My Hermit’s Life

Tim Parks

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Likewise François-René de Chateaubriand. Again and again, in this first volume of Memoirs from beyond the Grave, a character is introduced only for their death to be immediately announced. ‘President Le Pelletier de Rosambo, who later died with such courage, was, when I arrived in Paris, a model of frivolity.’ And again: ‘The Bishop of Dol was … a friend of my family and a prelate of quite moderate political views who, on his knees, crucifix in hand, was shot with his brother.’

No attempt is made to create suspense with the many turns of fortune that befell his family: ‘My brother perished on the scaffold,’ we are told almost at once; ‘my two sisters departed their painful lives after many years spent languishing in prison, and my two uncles didn’t leave enough to pay for the four planks of their coffins.’ But if such forewarnings draw our attention to the great political upheaval that would shape Chateaubriand’s life, this wry mannerism cannot be entirely attributed to the French Revolution. ‘A gamekeeper at Combourg named Raulx,’ we are told of René’s adolescent years, ‘grew fond of me [and] was killed by a poacher.’ Often, just to see a fellow human was to think of death. ‘If I met with a farmer at the end of some fallow field, I would stop to look at this man whose seedtime was spent in the shadow of the same wheat among which he would soon be reaped.’

When the Memoirs are not ‘a registry of deaths’, they are a chronicle of exile. ‘On leaving my mother’s womb, I underwent my first exile,’ Chapter 3 begins. Baby René was put out to a wet nurse. Aged seven he left his nurse for the vivacious household of his grandmother and uncle in the village of Plancouët, not far from Saint-Malo – but this, one of the only places ‘where I have ever known happiness’, was also ‘the first to have disappeared from my sight’. Death entered, making it a ‘lonelier and lonelier place’. ‘Since then,’ Chateaubriand calculates, ‘twenty times societies have formed and dissolved around me.’ On page 30 of a work that would run to three volumes, the central theme is emphatically stated: ‘This impossibility of duration and continuity in human relations, the profound forgetfulness that follows us wherever we go, the invincible silence that fills our graves and stretches from there to our homes, puts me constantly in mind of our inexorable isolation.’

One might expect the writer of these words to be a gregarious fellow for ever denied company. Not at all. While Chateaubriand longs for the presence of close family and friends, nothing irritates him more than empty chatter or casual acquaintances: ‘Have mercy on me!’ he begs when threatened with a visit from certain English lords and ladies. ‘Who will rescue me from these persecutions?’ Generally speaking, he tells us, ‘I do not talk with casual acquaintances about my interests.’ This apparent contradiction between loneliness and misanthropy is related to the other unresolved conflicts that give his life and memories so much wayward energy. He is attached to the past, but insists on the need to move forward to the future; ever loyal to the royalist cause, he nevertheless supports many of the revolution’s principles; the first proponent, as a novelist, of French Romanticism, he describes himself as a methodical workaholic. ‘I am a bizarre androgyne,’ he concludes, ‘forged by the divergent bloods of my mother and my father.’

Apolline de Bedée and René de Chateaubriand père were indeed wonderfully mismatched, she ‘as exuberant and animated as he was expressionless and cold’. Of the ten children they produced, the first four died shortly after childbirth. Then came Jean-Baptiste, the ill-fated brother, followed by four daughters. Finally, in 1768, nine years after his brother, there was René. ‘I was the last,’ he tells us. ‘I resisted.’ That sense of having arrived late and reluctantly in his parents’ family would later morph into a view of himself as the last survivor of the world the revolution swept aside.

René’s sisters, he reflects, almost certainly ‘owed their existence to my father’s desire to ensure his name by the birth of a second son’. Miserly, despotic and menacing, René père was ‘dominated’ by ‘a single passion’ for ‘the family name’. The Chateaubriands of the previous generation had fallen into semi-poverty and he dedicated his life to restoring them to their former prestige, eventually making a fortune in the slave trade in the West Indies. The opening pages of the Memoirs give the family tree from the 11th century on; Chateaubriand describes these passages as ‘puerile recitations’, but the tree is crucial to understanding the mindset of his father, brother and uncle, for whom the nice gradations of noble lineage were more important than actual family feeling. Later, Chateaubriand would himself be persuaded to apply for admission to the Order of Malta and to present himself to the king at Versailles, but his heart wasn’t in it: from early childhood, what he sought was companionship not pedigree. As a boy in his mother’s house in Saint-Malo he was enchanted by the thought of the larger community ‘closed up in their city each night under the same lock and key … like members of a single family’. Much to his mother’s dismay, ‘the town urchins [were] my closest friends.’ When there was no one to play with, he found company in nature. Throughout the Memoirs, waves, birds, trees and hills are all personified as companions, while the parts of nature, always adoringly described, are imagined keeping one another company. The moon ‘does not retire alone. A procession of stars accompanies her. As she descends to the skyline of my native shore, her silence deepens and spreads over the sea; she sinks to the horizon, hovers upon it, and then, showing only half her face, drowses, bows her head, and disappears in the soft intumescence of the water.’

Chateaubriand, in unhappy contrast, did retire alone. The family moved from Saint-Malo to his father’s ‘bleak and melancholy’ castle at Combourg where his severe father ‘scattered [family and servants] to every corner of the castle’, so that René was obliged to make ‘my nest in a sort of isolated cell in a turret’. ‘Transformed into statues’ by the father’s inhibiting presence each evening at dinner, he, his mother and his sister Lucile would afterwards enjoy a ‘torrent’ of chatter before René checked under their beds for intruders and headed off to his own distant room to face the dark alone. ‘My victory was so complete that the night winds which came to my disinhabited turret were soon the playthings of my invention and the wings of my dreams.’ So French Romanticism was born out of the severity of a decaying aristocracy.

It would be hard to exaggerate the eloquence and charm of Chateaubriand’s evocation of his childhood: his intuition that his parents’ rigidity obliged him to misbehave; his intense attachment to countryside and seascape; the loving portrayal of his mysterious sister Lucile, with whom he took pleasure in translating ‘the saddest and loveliest passages of Job and Lucretius’; his loathing of school despite an enviable facility for study (‘I was born with a natural aptitude for almost everything’); and his awareness, in adolescence, that his intimate attachment to his mother and sisters was preventing him from having ordinary relationships with girls: ‘If the loveliest slave of a seraglio had been handed over to me, I swear I would not have known what to ask of her.’ This awkwardness leads René to invent ‘a phantom love … to walk beside me’. ‘I gave her the eyes of one young girl from the village and the pink cheeks of another … and I stole a few graces from the pictures of the Virgins in church.’ As with the trees and the birds, he was inventing company in solitude, a ‘delirium’ that in this case ‘lasted two whole years’. Eventually, torn between ideal imaginings and barren reality, he attempted to kill himself. But the gun in his mouth would not fire. It was time to begin a career.

Chateaubriand’s father had destined him for life at sea. He set off for Brest to train as a naval cadet, but once ‘abandoned to myself … withdrew into my instinctual solitude’. Overwhelmed by emotion on seeing the French fleet return home from battle, he decided to return home himself, where he was astonished to find his parents glad to see him. His mother now tried to push him towards the priesthood, but the boy feared he had no religious vocation; he would go to India and serve a foreign prince instead. Eventually, his father packed him off in a carriage to Cambrai with a sublieutenant’s commission for the Navarre regiment. Shortly afterwards his father died. It was 1786, and René was 18. The relaxed discipline of a military officer’s life would now allow this sensitive and conflicted young man just three years to get to know Paris before the aristocratic society he found so uncongenial was destroyed for ever and became itself an object of nostalgia.

The Memoirs were written over four decades, with Chateaubriand making his last corrections in 1846, aged 78. The work is divided into easily digestible sections rarely more than five pages long and headed by titles that look like working notes: ‘my brother, my cousin moreau, my sister the comtesse de farcy’, or ‘regrets, would my father have appreciated me?’ Or again, with typical irony: ‘my hermit’s life in paris’. Beneath these functional titles we are given the place and date of writing: ‘Berlin, May 1821; revised in July 1846’, ‘London, April to September 1822’. The effect is to make the reader constantly aware of the author’s presence; frequently, Chateaubriand offers chatty preambles, as if to help himself settle down to his task, perhaps comparing his present and past situations, as when in England as French ambassador in 1822 he writes about his time as a poverty-stricken exile in London thirty years before. Elsewhere he draws our attention to political events that are taking place while he writes. ‘Between the last date of these Memoirs, written in the Vallée-aux-Loups, January 1814, and today, in Montboissier, July 1817, three years and six months have passed. Did you hear the Empire fall?’ Soon we appreciate that the memoir is another manifestation of Chateaubriand’s compulsive habit of creating company for himself. ‘The evenings are long … at nightfall, my secretaries abandon me … Shut up in my room, alone with a very gloomy-looking stove … what should I do with my time? … What if I were to continue my Memoirs?’

To add to this mingling of past and present – an old man speaking of a young, a rich man of a poor – Chateaubriand frequently compares himself or his characters to historical figures or literary characters. The French fleet returning to Brest puts him in mind of Augustus’ triremes returning to Sicily after victory over Sextus Pompey. Native Americans are compared with ancient Greeks, Thomas Jefferson with Pericles. Thus a dense community is built up, the Memoirs becoming an extended form of resistance to those who would sweep away tradition in the fury of their revolutionary ideals, replacing ‘days of connection’ with ‘days of isolation’.

*

Loathing his father’s obsession with privilege, Chateaubriand felt sympathetic to the popular unrest of the late 1780s. He describes his first involvement in politics, returning from Paris to Brittany to take part in meetings of the Estates, and his embarrassment that despite the dire conditions of the peasantry ‘the Nobility … refused to entertain any arrangement that would make their property taxable.’ However, as soon as the mob became violent, his opinion began to shift. ‘Pass on now, reader,’ we are warned. ‘Wade the river of blood that separates for ever the old world, which you are leaving, from the new world, at whose beginning, you shall die.’

The growing boldness of the workers, the chaos of political meetings, the vacillations of the king and his generals are all convincingly described, as is the lynching of the governor of the Bastille – ‘bludgeoned to death on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville’ – and the appearance of men on the streets of Paris carrying severed heads on pikes. But what emerges most powerfully is Chateaubriand’s difficulty in finding a position for himself amid this turmoil. Cool when others grew heated, ready to risk his life unthinkingly when confronted by some outrage (fear is entirely absent from his account), he nevertheless couldn’t decide whom to support. When his regiment split between royalist officers, who emigrated, and common soldiers, who remained, the young man was at a loss: ‘I had neither adopted nor rejected the new ideas … I wanted neither to emigrate nor to continue my military career and I therefore resigned my commission.’ All he really cared about were ‘universal ideas of liberty and human dignity’, but ‘cannibal feasts’ were all around: ‘It was enough to bear an “aristocratic” name to be exposed to persecution.’ ‘When a person was lost from sight for 24 hours, no one was sure of seeing him again.’ Suddenly Chateaubriand settled on a course of action that was eccentric to the point of folly. He would go to America and discover the North-West Passage. In 1791, ‘abandoning my fractured country’, he set sail for Baltimore.

There is much debate about what Chateaubriand really did and saw in his five months in America. Certainly the idea of the intrepid explorer was soon forgotten. The travels he describes – to New York, Boston and Niagara, then south down the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers – were more whimsically anthropological than scientific. He claims to have met George Washington, but historians don’t believe him. He speaks of living for some time with a tribe of Native Americans, attracting the pleasant attention of two young squaws, but it seems rather unlikely, as does the near fatal plunge at Niagara that had him clinging to a plant ‘half a foot from the abyss’. These sections of the book, playful, idyllic and blithely speculative, have none of the close observation of the material that comes before, as if veracity became irrelevant when away from the reality of home.

Yet his inventions make sense when seen in relation to the dilemma the revolution presented to him. Washington is portrayed as the noble, reasonable leader who upholds republican values but without the ugly ambition and violence of the Parisian ideologues, the kind of person Chateaubriand might have been able to follow. Americans themselves are to be envied for their freedoms, though these are founded ‘not on moral sentiment … [but] a thirst for profit’. He persuades himself that ‘family feeling scarcely exists’ there, implying that France is still the better place. The vastness of America – ‘solitudes dividing solitudes’ – makes it all the more necessary to have company, if only that of a notebook and a potential reader. The ancient Native American cultures stir his dreams of blood ties and intimacy with nature, but the Native Americans themselves, he sees, are in terminal decline; they offer no future. Nevertheless, he is fascinated by their habit of giving newborns the name and title of the oldest member of the family, a custom that ‘resurrects the dead … connects the two extremities of life … conveys a kind of immortality to one’s ancestors and supposes that they are present among their descendants.’ This is exactly the project of the Memoirs. It is also ‘laughable’.

As for the Native American women, or girls, they quickly replace Chateaubriand’s fantasy sylph as ideal company. Understanding little, he can project anything he likes onto them, and will do just that when he comes to write his romantic novels set in America. There are even disquieting hints of what today might be called sex tourism. ‘A little Indian of 14 named Mila, who was very pretty (Indian women are only pretty at that age), sang a charming song.’ He is infatuated. ‘If I ever publish the stromates or follies of my youth, and speak as freely as Saint Clement of Alexandria, you shall surely encounter Mila there.’

Less and less sure ‘about the principal object of [his] journey to America’, Chateaubriand was rudely awoken by an English newspaper headline he saw in a farmhouse on the banks of the Ohio River. Louis XVI had been arrested. ‘My mind instantly underwent a complete conversion.’ Suddenly he had taken a position. He would fight for his doomed king; he would be loyal, even if he didn’t believe in the cause. On his return to France, the first thing he did was to accept an arranged marriage, pressed on him by his mother and brother, to a woman he had never seen but whose wealth would give him the wherewithal to join the royalist army. It was a renunciation of all his dreams of freedom and guaranteed that his search for ideal companionship would remain for ever separate from social reality. ‘I was married off,’ he reflects, ‘to procure me the means to go and get killed for a cause that I did not love.’

Back in Paris in 1792, Chateaubriand was appalled at the popular enthusiasm for the guillotine and the sheer scale of the slaughter. From here on his criticism is ferocious. Unworthy, hypocritical, psychologically crippled people had invaded spaces that did not belong to them. ‘The members of the National Convention made believe they were the most benign men on earth … [sending] their neighbours to have their necks sliced, with extreme sensibility, for the greater happiness of the human race.’ But, leaving his new wife behind and escaping to Brussels, he was equally contemptuous of the ‘armchair heroes’ of royalism. The only pleasure he took in the ramshackle army put together to oppose the revolution was the reflection that it was a family affair: ‘Fathers served with sons … uncles with nephews … brothers with brothers.’ After months of futile manoeuvring and skirmishes, the army was disbanded, as he had expected. Wounded and at death’s door, Chateaubriand escaped first to Guernsey, then to London, where, over the next eight years, he solved the problem of what to do in life by becoming a writer, a person on the sidelines sharing reflections on others’ shortcomings with an ideal and sympathetic reader.

The hundred pages on London are heartening. Chateaubriand loved the tight-knit community of French exiles. Too proud at first ‘to accept the shilling a day doled out to every émigré in town’, he rejoiced in his poverty. Staying with an English family while working on some translations from medieval French, he fell in love with their teenage daughter and she with him. At which point the function of his marriage became clear: when the mother suggested that he and Charlotte be united in matrimony, a mortified Chateaubriand explained his situation and fled. Meantime, back in France his brother had been executed and his mother, sisters and wife imprisoned, in part as a reprisal for his escape. Eventually released, his mother died in 1798. In a letter giving the news, Chateaubriand’s sister Julie begged him to ‘renounce writing altogether’; the religious scepticism of his recently published ‘Essai historique sur les révolutions’ was unworthy of him; writing was itself intrinsically unworthy of a Chateaubriand. Distraught, he responded by writing a 700-page paean to The Genius of Christianity; the thought of his mother’s suffering over his atheism had made him a Christian. ‘I did not yield,’ he admits, ‘to any great supernatural light: my conviction issued from the heart. I wept and I believed.’ Unsurprisingly, his great defence of Christianity, the book that was to make his name and pave the way to a diplomatic career after the Bourbon restoration, was not an argument for the factual truth of Christianity, but for its wonderful suitability for human society, mothers and sons. For the first time, he yearned for celebrity, in the hope ‘it would rise up to my mother’s dwelling place and inspire the angels to sing of my holy expiation.’

Following an amnesty for royalist exiles in 1800, Chateaubriand was free to return to France. The thought that he could now go back to his wife did not excite him. ‘I no longer had possessions or a place to live in France. The country had become for me a stone bosom, a breast without milk. I would not find my mother there, or my brother, or my sister Julie. Lucile was still alive but she had married … and no longer shared my name.’ What decided him was seeing his circle of friends in London, all French exiles, ‘dissolving around me’.

‘I have unfolded only a third of my story before your eyes,’ Chateaubriand ends the first volume. ‘If the sufferings that I have endured weighed on my springtime serenity, now, as I enter a more fruitful age, the germ of René is about to develop and another kind of bitterness will be blended in my tale.’ René (1802) was his great Romantic novel, much admired by Byron. In it Chateaubriand writes:

I soon found myself more isolated in my own country than I had been on foreign soil. For some time I wanted to throw myself into a world that said nothing to me and wouldn’t listen to me … but I realised that I was giving more than I was taking. Neither fine language nor deep feelings were required of me, merely that I shrink my life down to the level of society.

In short, he still had the problem of finding a worthy position for himself in an unworthy world; or rather, he had transformed the aristocratic hauteur of his father into the gloomy superiority of the Romantic novelist.

‘The more intimate, individual and national a talent,’ Chateaubriand remarks towards the end of his reflections on English literature, ‘the more its mysteries escape the mind which is not, so to speak, a “compatriot” of this talent.’ The thought is in line with his understanding of personality as something constructed within a community and tradition, and one can’t help feeling how much more the Memoirs must mean to a French reader. All the same, Alex Andriesse has done a wonderful job suggesting the range of tone and feeling Chateaubriand offers, his shifts from the ecstatic to the dry, from the descriptive to the cryptic. Even in English he comes across as compulsively quotable, especially at his moments of supreme pessimism. ‘Every night as he goes to bed, a man can count his losses.’ ‘The chain of mourning and funerals that encircles us is never broken.’ ‘All my days are goodbyes.’ Again and again, reading the Memoirs we hear the voices of Schopenhauer, Cioran and Beckett. Malone Dies, where the moribund Malone fills the days before his desired demise telling himself vaguely autobiographical stories, seems a parody of the Memoirs, or a tribute to them. Memoirs from beyond the Grave was not to be published, Chateaubriand originally intended, until fifty years after his death, partly so that it could do no damage to those he had loved, but also so that its publication might be an occasion for establishing contact with future generations, asserting the community between the living and the dead, and in particular between writers of different ages, a ‘society of illustrious equals, revealing themselves to one another by signs … understood by themselves alone’. The echoes of Chateaubriand in so much existentialist literature of the 20th century suggest that for all his difficulty finding congenial company among his contemporaries, in a longer perspective he becomes a figure we can all be intimate with. He guessed right, perhaps, when he wrote in his preface: ‘Life fitted me badly; death, perhaps, will suit me better.’