the fence. I really struggled with some passages that I found truly boring. His speeches, the passage on Napoléon but I’m curious about the missing passages because I wonder if they have descriptions of his personal life. Thinking of reading the whole Memoirs is daunting, it’s more than 3500 pages. Perhaps I should just download a free ebook edition and read what interests me.

I’m happy I read this anthology as I met a great writer and a man with an exceptional intelligence. He surprised me with his modern thinking and how relevant some of his assessments are.

Literary Escapade: Combourg and Chateaubriand

August 6, 2020 26 comments

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.

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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