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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.

Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

Weeks, bloody weeks

November 4, 2011 15 comments

The Gods Are Athirst by Anatole France. 1912. Original title: Les dieux ont soif.

On doit aimer la vertu; mais il est bon de savoir que c’est un simple expédient imaginé par les hommes pour vivre commodément ensemble. Ce que nous appelons la morale n’est qu’une entreprise désespérée de nos semblables contre l’ordre universel, qui est la lutte, le carnage et l’aveugle jeu de forces contraires. We should love virtue; but it is well to know that this is simply and solely a convenient expedient invented by men in order to live comfortably together. What we call morality is merely a desperate enterprise, a forlorn hope, on the part of our fellow creatures to reverse the order of the universe, which is strife and murder, the blind interplay of hostile forces.

1793. Citoyen Gamelin, an aspiring painter is nominated to be a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The novel unfolds step by step the terrible events that will lead this man to become a heartless judge who’ll send many people to the guillotine. Gamelin is a strong believer in the Revolution. He is coldhearted and it prevents him from understanding other people’s passions. He turns mystic about his mission and oddly, the memory of Nick Corey, the crazy sheriff of Pop 1280 popped up in my mind.

There are many valuable ideas in that novel, about politics, justice, the use of violence and the means we are entitled to use to defend a cause. It shows how an ordinary and virtuous man becomes a bloody judge, loses his mind and changes into a fanatic. Since Anatole France wrote this novel, sadly we’ve had many opportunities to challenge and check his theory. The capacities of humanity to behave in inhuman ways seem abysmal.

It also exposes Anatole France’s rejection to violent outbursts and revolutions (He had hated La Commune in 1870). An generous idea transformed into an official dogma becomes lethal:

J’espère, du moins, citoyen Brotteaux, que, lorsque la République aura institué le culte de la Raison, vous ne refuserez pas votre adhésion à une religion si sage/- J’ai l’amour de la raison, je n’en ai pas le fanatisme, répondit Brotteaux. La raison nous guide et nous éclaire ; quand vous en aurez fait une divinité, elle vous aveuglera et vous persuadera des crimes. I hope, at least, citoyen Brotteaux, that, as soon as the Republic has established the worship of Reason, you will not refuse your adhesion to so wise a religion!”“I love reason, but I am no fanatic in my love,” was Brotteaux’s answer. “Reason is our guide and beacon-light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime,”

Enlightened by Winock, I noticed several passages where Anatole France addresses contemporary issues. Indeed, in 1910-1911, Jaurès had started working for the rehabilitation of Robespierre. Socialism was becoming an important political force and an international movement. The anti-clerical and clerical parties were still opposing arguments. Therefore I saw a reference to socialism in the following quote:

Sous l’apparence de préparer le bonheur universel et le règne de la justice, ceux qui proposaient comme un objet digne de l’effort des citoyens l’égalité et la communauté des biens étaient des traitres et des scélérats plus dangereux que les fédéralistes. These men who, under pretense of securing universal happiness and the reign of justice, proposed a system of equality and community of goods as a worthy object of good citizens’ endeavours, were traitors and malefactors more dangerous than the Federalists.

My edition has an excellent foreword by Marie-Claire Bancquart, a specialist of Anatole France. His father owned a bookstore specialized in the French Revolution. The young Anatole had access to all his documentation (including the newspaper tainted with blood that Marat was holding when Charlotte Corday killed him). It was original documents, from books, to almanacs, pamphlets, letters, etc.  Anatole France had an immense culture on the subject and knew very well the era, its politics, its famous people, its way of life. Bancquart says that his description of everyday life in 1793-1794, of the people’s state of mind, of the clothes, of the language and the songs, of the gardens in Paris are all accurate. As I said before, when France wrote his novel, Jaurès was trying to rehabilitate Robespierre and the discussion about the Terror was in the air. The novel is highly political, showing at the same time a bloodthirsty power and revolutionary ideas replacing religious faith, creating a violent and intolerant faith. It describes the not-so-slow evolution of a page of history that promoted justice and freedom to a paranoiac State that condemns people without a fair trial and on dubious testimonies.

From an historical, political and philosophical point of view, it’s an excellent novel. Accurate, insightful, meaningful. From a literary point of view, the style was a put off for me. Sure, the characters come to life under his pen, they sound real and the picture of Paris in that time was great. The beginning of the book was promising until Gamelin is appointed to the Tribunal. Then the style becomes heavy, complicated, too filled with many allusions and references I didn’t understand. The prose is too erudite for the modern reader. I have studied enough of Latin to understand that kind of references:

– Dictateur, traître, tyran ! il est encore des Brutus.- Tremble, scélérat ! la roche Tarpéienne est près du Capitole. “Dictator, traitor, tyrant! the race of Brutus is not extinct.”“Tremble, malefactor! the Tarpeian rock is near the Capitol!”

But I missed many comparisons. Despite the end notes, I was totally lost in the name dropping of politicians and other famous people of the revolutionary period. And the pompous tone sometimes!

Ô pureté ! ô douceur ! ô foi ! ô simplicité antique ! ô larmes de pitié ! ô rosée féconde ! ô clémence ! ô fraternité humaine ! Oh purity! oh sweetness! oh faith! oh antique simplicity! oh tears of pity! oh fertilizing dew! oh clemency! oh human fraternity!

OH DEAR!! As another example of old-fashioned ways, I took me a second or two to figure out who Guillaume Shakespeare was. It’s certainly well-written but it didn’t age well. Proust admired France so much that Bergotte is portrayed after him. Proust is a lot more gifted than him and it’s remarkable that this man who was so literate didn’t need to call his culture to back up his prose. In Proust’s novels, culture stays behind the curtains but nurtures his prose. In France’s book, it’s on stage.

Update on December 16th, 2018 : See Kaggy’s review here.

I will honour myself on bad and good things, with an equal liberty

July 27, 2010 5 comments

Childhood, by Madame Roland.

As a child, under the quiet roof of my father, I was happy with flowers and books: in the narrow walls of a prison, being in the chains imposed by the most revolting tyranny, I forget the injustice of men, their stupidity and my pain with books and flowers.

Madame Roland – maiden name Manon Phlipon – was born in 1754 in a family from the Parisian bourgeoisie. She married Jean-Marie Roland in 1780 and was living in Lyon when the French Revolution started. Her husband and her promoted republican ideas and M. Roland was appointed as Ministre de l’Intérieur (1) in 1790. Manon Roland was involved in politics and wrote her husband’s speeches. She was arrested on June 1st 1793, imprisoned in Paris and took advantage of this period to write her memoirs. She was put to death on November 8th 1793.
Her memoirs were written within a few months, on notebooks she secretly gave to reliable friends.
Childhood corresponds to the four first notebooks and as a consequence of the circumstances, is not divided in chapters but in parts that matched to the notebooks. It is moving because it reminds the reader where she was when writing this.

Childhood tells Manon’s life from infancy to adolescence. She describes the life of an intelligent child raised by loving parents and whose education mainly consisted in reading anything she could. She explains in a vivid tone her first religious commitment and how reading and thinking led her to reject religion as an impossible thing to reconcile with scientific and philosophical reasoning. She had a brilliant mind and spent most of her free time studying, reminding me of Emilie du Châteley. Like most of the intellectuals of her time, she studied philosophy, history, maths and science. Her memoirs are a testimony of the inner mind of a little girl and then an adolescent: her astonishment at social rules, her discovery of sex, her thoughts on religion. We see how she learned to think by herself.
She tells incidents which are relevant to explain how her own opinions were created. We understand that she felt that a social system judging the worth of a person according to its social class was a defaulted one and that she could not become anything else than a republican.
Her style is precise and lively, she can paint a character in a few words. She was really gifted, she had no time to work this out and yet it is well written. I could picture her in her cell, bent over a small table, frantically writing on candle light as many pages as possible, as she did not know how much time she had left before her inevitable trial and execution.
I ended this book with a mixed feeling of tenderness and of regret for this woman of another time. She had a brilliant mind and was born at a time when she could not take advantage of it.

Let her conclude herself:

I hate gallants as much as I despise slaves and I am good at showing flatterers to the door. Above all, I claim for regard and benevolence; one may admire me after that, but I need to be singled out and cherished; this rarely fails me when someone of sense and heart meets me on a regular basis.

I wish I had had the opportunity to meet you, Madame Roland and I wish you could see what has become of us.

PS : This book belongs to a collection of  “2€” books published by Folio. It consists in small texts from well-known or forgotten authors. I like it because it’s a way to test/taste new authors in an evening read. If the tone and style suit me, I’ll read another one, if not, I won’t have wasted much time.

(1) Home Office / Department of the Interior

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