I had scarcely left my mother's womb when i suffered my first exile - reading Chateaubriand's Memoirs

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed

I was reading This Little Art by Kate Briggs, her essay on translation, in particular on translating Barthes. She writes that one paragraph from Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, quoted in Time Regained, was for Barthes an example of a piece of writing 'that sounds across a lifetime while the rest of the book falls quietly away'. She quotes it from Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor's translation:

I dined two or three times at the Governor's house, an officer full of kindness and good manners. He grew a few European vegetables on the hillside. After dinner, he showed me what he called his garden. A sweet and subtle scent of heliotrope was exhaled by a little patch of beans that were in flower; it was brought to us not by a breeze from our own country but by a wild Newfoundland wind, unrelated to that exiled plant, without sympathy of shared memory or pleasure. In this perfume, not breathed by beauty, not cleansed in her bosom, not scattered where she had walked, in this perfume of a changed sky and tillage and world there was all the diverse melancholy of regret and absence and youth.

This struck me very powerfully, so that the next day when i was pottering in a library, not really sure of what I wanted to read, I thought, 'I'll give Chateaubriand's Memoirs a go.'

They're amazing, perfect Christmas reading, and there is so much worth quoting on every page that I thought I'd start a thread for the bits that I particularly enjoyed.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:00 (eleven months ago) Permalink

It's in Robert Baldick's translation, the edition I've got is Hamish Hamilton, and I believe is the same as that issued by Penguin Classics, which heavily selects and divides into periods of his life (Ancestors, Childhood, Youth, Manhood etc). I understand that an edition of Memoirs beyond the grave is coming out in NYRB in a new translation next year, which is great news.

I didn't really know anything about Chateaubriand, and to take him at his own word. He's writing towards the end of his life from his 'gardener's house', 'hidden among the wooded hills near the hamlet of Aulnay, close to Sceaux and Châtenay.'

He was of an aristocratic family faithful to the Bourbons and, in a sentiment i've heard a number of times, refers to Napoleon as the 'man who today gives the mastery of the world to France only to trample her underfoot, the man whose genius I admire and whose despotism I abhor, envelops me in his tyranny as in another solitude; but though he dominates my present, the past defies him, and I retain my liberty in all that has preceded his glory.'

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:09 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Monarchy and Revolution 1768-1800: Ancestors

The aristocracy has three successive ages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, the age of vanity; once it has left the first behind, it degenerates in the second and expires in the last.

this predominantly amused me as a gloss on many of our current newspaper op-ed pundits, and the current state of the tories. it also indicates quite nicely C's own cynicism towards his class.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:13 (eleven months ago) Permalink

I forgot to say, that place in the woods near Aulnay he was writing is called the Vallée-aux-Loups.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:14 (eleven months ago) Permalink


sonnet by a wite kid, "On Æolian Grief" (wins), Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:15 (eleven months ago) Permalink

For my part, I neither boast nor complain of the old or the new social order. If, in the first, I was the Chevalier or the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, in the second I am François de Chateaubriand; I prefer my name to my title.

this is an attractive sentiment after a passage where he expresses some bitterness as to the state of the French nobility, who are all trying to claim they descend from peasant stock.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:18 (eleven months ago) Permalink

<3 these two uncles:

As a crowning misfortune, my grandmother's plans were thwarted by her son's temperaments. The eldest, François-Henri, who had inherited the magnificent estate of La Villeneuve, refused to marry and became a priest; but instead of applying for the benefices which his name could have obtained for him, he asked for nothing out of pride or indifference. He buried himself in a country living and was successively rector of Saint-Launeuc and of Merdrignac, in the diocese of Saint-Malo. He had a passion for poetry; I have seen a fair amount of his verse/ The jovial character of his sort of aristocratic Rabelais and the cult of the Muses which this Christian priest practised in a presbytery excited people's curiosity, he gave away all that he possessed and died insolvent.

The last of the four sons, Joseph, went to Paris and shut himself up in a library: every year he was sent the 416 francs which were his portion as a younger son. He went unnoticed in the world of books; he devoted himself to historical research. During his lifetime, which was brief, he wrote every New Year's Day to his mother, the only sign of life he ever gave. What a strange fate!

especially loving Joseph here.

I find Chateaubriand's asperity towards these two characters unsympathetic, but i recognise that there is a strong practical streak here that produces the irritation.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:25 (eleven months ago) Permalink

My mother [elsewhere - 'she did not have a single taste which was not at variance with her husband'] gave birth at Saint-Malo to a boy who died in infancy and who was called Geoffrey, like nearly all the eldest sons of mu family. This son was followed by another and by two daughters who lived only a few months.

These four children died of a rush of blood to the brain. Finally my mother brought into the world a third boy who was called Jean-Baptiste: it was he who later become the grandson-in-law of M. de Malesherbes. After Jean-Baptiste four daughters were born: Marie-Anne, Bénigne, Julie and Lucile, all four of rare beauty, and of whom only the two eldest survived the storms of the Revolution. Beauty, that serious frivolity, remains when all others have gone. I was the last of these ten children. It seems probable that my four sisters owed their existence to my father's desire to see his name made secure by the arrival of a second boy; I tarried, having an aversion for life.

I love that last sentence - it's something he reiterates in different forms in the early parts here - a reluctance or scepticism as to the process of living. I was also struck by the translated phrase 'rush of blood to the head', I hadn't thought that it might be used as a medical term, presumably describing some sort of infant apoplexy? I can't quite make out the second part of the 'beauty' aphorism either, tho the first part is excellent.

Oh i should say that the fully unabridged version of these memoirs stretches to eight or so volumes. They were translated into English early in the 20th C / late 19th C by Frenchman living in Chelsea, whose name i can't remember.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:38 (eleven months ago) Permalink

And finally for today, the last paragraph of Ancestors:

I was almost dead when I came into the world. The roar of the waves whipped up by a squall heralding the autumnal equinox drowned my cries: these details have often been recounted to me; the sadness of them has never left my memory. Not a day passes, but, thinking of what I have been, I picture once more the rock on which I was born, the bedroom in which my mother inflicted life on me, the storm which accompanied my first sleep, and the unhappy brother who gave me a name which I have nearly always dragged through misfortune. Heaven seemed to have gathered together these various circumstances in order to place in my cradle an image of my destiny.

Fizzles, Sunday, 17 December 2017 16:41 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Wow, that last quote especially reinforces my lingering impression of his influence on/reinforcement of Proust.

dow, Sunday, 17 December 2017 20:23 (eleven months ago) Permalink

(If "the rest of the book slips quietly away" refers to Time Regained, I def don't agree.) Can see I'll have to read all of those memoirs I can find! No more room in the Collier Bros stacks, time for ereader is hereby confirmed.

dow, Sunday, 17 December 2017 20:27 (eleven months ago) Permalink

It's not the steak it's the Fizzle

Akdov Telmig (Ward Fowler), Monday, 18 December 2017 16:02 (eleven months ago) Permalink

that last para is real talk

all this youthless booty (Noodle Vague), Monday, 18 December 2017 16:05 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Monarchy and Revolution 1768-1800: Childhood

apologies for the length of this one, but I think it's excellent.

My grandmother relied upon her sister to run the house. She had dinner at eleven o'clock in the morning, followed by her siesta; at one o'clock she would wake up; she would then be carried to the bottom of the garden terraces and be installed under the willows by the spring, where she would sit knitting, surrounded by her sister, her children and grandchildren. In those days, old age was a dignity; today it is a burden. At four o'clock my grandmother was carried back into her drawing room; Pierre, the servant put out a card-table; Mlle de Boisteilleul knocked with tongs on the fire-back, and a few minutes later there entered three other old maids who came from the house next-door in answer to my aunt's summons. These three sisters were called the Demoiselles Villedeneu; the daughters of an impoverished noble, instead of dividing up his meagre fortune, they had enjoyed it in common, had never separated, and had never left their native village. Closely acquainted with my grandmother since childhood, they lived next-door and came every day, at the agreed signal on the fire-back, to play quadrille with their friend. The game began; the good ladies quarrelled; this was the only event in their lives, the only moment when the evenness of their tempers was altered. At eight o'clock supper restored peace. Often my uncle De Bedée, with his son and three daughters, would join my grandmother at supper. The latter told countless stories of the old days; my uncle in his turn recounted the Battle of Fontenoy, in which he had taken part, and topped off his boasting with some rather outspoken anecdotes which made the good ladies almost die with laughter. At nine o'clock, when supper was over, the servants came in; everybody knelt down, and Mlle de Boisteilleul said the evening prayers aloud. Any ten o'clock the whole house was asleep, except for my grandmother, who was read to by her maid until one o'clock in the morning.

This society, which was the first I ever observed, was also the first to disappear from my sight

There's so much to love about this passage - the image of the grandmother being carried out and back in, the neighbouring sisters, the bickering over the quadrille, and the image, what might almost be a genre picture, of the rest of the house asleep, dark and quiet, while the grandmother sits up long into the night being read to by the maid.

But most of all it's that last phrase, that closes a perfectly described and charming small group, so that it appears as a thing, his first example of a type ('a society'), and as a type is both exists permanently, while examples of it are necessarily impermanent, subject to mutability, and shrouded ultimately by darkness (the darkness of prior to birth, that C describes, and the darkness subsequent to death). (There is something Hegelian in this universal 'Now' and 'Here' and the preservation of a temporary truth past its moment.

The presentation of this childhood tableau with its domestic detail as 'a society' shows a mind capable of taking this thing and understanding it as a type of thing that will undergo the wildest unpheavals, disappearances and strains over the course of his memoirs, as wild as any in history.

In this ability to categorise it reminds me of a section from This Little Art, the book that prompted me to pick up Chateaubriand in the first place, on Barthes' late lectures, about how to enable plurally constructed societies with their own rhythms to live and learn and construct meaning together. That is to say the manner here reminds me of Chateaubriand's manner and approach, but of course the content (about society) is also relevant to the content:

Instead, to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of its small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, a Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be stimulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? As materials to think with, Barthes compiles this unlikely corpus – an unexpected collection of writings and novels: The Magic Mountain, Robinson Crusoe, the texts of the Desert Fathers, Zola's novel set in an apartment building, André Gide's account of the real-life sequestered woman of Poitiers. The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I'll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I'll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and for food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments. The invitation to his audience was to collaborate actively in the inquiry.

aiui Barthes sees such an approach as being able to accommodate the idiorhythms of people that products a natural societal 'dysrhythmia', that is to say people going at different speeds and getting out of step. Of course the society that C has presented is one which has organically created its own rhythms, which all its participants naturally abide or live by, which almost defines what that society is - location and tempo.

I find that notion of the chessboard, with things and categories of things placed next to each other very attractive, and got a sense of it from C's passage above (or rather that last line expressed it for the whole excerpt). It's also perhaps how I see ilx sometimes, and why it felt appropriate to place Chateaubriand, and me reading it, here, come here if you like, maybe you will come at a different time and read it, but it is placed here, in a somewhat dusty corner of ILB, so that it may be (without any expectation that it *will* or *should* be) picked up, in the sense in which you pick up, appropriately enough, the end of a thread.

Fizzles, Monday, 18 December 2017 16:43 (eleven months ago) Permalink

dow, i didn't really provide enough context for that quote - the sense in which I think it was meant the rest of the book 'passes quietly away', is that we are brought up short by some sentences, or passages, which burn in the memory for something they express, even after the book in its detail has passed away. All of Proust was important to Barthes, I think. To give the full context:

He [Barthes] makes this clear: 'my Desire to write doesn't stem from reading as such but from certain readings in particular, local readings'. A handful of authors; and even then, just one or two of their books. For Barthes, it is Proust, but In Search of Lost Time, not the earlier Jean Santeuil .. And even then, not the book in its entirety. Perhaps it's just one paragraph, just one resonant paragraph that sounds across a lifetime while the rest of the book falls quietly away.

Fizzles, Monday, 18 December 2017 16:50 (eleven months ago) Permalink

It's not the steak it's the Fizzle

― Akdov Telmig (Ward Fowler), Monday, 18 December 2017 16:02 (forty-seven minutes ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink


Fizzles, Monday, 18 December 2017 16:50 (eleven months ago) Permalink

On certain days of the year, the people of the town and the countryside came together at fairs called assemblies, which were held on the islands and in the forts around Saint-Malo; they went to these fairs on foot at low tide and in boats at high tide. The crowds of sailors and peasants; the covered wagons; the caravans of horses, donkeys and mules; the competition between the stall keepers; the tents pitched on the shore; the processions of monks and confraternities winding their way through the crowd with their banners and crosses, the rowing-boats and sailing-boats coming and going; the ships coming into port or anchoring in the roads; the artillery salvoes, the ringing of bells, all this combined to lend these gatherings noise, movement and variety.

I was the only witness to these fairs who did not share in the general merriment. I went to them without any money to buy toys or cakes. Shunning the contempt which follows in the wake of ill-fortune, I sat a long way from the crowd, beside the pools of water which the sea maintains and renews in the hollows of the rocks. There I amused myself watching the auks and gulls flying past, gazing into the bluish distance, picking up seashells and listening to the music of the waves among the reefs.

Those fairs are so vividly and affectionately described, and present a wonderful picture of festivity in the spaces between land and water, that it's almost a surprise to find him removed so far from it. It might almost be comical, but it completely avoids self pity, because the picture of childhood solitude is somehow larger, greater, the acquiring of experiences, of solitude in the vastness of nature.

The two worlds, social and solitary, evenly weighted and combined really hit me when I read this passage.

Fizzles, Monday, 18 December 2017 17:04 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Lovely, thanks. Come to think of it, if the rest of the book slips quietly away, it may come back refreshed.

dow, Tuesday, 19 December 2017 02:04 (eleven months ago) Permalink

C falls in with a real spoiled prick called Gesril. The sort of childhood friend who gets you into scrapes and then stands back and somehow avoids blame. For a mixture of reasons the young Chateaubriand had earned himself a bad reputation, through always defending his older sister Lucile, the youngest of the sisters, through hanging round with street urchins all the time and being similarly ragged, and through his friendship with Gesril. He narrates a few 'adventures' - this one is particularly picturesque.

We were on the beach one Sunday, along Sillon beyond the Porte Saint-Thomas, where thick stakes had been driven into the sand to protect the walls against the sea. We were in the habit of climbing on to these stakes to watch the first waves of the incoming tide pass beneath us. The places were taken as usual; there were several little girls among the little boys. Of the latter, I was the farthest out to sea, having nobody in front of me but a pretty little thing called Hervine Magon, who was laughing with pleasure and crying with fright. Gesril was at the other end of the row of stakes, nearest the shore.

The tide was coming in, the wind rising; already the maids and valets were calling out: 'Come down, Mademoiselle! Come down, Monsieur!' Gesril waited for a big wave to arrive; when it swept in between the piles, on to the next: the whole line went over like a row of skittles, but each one was steadied by his neighbour; there was only the little girl at the end of the line on to whom I collapsed who, having nobody to support her, fell into the water. The ebb swept her off her feet; there was a chorus of shrieks, and all the maids hitched up their skirts and waded into the sea, each one seizing her charge and boxing its ears. Hervine was rescued, and declared that François had pushed her over. The maids bore down upon me; I got away from them and ran home to barricade myself in the cellar, with the female army hot in pursuit. Fortunately my mother and father were out. La Villeneuve [a lady-in-waiting in the household of whom C was v fond] defended the door valiantly and cuffed the enemy vanguard. The real cause of the trouble, Gesril, came to my help; he went up to his room and with his two sisters threw jugfuls of water and baked apples at the attacking force. Their raised the siege at nightfall, but the news spread through the town, and the Chevalier de Chateaubriand, aged nine, passed for an evil character, a descendant of those pirates of whom St Aaron had purged his rock.

("Saint Aaron of Aleth (died after 552), was also called Saint Aihran or Eran in Breton, a sixth-century hermit, monk and abbot at a monastery on Cézembre, a small island near Aleth, opposite Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.")

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 10:06 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Monarchy and Revolution 1768-1800: Youth

But what is most to be admired in Brittany is the moon rising over the land and setting over the sea.

Appointed by God as governess of the abyss, the moon, like the sun, has her clouds, her mists, her rays and her projected shadows; and like the sun, she does not retire alone; a procession of stars accompanies her. As, on my native shore, she descends towards the limit of the sky, she intensifies her silence which she communicates to the sea; soon she falls to the horizon, intersects it, and before long shows only half her brow which sinks, bows and disappears in the gently swelling waters. The queen's attendant stars, before following in her wake, seem to pause, suspended on the crest of the waves. The moon has no sooner set than a breeze coming from the open sea breaks the image of the constellations, just as the torches are extinguished after a solemn ceremony.

I have never quite understood the meteorological phenomenon of that first breath of dawn, that light exhalation of the air, that is the true signal that day has started, but have experienced it several times. (of course the moon setting does not always indicate dawn, but here it clearly does as it comes with the extinguishing of the stars). in my head it's something like a ripple passing across the earth just before the sun rises, something like an atmospheric version of the Severn Bore.

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 10:25 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Our horses were rested at a fishing village on the Cancale beach. Afterwards we crossed the marshes and the busy town of Dol: passing the door of the school to which I was soon to return, we turned inland.

For ten mortal miles we saw nothing but heaths ringed with woods, fallow land which had barely been cleared, fields of poor, short, black corn, and scanty oats. We passed charcoal-burners leading strings of ponies with lank, tangled manes, and long-haired peasants in goatskin tunics driving gaunt oxen along with shrill cries or walking behind heavy ploughs, like fauns tilling the soil. Finally we came to a valley in which, close to a pond, there rose the spire of a village church; the towers o a feudal castle could be seen above the trees of a wood lit by the setting sun.

I was obliged to pause for a moment just now: my heart was beating so hard as to push away the table on which I am writing. The memories awakening in my mind are overwhelming in their number and poignancy; and yet, what do they mean to the rest of the world?

astonishing passage. for many pages you've been totally immersed in C's childhood, hypnotically so, and the landscape through which he's been travelling. Then suddenly the past telescopes away and you are brought back to C writing now, heart hammering at the immediacy of it all, thrusting away the table with the urgency of it.

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 14:12 (eleven months ago) Permalink

he has been talking about how excellent his verbal memory is, and refers cryptically to 'another sort of memory' of which he'll speak later on.

One thing humiliates me: a good memory is often the quality of stupidity; it generally belongs to ponderous minds, which it makes heavier on account of the additional baggage with which it loads them. And yet, where should we be without memory? We should forget our friendships, our loves, our pleasures, our work; the genius would be unable to collect his thoughts; the most ardent lover would lose his tenderness if he could remember nothing; our existence would be reduced to the successive moments of a perpetually fading present; there would no longer be any pas. Poor creatures that we are, our life is so vain that it is nothing but a reflexion of our memory.

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 14:18 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Would my mind have been better developed if I had been sent to school earlier? I doubt it: these waves, these winds, this solitude which were my first masters were probably better suited to my native dispositions; perhaps I have these wild teachers to thank for certain qualities I would otherwise lack.

and now I am caught up to my place in the book - i'll add stuff to the thread as i come across it.

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 14:24 (eleven months ago) Permalink

oh, i meant to include his subsequent comments on that small group of people around his grandmother mentioned above, mainly because of the last line.

I am perhaps the only man in the world who knows that these people existed. A score of times since then I have made the same remark; a score of times societies have formed and dissolved around me. This impossibility of length and duration in human relationships, this profound oblivion which follows us, this invincible silence which takes possession of our graves and spreads to our houses, brings me back time and time again to the need for isolation. Any hand will do to give us the glass of water we may need in the fever of death. But it should not be too dear to us, for how can one abandon without despair a hand which one has covered with kisses and which one would like to keep forever close to one's heart?

sir dumblebee hitler the first (Fizzles), Tuesday, 19 December 2017 15:06 (eleven months ago) Permalink

i think the posts above give a pretty good idea of Chateaubriand is like - sceptical towards his life, solitary with the capability of observing and affection for society that solitariness can sometimes imply. A man constituted of the wind, sea and rock of his native Saint-Malo and Brittany. A wayward scamp as a child. One thing it doesn't capture is his piety, which his mother gave to him.

On the feast-days I have just mentioned I used to be taken with my sisters on a pilgrimage to the various shrines of the city, to the chapel of Saint-Aaron and to the convent of La Victoria; the sweet voices of a few women hidden from sight fell upon my ear: the must of their canticles mingled with the roaring of the waves. When, in winter, at the hour of evening service, the cathedral filled with people; when old sailors on their knees and young women and children holding little candles read from their prayer-books; when the multitude, at the moment of benediction, recited in unison the Tantum Ergo; when, in between these songs, the Christmastide squalls battered at the stained-glass windows of the basilica, shaking the roof of the nave which had once echoed with the lusty voices of Jacques Cartier and Duguay-Trouin, I experienced an extraordinary feeling of religion. I did not need La Villeneuve to tell me to fold my hands to call upon God by all the names my mother had taught me; I could see the heavens opening, the angels offering up our incense and our prayers; I bent my head: it was not yet burdened wit those cares which weigh so heavily upon us that one is tempted never to raise one's head again once one has bowed it before an alter.

Fizzles, Thursday, 21 December 2017 12:56 (eleven months ago) Permalink

I'm also semi-wishing I'd called this thread 'I'm into CB'.

Fizzles, Thursday, 21 December 2017 12:57 (eleven months ago) Permalink

'that one is tempted never to raise one's head again once one has bowed it from an altar'

partly to correct the typo, partly to emphasise the phrase, which very effectively conveys to me the notion of piety - what is lifelong devotion to god, such that you might become a monk or whatever, other than a recognition of ones great sins and cares, such that you feel you can never again raise your head?

It seems to me, thank xt, that, despite his piety, Chateaubriand is one who always raised his head.

Fizzles, Thursday, 21 December 2017 13:00 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Wonder what he thought of the Goncourts?
"Visiting the enormous new Eldorado café-concert in 1860. I, they experienced the vertigo that comes to all, even snobs, when they note that no place at the table has been set for them. (Although their works were joint, each brother wrote in the first person singular.)

My Paris, where I was born, the Paris of life as it stood between 1830 and 1848, is passing away. Social life is undergoing a great evolution. I see women, children, households, families in this café. The interior is doomed. Life threatens to become public. The club for the top rank, the café for the bottom: that is where society and the crowd will end up...I have a sensation of passing through, as if I were a traveler. I am a stranger to what is coming, to what is, as I am to those new boulevards, implacably straight, that no longer exude the world of Balzac, that conjure some American Babylon of the future.

"But their own Balzac had already seen as much: 'The ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and pigment,' he had written fifteen years earlier. And a decade before that, when Louis-Philippe installed Napolean's Egyptian trophy on the site that had held the guillotine during the revolution, Chateaubriand felt apocalyptic intimations: 'The time will come when the obelisk of the desert will once again know, in that place of murder, the silence and solitude of Luxor.' "
----Luc Sante, The Other Paris

dow, Thursday, 21 December 2017 18:47 (eleven months ago) Permalink

There is a big universe of French memoirs that reading this opens up (I haven't yet but looking forward to the NYRB edition. I wonder how it compares to Saint-Simon. The Goncourts are fantastic and well worth your time, Fizzles and all. Very vivid and gossipy.

Come to think of it most of my favourite French novelists effectively wrote lightly disguised memoirs: Proust, Genet (less so, but there is The Prisoner of Love, which I ought to re-read next year) and Celine.

xyzzzz__, Thursday, 21 December 2017 19:01 (eleven months ago) Permalink

thanks both - been meaning to read the goncourts for some time.

Fizzles, Thursday, 21 December 2017 22:42 (eleven months ago) Permalink

In one of the later volumes of In Search, there's a dazzling li'l send-up of/homage to the Concourts---narrator drops it almost absentmindedly, but even more otm in context.

dow, Thursday, 21 December 2017 23:31 (eleven months ago) Permalink


dow, Thursday, 21 December 2017 23:31 (eleven months ago) Permalink

so, after going off to get his commission in the navy, he gets to Brest and decides actually he doesn't want to do this after all and flits back to his family where he is greeted by Lucile (youngest of the elder sisters) with 'ecstatic kisses'.

he then doesn't pick up the memoirs again until three and a half years later, so he starts the next section setting the contemporary context again. one oddity of this section is its persistent sense of near death, but i looked at his dates and... well, you're only 49 CB, you don't get to go all morbid profundity just yet you know.

Between the last date attached to these Memoirs, January 1814 at the Vallée-aux-Loups, and today's date, July 1817 at Montboissier, three years and six months have elapsed. Did you hear the Empire fall? No: nothing has disturbed the tranquility of this spot. Yet the Empire has collapsed; the immense ruin has fallen in the course of my life, like Roman remains that have tumbled into the bed of some unknown stream. But events matter little to one who holds them of no account; a few years escaping the from the hands of the Eternal will do justice to all these noises by means of an endless silence.

see also

Let me make the most of the few moments left to me; let me hasten to describe my youth, while I can still remember it: the sailor, leaving an enchanted shore for ever, writes his journal within sight of land which is withdrawing and which will soon disappear from view

come on mate, why the long face:

by your own admission:

I was born with a lively disposition: drawn to both serious and pleasant things, I began with poetry before turning to prose; the arts delighted me; I have always been passionately fond of music and architecture. Although easily bored, I was capable of mastering the smallest details: gifted with a patience that was proof against anything, however tired I might be of the subject occupying my attention,. my perseverance was always stronger than my distaste. I have never abandoned a task which was worth completing; there are matters which I have pursued for fifteen or twenty years of my life, as full of ardour on the last day as on the first.

This mental suppleness was also apparent in things of secondary importance. I was good at chess, billiards, shooting and fencing; I drew tolerably well; I would have sung well too, if my voice had been trained. All this, combined with the way in which I was brought up and the life I have led as a soldier and traveller, explains why I have never played the pedant or displayed the stupid conceit, the awkwardness and the slovenly habits of the men of letters of former days, still less the arrogance and self-assurance e, the envy and blustering vanity of the new authors.

Fizzles, Friday, 22 December 2017 16:10 (eleven months ago) Permalink

Truly a rousing tribute to oneself, think I'll mandate its reading at my funeral.

dow, Saturday, 23 December 2017 02:39 (eleven months ago) Permalink

“i am effortlessly amazing, which is why i have never displayed the stupid conceit you see in others” is definitely a formula i will be using on my cv from now on, yes.

Fizzles, Saturday, 23 December 2017 09:03 (eleven months ago) Permalink

great thread, kiu

Daniel_Rf, Saturday, 23 December 2017 09:22 (eleven months ago) Permalink

CB picks up his memoirs again, at a point this selection collects as 'Manhood'.

Yesterday evening I was walking by myself; the sky was like an autumn sky; a cold wind blew at intervals. Coming to a gap in the thicket, I stopped to look at the sun; it was sinking into the clouds above the tower of Alluye, from which Gabrielle [Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henri IV's mistress], occupying that tower, had seen the sun set, as I was seeing it now, two hundred years ago. What has become of Henri and Gabrielle? The same that will have become of me when these Memoirs are published.

I was distracted from these reflections by the twittering of a thrush perched on the topmost branch of a birch tree. At once that magnificent sound brought back before my eyes my father's domain; I forgot the disasters which I had recently witnessed and, carried back all of a sudden into the past, I saw once more the fields where I had so often heard the thrush's song. When I listened to it then, I was sad as I am today; but that first sadness was of the kind which springs from vague longing for happiness when one is still lacking in experience; the sadness which I feel now comes from the knowledge of things which I have appreciated and judged. The song of the bird in the Combourg woods told me of a happiness which I expected to achieve; the same song in the park at Montboissier reminded me of the days I had wasted in the pursuit of that unattainable happiness. I have nothing more to learn; I have travelled faster than others, and I have completed the tour of life.

CB posting to the 'this is the inevitable thread for ilxors in their forties' thread there.

Also a *very good* intro to the Manhood section as it is *full* of hilarious teen morbidity and sexual embarrassment, which he sees as *unique* in the *history humankind*, no one other than i has experienced such things etc.

Returning to my former state of idleness, I became more aware of what was lacking in my youth: I was a mystery to myself. I could not see a woman without feeling embarrassed; I blushed if she spoke to me. My shyness, already excessive in anybody's company, was so great with a woman that I would have preferred any torture to being left alone with her: yet no sooner had she gone than I longed for her to return. The descriptions of Virgil, Tibullus and Massillon, it is true, presented themselves to my memory; but the image of my mother and my sister, covering everything with its purity, made thicker the veils which Nature sought to raise; filial and brotherly love decried me with regard to any less disinterested affection. If the loveliest slaves of a seraglio had been handed over to me, I would not have known what to ask of them: chance enlightened me.

A neighbour of the Combourg domain came to spend a few days at the château with his wife, who was extremely pretty. Something, I forget exactly what, happened in the village; everyone ran to one of the windows of the great hall to look. I got there first, our fair guest followed hard on my heels, and I turned round to give her my place. Involuntarily she blocked my way, and I found myself pressed between her and the window. I ceased to be conscious of what was happening around me.

At that moment I became aware that to love and be loved in a manner which was unknown to me must be the supreme happiness. If I had done what other men do, I should soon have come to know the pains and pleasures of the passion whose seeds I carried within me; but everything in me assumed an extraordinary character. The fervour of my imagination, my shyness and solitude were such that, instead of going out into society, I fell back upon myself; for want of a real object of my love, I evoked, by the strength of my vague longings, a phantom which never left my side. I do not know whether the history of the human heart offers another example of this nature.

1) I've got a slightly different idea of what was lacking in his youth - he lived in the middle of nowhere, only ever seeing his close family, fancied his sister, was a teenager and wasn't getting any.

2) that scene at the window is hilarious, and obv the woman knew very well what she was doing

3) it's a characteristic of these memoirs that he frequently expresses the belief that he is the only person who could possibly had such an experience, either because of his great abilities and refinement, or the accident of time and place. Earlier he has stated that he is one of the only people who is able to testify to both feudal France and


to be fair to the lad, this sort of Romantic expression *was* new - it's the eve of the French Revolution. It's one of those things where it's hard to believe the experience of coming out the other side of puberty hasn't ever involved this sort of turmoil, or that manners in society often frustrated the natural sexual urges, leading to a great deal of frustration. but it's certainly also likely that this *mode* of expression, of the agonies of the self, was novel, may have seemed unique, where to us it now feels natural, perhaps even cliched. CB is perhaps a sort of pioneer in these spaces.

What's impressive is the extent to which the mature CB, the memoirist, is able to very clearly feel his teenage pangs. But it's also a bit perplexing that despite his long experience of life and people he still perceives the uniqueness of the experience (it's easy in our youth, less easy as we perhaps look back cynically on ourselves, to do so in age.

Fizzles, Tuesday, 2 January 2018 14:24 (eleven months ago) Permalink

I'm waiting for the NYRB new translation coming out in late February, which I pre-ordered. Now I'm looking forward to reading M. de Chateaubriand.

A is for (Aimless), Tuesday, 2 January 2018 19:16 (eleven months ago) Permalink


Annoyingly, I really want to read this after Fizzles's posts, and I'm ~95% sure I already own a copy of the Penguin edition, but can't find it, but know the moment I buy a new copy the old one will turn up

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Thursday, 11 January 2018 22:33 (eleven months ago) Permalink

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.