Appearances mattered to Jules Renard: both his own and those of his fellow creatures. Photographs show him beady-eyed and whiskered, gussied up for the city or else slightly overdressed for Chitry-les-Mines, the village in the Nièvre in northern Burgundy where he spent his childhood, and to which he often returned. But though he moved in artistic metropolitan circles, mixing with Mallarmé, Alphonse Daudet, André Gide and Rodin, Renard only ever had one foot in Paris, and in 1904, following after his father, he was elected mayor of Chitry. His roots, he was always eager to stress, were ‘still covered in earth’. Missing in the photographs is his hair colour. In 1896, crushing heavily on Sarah Bernhardt (she had dazzled him at her salon, reclining on a polar bear pelt next to her pet lion), Renard told her that before age and experience turned him blond, he was ‘a redhead, once, downright ginger and frankly vicious’. We hear about this in his journal, which he kept from 1887 until his death in 1910, and it’s there, too, that we read him rebuking himself for this awkward attempt at a chat-up line.
In comparison to the photographer Félix Nadar, who died the same year and who made his red hair part of a spectacular commercial identity, alluding to it in his famous scarlet signature and sporting vivid red robes, Renard was deliberately, even ostentatiously, low key. He wore his hair short, insisting that one could be shorn and still be a poet (it was also legitimate, he said, to pay your rent, sleep with your wife and, now and then, to write proper French). When, at thirty, he became bald, he rejoiced at being liberated from the company of barbers, ‘who exhaled into my face their disdain, or caressed me like a mistress, or patted my cheek like a parish priest’. But his hair still defined his character. Poil de carotte (‘Carrot Top’), his autobiographical novel of 1894 about the unhappy experiences of a redheaded child, was his most lasting literary success. Poil de carotte was Renard and Renard was Poil de carotte. Poil de carotte anticipated his every move. His wife and children called him Poil de carotte. Poil de carotte was, he said, a state of mind. ‘A ginger style,’ Renard wrote. ‘If literature has different colours, I imagine mine would be ginger.’
A socialist and a Dreyfusard, Renard was both a self-styled outsider and a consummate insider. After a rather unpromising start in Paris, where he worked as a journalist, poet and dramatist, he attained financial security when he married Marie Morneau in 1888. The following year he became the co-founder and majority shareholder of the literary magazine Mercure de France, which provided an outlet for his prolific output. His commercial breakthrough came in 1892 when he published L’Ecornifleur (‘The Scrounger’), which recounts the story of a parasitical man of letters. A number of novels, many of them with autobiographical elements, followed; there were also plays, among them a popular adaptation of Poil de carotte.
The journal provides the key to understanding how he approached his writing. His world-weariness in its pages is that of an older man (he was only 23 when he began keeping it) and although he is often funny, ageing and death are a constant preoccupation. At thirty, Renard felt old and sad; by 42, death appeared to him a vast lake, the outline of which was beginning to sharpen as he drew ever closer. It’s a relief when his 44th birthday is greeted with the qualification that ‘it’s only at 45 that you need to start thinking’ (perhaps because I am 44 myself). The journal was, he insisted – more to himself than to the prospective reader – not intended for gossip or virtuosic displays of wit. Rather, it was a means to keep him on track, a kind of corrective through self-scrutiny. This examination was sometimes scathing. In November 1888, he wrote:
Your head has an odd shape, as if sculpted with great strokes of the chisel, almost like a man of genius. Your brow catches the light, almost like Socrates. Phrenologically speaking, you are of a type, like Cromwell, Napoleon and many others, and yet you will amount to nothing. So why this waste of effort, of favourable endowments, if you are destined to come to nothing?
A month later, on 29 December, he seems to arrive at a temporary solution: ‘How many people, after resolving to commit suicide, have settled instead for tearing up their photograph?’
Although over the years his work has found fans in Beckett, Sartre and Susan Sontag, and although Poil de carotte was a set text in French schools into the 1960s, Renard remains a minor interest among Anglophone audiences. His wife, Marie, cut a third of the journal after his death in 1910; once she’d finished editing it for publication, she burned the original manuscript (just one facsimile page remains). The Pléiade edition nevertheless runs to 1504 pages and includes Renard’s confession of a childhood erotic attachment to his mother as well as an account of a dream in which he slept with her then beat her up while his father calmly read the newspaper. One can only wonder what was excised. Renard didn’t conceal his vanities. Awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1900, he couldn’t stop talking about it, fretting about how and when he ought to wear his medal – inside or outside the coat? – and noting who had spotted it. His pleasure in receiving the Légion was undermined by a healthy dose of impostor syndrome and by his awareness of the competitiveness and pomposity such awards provoke. He imagines an appalled meeting between two medal-holders: ‘What! Not you too?’ As so often in the journal, irritation and suspicion are tempered by self-knowledge, and, in the final cut, gruff kindness and fellow feeling. Years later, he contemplates another version of this scenario, in which ill and ageing contemporaries encounter each other in the street as if meeting horrifying reflections of themselves.
Renard was a brilliant noticer of things. Distinguishing quirks and concrete observations usually take precedence over broader typologies. ‘The man of science generalises,’ he wrote, ‘the artist particularises.’ Renard termed his brand of forensic attention ‘scrupulous inexactness’, and his journal succeeds on its own terms precisely because of this ‘inexactness’. It’s a thrill to see him turn his eye on his own circle. On 7 April 1892, for instance: ‘Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He offers you a cigarette, but selects it himself. He does not walk around a table: he moves the table out of the way. A face worked over by tiny red worms, long cavernous teeth. He is enormous, and carries an enormous cane.’ Englishman, Irishman – it was all the same to Renard, whose tastes in most things were belligerently French. But his account has a sort of delicacy to it, one that allows us to peer at Wilde’s cavernous teeth and watch his big man gestures.
Renard’s relationship to other writers, and to other art forms, was complicated. He was intrigued by Toulouse-Lautrec, offering pinpoint descriptions of his distinctive demeanour, and panicking with embarrassment at the nudity of his studio models. In the journal, he writes that Lautrec ‘seeks out what is uncommon, that he is an artist’, though he doesn’t trust himself to say whether the work is good or not. Rodin blows his mind; he wants to write the way Rodin sculpts. But the rest he can take or leave. In May 1902, he visits the Louvre and is unimpressed by David and Velázquez. He mistakes Chardin’s eggs for onions. ‘Nothing here means anything to me.’ As he leaves the museum he sees a blackbird, poised against a wall of green, which eclipses all the paintings he has seen. On paying a visit to Monet’s water lilies at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery, he has a ‘terrible urge to walk out’. He couldn’t stand Cézanne. In Vallotton’s work at the 1904 Salon d’Automne he finds ‘the petty dreariness of an upholsterer’. Although Vallotton, like Lautrec and Bonnard, illustrated his books, Renard had nothing good to say about him, pronouncing him egotistical and despising his ‘redoubtable females with horrific bottoms’.
Some of these sentiments were clearly deeply felt, but at other times they seem a strategic philistinism, allowing Renard to focus on his own work. Although he claimed that music bored him, that he knew nothing about painting and that ‘sculpture gives me as much pleasure as a wax dummy at the hairdresser’s,’ he also acknowledged that this attitude not only helped him avoid pretentious conversations about art, but that staying ‘deaf to music, blind to art’ ensured his writing remained sharp. Anyone could be a generalist. And his irritation didn’t stop him going to the theatre or visiting exhibitions and studios. Renard wasn’t consistent; his own contradictions, and those of everyday life more generally, were the source of his best work.
Renard was clear about his limitations as a writer. On the first page of the journal, he describes the successful writer as a beast of burden: ‘Talent is about quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred.’ He counsels that ‘what is needed is to pick up the pen, rule the paper, patiently fill the lines.’ The big beasts – Victor Hugo above all – could bash it out for eighteen hours a day. Renard admits to his own failure on this front from the start. He wanted, he wrote, to ‘take the fleeting idea by the scruff of the neck and flatten its nose against the paper’, and one senses in the journal a project in formation, a direct, concentrated approach that permeated his more public work too. The entries rarely exceed a few lines, and his greatest literary successes – Poil de carotte foremost among them – were slim volumes.
Animals recur throughout the journal, as they did in Renard’s life. He was robustly egalitarian when it came to species other than his own, urging that ‘one must write about a pig as about a flower.’ Every time he seems to be flirting with whimsy, he flickers into clear-eyed precision, and while his account of nature is often amusing, or sensitive, it can be astonishingly unsentimental. As Julian Barnes, a long-time Renard enthusiast, writes in his preface to this new selection, translated by Theo Cuffe, ‘there are no Jemima Puddleducks and flopsy bunnies in Renard’s world; or rather bunnies are only flopsy when in the mouth of a gun dog.’ The journal frequently cross-pollinates with Renard’s Histoires naturelles (1896), a compendium of short pieces on creatures small and large, from lizards to kingfishers, dragonflies to weasels, as well as on pets, plants and the weather. It shares with that book a condensed, aphoristic quality. If others described animals for the pleasure of humans, Renard wanted, he said, to please the animals. A dog coming downstairs is ‘like the descent of a stuffed mattress’, turkeys have ‘the colouring of constipated Englishwomen’, a cat is ‘the living principle of furniture’, goldfinches are ‘dressed like jockeys’. Although his preference was for the humbler creatures that inhabited the scrappy fields around Chitry (‘white cattle, as immobile as the linen spread out on the hedges to dry’), in Paris he made trips to the zoo or the Jardin des Plantes, finding ‘red-headed parrots, creaking like rusty chains’, ‘a black swan with red bill, like an alcoholic priest’ and ‘seals sticking their elbows out awkwardly, like the natives of the Auvergne when they go out into the world’. And then, ‘what’s this? A purse! No, just a mole that a mower has killed and thrown onto the path.’
Creatures like moles have a rough time in the Histoires, as they do in Poil de carotte, ending up speared or tossed into the air or drowned. In the journal, Renard describes killing a mole with his rifle: ‘It was in the middle of the path, minding its own business. Not touching my heads of salad, about which I care so little. But I killed it anyway. Why? Meanwhile the cat has just made its mess in my armchair, and I say nothing.’ Partridges and other birds are shot without compunction, until one day, having killed a lark for no particular reason, Renard decides that he’s had enough, gets rid of his hunting permit and hangs up his rifle. Nature and humanity were to be loved, ‘in spite of the mud that clings to them both’. The fear felt by hunted animals became abhorrent to him, though it remained justifiable to slaughter and eat animals who didn’t know their end was coming. As the journal progresses, and Renard gets older, he finds that nature is his only legitimate subject, and as his health declines it increasingly becomes a way of responding to his own mortality. He sometimes framed his identity directly in relation to the wildlife of his region:
I am a man who comes from the centre of France, sheltered from the mists of the North and the hot blood of the South. My cicada is the grasshopper, and there is nothing mythological about my grasshoppers. They are not made of gold. I pick them in the meadows, swaying on the end of a blade of grass. I remove their thighs and use them as bait when I go fishing with a rod and line.
Yet if Renard was unsentimental about nature, it was because he was above all a great observer of intimacy, which came in gusts and glimpses. He records the cute things his children, Jean-François and Julie-Marie (nicknamed Fantec and Baïe), say to him, enjoying parenthood while feeling alienated and saddened by Fantec’s independence. In another register, he describes the awkwardness of post-coital disentanglement, ‘when the lips prise themselves away from the skin with difficulty, like stamps on old envelopes. The kisses that leave behind a paste.’ Even in his descriptions of bigger, more public, scenes, he homes in on the personal gesture: the way the starter at a provincial velodrome would take his pulse to calculate times.
Renard claimed his best thoughts came to him in the privy, when he was bored. But his accounts of his parents’ deaths, and that of his brother Maurice, are the most extraordinary passages of the journal, and it’s at these points that his spare, ironic entries open out into more expansive prose. Renard’s father had begun life as a peasant farmer before becoming a builder. Even though François Renard rose to be mayor of Chitry, Renard felt acutely the distance between his life and the lives of his parents. He shared many of his father’s tics – tooth-picking, evasive answers, a fear of enemas – but was alert to their differences, and dreaded the dishonesty that came with his attempts to smooth them over. He was terrified of saying something untrue or affected in conversations with his father (which, inevitably, he did).
His parents’ relationship was, to put it mildly, strained. François stopped speaking to Renard’s mother, Rosa-Anne, after the death of their first child, with Renard often acting as intermediary. Renard took his father’s side against his mother, finding himself unable to relate to her, except as the inspiration for Mme Lepic in Poil de carotte, and he resented her slighting of his wife. Loyalty to Marinette, as he called her, became a defining feature of his life; re-reading some old letters he is surprised by the recurrence of certain themes: ‘migraines, work manias, doldrums, enthusiasms, and Marinette at the centre of it all.’ In contrast, his mother is cast as manipulative and dramatic. Her passive aggression makes him deeply uncomfortable – one Easter she brings Renard twelve hard-boiled eggs and insists no one else eat them (‘she wants me to choke’). She coughs all the time, ‘to let us know she is there’.
In 1897, François, suffering from congestion of the lungs and believing himself to be close to death, committed suicide, shooting himself in the stomach. A sudden switch to the past tense anticipates the announcement of his death, as Renard compiles a list of things observed. By the end of this account, Renard claims the space one might expect would be occupied by his mother, that of the bedroom and his undressed father. Based on meticulous documentation of everyday habits and rituals, it distils years of careful scrutiny. Before his father’s sudden death, Renard was already trying to remember him:
He always washed his head in a glass of water, using his cupped hands.
He always brushed his hair furiously.
He never wore either rings or braces.
He never put on a nightshirt, but wore his day shirt to bed.
He always pared his nails with a pocket knife.
He never went to bed without reading his paper or without blowing out his candle.
He never put on his drawers and his trousers separately.
On 19 June, Renard records his father’s death. Observation becomes a way of translating loss into objects and events. Defiantly anti-clerical, François had insisted on a civic funeral – the first in Chitry (Renard shared the same principles, though he worried more about what God might think). Renard’s description of the funeral and its aftermath is scrupulous, even robotic, but despite himself he’s fascinated by the whole process and by his own somersaults of memory and feeling. He remembers when, the previous month, he’d accidentally stood in his father’s chamber pot. He reproaches himself for feeling second-hand emotions, for feeling sad in the same way everyone else feels sad. He thinks about the things that don’t get mentioned, that shouldn’t be mentioned, like his father’s body underground. He wonders what would have happened if his father had missed his shot. He notices the exhaustion of mourning, the need to constantly remind oneself of one’s own sadness.
When his brother, Maurice, dies of a heart attack in January 1900, Renard feels less and writes more. He has just taken delivery of a Pomeranian, which his children call Papillon. Maurice’s collapse ruins the delightful time everyone’s having. Again, Renard itemises the scene: ‘on the floor, water stains, a rag.’ Maurice is laid out on a green sofa, his head resting on a telephone directory: Renard tries to make out the text of the advertisement printed on its spine. Numbness prevails. He tries to cry. Marinette embraces him, but he sees in her eyes ‘the fear that, a couple of years hence, it will be my turn’. The puppy must still be played with, but now they do so with hysterical gravity. Renard records the bafflement of death with his usual economy. Maurice’s life, he wrote, ‘passed into furniture, the slightest creak of which sends shivers through us’. Later, though his father haunts him – he gives warning before entering empty rooms so as not to disturb his ghost – he seldom thinks of Maurice.
Maman’s death came a year before his own. She died violently, falling backwards down a well, and Renard recounts the farcical attempts to retrieve her. He is distracted by the weather and by the loss of one of her slippers. Despite his previous hostility towards her he’s undone by her death, but by this point also preoccupied by his own. He suffered from arteriosclerosis and emphysema; four months before his death, he complains that his throat ‘feels as if a snail is being boiled in it’. His final entry, on 6 April 1910, reads: ‘Last night, I tried to get up. Dead weight. A leg hanging outside. Then a trickle running down my leg. I let it reach my heel before I make up my mind not to bother. It will dry in the sheets, the way it did long ago, when I was Poil de carotte.’ A ginger style, gingerly reaching for a conclusion.