Fresh, Generous, Colourful, Idyllic

Tim Parks

Ecstasy and chastity. In Alphonse de Lamartine’s two most famous novels, a young man and woman seem to feel for each other what we usually think of as romantic love, but never become lovers, don’t kiss and hardly touch. The ostensible reasons for this are social and moral. In Graziella, the class difference between the young French aristocrat and the Neapolitan fisherman’s daughter makes marriage unimaginable to both of them. In Raphaël, the eponymous hero’s beloved is married. Such obstacles have been known to melt away in the heat of passion, but in Lamartine’s stories both protagonists have internalised these social rules, and neither presses for consummation, or seems even to desire it. The relationships are reciprocal and intense, but are accepted as doomed and temporary. This impasse seems responsible for the decline and death in both books of the woman after the pair’s final parting, leaving the male narrator to go on, ghoulishly enriched by the experience, to literary and political fame. Remarkably divergent in tone despite their similarities, both stories are based on relationships Lamartine had in his twenties, although the books were not written until he was in his fifties. And then with this twist: the more fictionalised of the two books, Graziella, was presented as straight autobiography and the more autobiographical Raphaël as a novel.

Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine was born in 1790 to aristocratic parents in Mâcon in Burgundy, fifty miles north of Lyon. An only son with five younger sisters, he was a bright, restless adolescent, running away from one school and fathering a child by a servant at the Jesuit college he went to next. He was often intensely bored and discovered early that protracted, poorly defined illnesses could be useful to him. It was illness that freed him from the Jesuits at 17 and illness that often allowed him to depart for some therapeutic location when life was getting difficult. In Graziella a mysterious illness gives the narrator the opportunity to move in with his beloved’s family, and in Raphaël illness brings the protagonists together in the lakeside town of Aix-les-Bains.

Since his parents were opposed to Napoleon and Napoleon’s empire, the career in public service that would normally have been the destiny of a young man of his birth was closed to Lamartine. He whored and gambled away his late teens – causing his mother to burn his volume of Rousseau – and had to be packed off to Italy to avoid an undesirable marriage. Why his parents thought Rome and Naples were the right places to send a wayward youngster we do not know.

More than thirty years later, by now a major political figure, he returned to Naples with his ailing English wife and his devoted 23-year-old niece, the beautiful Valentine de Cessiat. He was in debt as always, and it occurred to him that he might make some money if he wrote an autobiography that included the story of his youthful adventures in Italy. His account appeared in 1849 as books VI to IX of Les Confidences, and, hugely popular, it was reprinted in 1852 as a separate book under the title Graziella.

Lamartine lowers his age in the story to a less responsible 18 and avoids any reference to his past sexual adventures. The decision to leave behind in Livorno the relatives who were accompanying him and head off alone to Rome and Naples is presented as a break for freedom, made against his father’s wishes. On the road, he becomes close friends with a boy his own age who is travelling with a much older man. For a few days the two bond and Alphonse sleeps on the boy’s shoulder in the carriage. Only when they get to Rome does he realise that his friend is the older man’s mistress, dressed as a boy to avoid scandal. In middle age, Lamartine seems intensely attracted to the combination of innocence and eroticism.

Alone in Rome, he studies the city’s art and architecture and reads the classics. There is no question of boredom now: ‘I delighted in my isolation,’ Alphonse tells us, conveying a powerful sense of youthful potential on the lookout for some task or adventure that will engage his idealism. Moving south to Naples, he meets up with Aymon de Virieu, an old schoolfriend, and the two roam the Tyrrhenian coast, thinking of Tasso and envying the simple life of the fishermen. Everything is fresh, generous, colourful, idyllic. ‘Utterly free’ above all to ‘confuse dreams with realities’, the two persuade an old fisherman and his grandson Beppino to let them come aboard their boat. ‘For two months we lived without ever setting foot in an inn. We lived outdoors, with the people, and living the frugal life of the people. We became of the people ourselves, in order to be closer to nature. We dressed almost the same as they did.’ That ‘almost’ speaks worlds, as do the literary references that punctuate the rapturous evocation of the Mediterranean seascape: ‘Thus we visited the isle of Capri, our imaginations still haunted by the sinister memory of Tiberius; Cumae and its temples, half hidden beneath the foliage of dense bay trees.’

These young men are clearly not focused on the fishing. They depend on money from home and watch ‘uneasily the end of summer and the days of autumn and winter approaching, which would require us to return to our own country’. The holiday from aristocratic identity is so appealing because it must end. But before it does, there is an almighty storm. Rowing hard all night, they survive by a miracle. They divert the boat to the tiny island of Procida and, exhausted, climb a stone stairway to the old fisherman’s home where ‘the panel of one of the windows opened up halfway, pushed outward by a bare, white arm that stretched out from a loose, flowing sleeve. We could see by the gleam of the torch … the ravishing shape of a young girl appearing on tiptoe between the open shutters.’

Graziella is Beppino’s sister. She is innocent, sensual and 17. ‘Her nightshirt, tied around her neck, revealed only the outlines of her tall, slim torso. The thin cloth just covered the first undulations of youthful flesh. Her eyes, oval and large, were of that indistinct shade between a deep black and the blue of the sea.’ She is also gentle, charming, devout and illiterate. Lamartine believes in her, perhaps helped by the tinted spectacles of memory and very likely by the beautiful niece he has beside him in Naples as he begins to write the book. He makes us believe in her too and in her whole family: the simpatico Beppino, the severe grandmother, the philosophical grandfather. When the fisherman’s boat is destroyed that same night, Alphonse’s friend Aymon buys him another one. The two young Frenchmen become objects of worship. Trapped on the island by continuing bad weather, they read Tacitus and Foscolo’s Letters of Jacopo Ortis and Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginie, first to themselves and then out loud to their hosts. How they happen to have these books with them and how they survived the storm it is best not to inquire. But they do allow for the most extraordinary scene in the book.

The islanders aren’t keen on Tacitus or Foscolo. ‘The passion for political liberty,’ Lamartine observes, ‘which is always the aspiration of men of leisure, does not penetrate so deeply down into the people.’ But they are captivated by the sad tale of Paul and Virginie, two child companions whose love is never consummated. Graziella is transformed:

Leaning herself up against the terrace wall, where I was sitting too, she moved closer and closer towards my side … Her wide-open eyes stared now at the book, now at my lips, from which the story was flowing and sometimes at the gap between my lips and the book as if she were seeking the invisible spirit that was communicating to me. I heard her uneven breath stopping and starting, following the rhythm of the drama … By the time I reached the middle of the tale, the poor child had lost all her half-wild reserve with me. I could feel the warmth of her breathing on my hands. Her hair brushed my face. Two or three teardrops ran down her cheeks and fell, making tiny stains on the pages, right beside my fingers.

‘Pathos alone is infallible in art,’ Lamartine concludes. ‘The artist who knows how to touch our feelings knows everything.’ And we are touched. It is impossible not to want these two young people in each other’s arms. It’s also impossible not to notice that while there is an element of play and performance in the behaviour of the educated aristocrat, for the illiterate girl ‘who felt her soul … awaken, through the soul of Virginie’, it is all in earnest.

The long storm over, the two young men and the fisherman’s family leave Procida to return to Naples. Back at his hotel Aymon finds a letter from his mother ordering him home. Without his friend, and away from the island camaraderie, Alphonse is overwhelmed by a feeling of vulnerability and meaninglessness. All his proud independence is gone. Such are the dangers of sentimental attachment. Lamartine is adept at describing these mood swings; in a matter of days the young man is wasting away. Desperately needy, he contacts the only people he knows in the city. ‘You look like a bird who’s lost his mother,’ Graziella’s grandmother observes, and invites him to stay in their tiny home. Alphonse looks at Graziella and sees that ‘her eyes were moister and more brilliant than they usually were, and that she was unconsciously fingering and crushing the leaves of a basil plant that grew in an earthenware pot there on the balcony.’ He accepts.

The two now share in a blissful existence. Graziella’s presence and affection are savoured in every way, her clothes, body, movement and manners are all wonderfully evoked, together with the coral painting she does for a living. ‘There were moments when the radiance of her beauty stunned me,’ Alphonse says. Yet the ‘easy familiarity of those long, sweet evenings … never led us into any thoughts or intimacies different from the thoughts and intimacies of two children’. Alphonse spends his time reading and writing. ‘It seems that words are man’s true destination,’ he declares. He is flattered by Graziella’s attempts to steal the pen out of his hand, but he keeps scribbling away, as if writing were a refuge from the dangerous adventure the girl represents, even while her home is a refuge from the loneliness of the city. ‘This was not love,’ Alphonse tells us, ‘for I experienced no agitation.’ Graziella, however, is extremely agitated and becomes more so when her wealthy uncle, who runs the coral-painting business, asks her hand in marriage for his misshapen son. The grandparents are delighted: this means economic security. Graziella is devastated. Alphonse, ‘like a man stunned by a sudden blow, uncertain who struck him and why he is in pain’, walks out on the family without a word, abandoning the girl to her unhappiness. Freedom and independence are suddenly important again. He visits Vesuvius and risks his life climbing down into the crater. The dream of a sentimental attachment without ties or consequences is over.

The novel’s denouement is elaborate, but by the by. The young man, playing at being grown up though in reality waiting for his mother to call him home, has fed on the feelings of the illiterate girl and will now, together with the reader, derive sustenance from the pathos of her decline and early death. In his excellent introduction, the book’s translator, Raymond MacKenzie, explains that Lamartine, who in reality spent those few months in Naples at the house of an older relative who owned a tobacco factory, spun the tale from a brief affair with a girl who worked in the factory and was already his relative’s mistress. Whatever the actual circumstances, it’s hard not to appreciate the conflict Lamartine conjures up between affection and idealism, on the one hand, and, on the other, the narcissism of a young man determined to experience intense emotion and escape unscathed.

While he wrote Graziella Lamartine was also working on his History of the Girondists, an eight-volume work analysing the French Revolution and in particular the role of the Girondins, moderate republicans who eventually lost out to the more bloodthirsty Montagnards. Published in 1847 this book was also a huge success and was identified by many as inspiring the 1848 Revolution.

Lamartine’s life had been radically changed by Napoleon’s downfall. After returning from Italy in 1812, he continued his spendthrift apathy, fathering another illegitimate child and writing poetry to relieve his boredom. But after Napoleon’s defeat a political career became possible for him. At first he despaired of finding an opening for himself, since he lacked both the appropriate education and the money needed to pursue government positions. Again, he began to suffer from uncertain illnesses and in 1816, while convalescing at Aix-les-Bains, he met the ailing Julie Charles, six years his senior and married to a man 37 years older than her. The intense relationship that developed would become the subject of Raphaël, but in the meantime, before her death the following year, Julie introduced Lamartine to Parisian society, where people were delighted to hear this handsome provincial read his Romantic poetry. It was the first step towards his becoming a public figure; ‘a statesman,’ he said much later, ‘was a great poet in action.’

After three more wayward years, Lamartine at last turned his life around. Aged thirty, he married and got a job. Marianne Birch was not beautiful and Lamartine was not passionately in love with her, but she loved him and she offered security. Her widowed mother made inquiries after the proposal, and forbade the union. But Lamartine was determined, and after a period of intense lobbying, landed the position of attaché at the French embassy in Naples. He persuaded Marianne to convert to Catholicism and promised his womanising was over. His first collection of poems, Méditations poétiques, sentimental, religious and royalist, enjoyed instant and huge success. Marianne’s mother relented and the two were married in June 1820. From then on Lamartine’s adventures were strictly political.

As well as pursuing policies of enlightened paternalism on the family estates, he began to stand as a parliamentary candidate, but without campaigning or appearing to invest any energy in victory, perhaps for fear of losing. Elected after several attempts in 1833, he was rapidly recognised as the Assembly’s best orator, but didn’t join a party, and didn’t lay out a clear political manifesto. Insisting on his independence, from both the monarchist right and the republican left, he hoped that his speeches, poetry and numerous newspaper articles in favour of humanitarian causes would inspire and gradually lead to a group of like-minded moderates gathering around him. One doesn’t move towards one’s goal, but waits for it to approach is how William Fortescue describes this strategy of aloof seduction in Alphonse de Lamartine: A Political Biography (1983). France was bored, Lamartine claimed, and boredom eventually nudged people towards adventures they might otherwise be afraid of. At that point he would be ready to lead them. It would be an ‘insurrection of boredom’.

Moving to the left as Louis Philippe’s reign shifted to the right, Lamartine was caught between a desire to open up French society, educating and emancipating the poor, and a crippling fear of the unrest that might follow. The underlying thesis of the History of the Girondists, which Lamartine was working on throughout the 1840s, was that the revolution could have remained peaceful and largely bloodless had the moderates prevailed; it was, he explained, ‘a protest in eight volumes against the alleged necessity of violence’.

Whatever its influence on the events of 1848, Lamartine’s history was clearly an injunction not to be paralysed by fear. And when the revolution came, he showed great courage, joining the government, forming an alliance with the radical republican Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and going onto the streets to speak to the mob when things threatened to get out of hand. ‘The country’s safety depends on my popularity,’ he declared at one point, ‘which I do not want to risk.’ Nor did he want to risk a war. As foreign minister he set out to reassure neighbouring states that France wasn’t planning to export revolution, and in the meantime he championed the government’s abolition of slavery and its introduction of universal male suffrage.

Lamartine was now by far the most popular politician in France and widely tipped to be its first president after the parliamentary elections of April 1848. But the experiment with universal male suffrage returned a surprisingly conservative majority and Lamartine, who always strove to reconcile, rapidly lost support by trying to keep the left-wing and now unpopular Ledru-Rollin in the government. All too soon events overtook him and in June the violence he had feared exploded on the streets of Paris, leaving thousands dead. On 10 December Louis-Napoléon was elected president and the revolution was over.

*

Published in 1849, Raphaël is a far more ambitious novel than Graziella and it is astonishing that Lamartine wrote it while so involved in his country’s political destiny. Although essentially an idealised account of his relationship with Julie in 1816, when seen in relation to his other activities and writings it comes across as his most powerful statement on the uneasy co-existence of joie de vivre and the fear of death. It arrives only at the end of Graziella: in Raphaël it is centre stage from the start. The solitary and mysterious Julie is in Aix-les-Bains to slow the progress of a disease she knows is fatal – she resembles ‘a statue of Death’ – but that also ‘renders the sensations more acute and stimulates the flame which it is destined to extinguish’. She is an ‘enchanting and beautiful being’. Suffering from a milder malaise, and in ‘an abyss of melancholy’, Raphaël is staying at the same hotel, and, like Julie, spending his days sailing on the Lac du Bourget. With the familiar complicity of storms, waves and fragile boats, the two are brought together in dramatic circumstances, but this time there is no interlude on a southern island, only ‘a continuous and murmuring transfusion of one soul into another’, always with the knowledge that sinking to ‘vile gratifications’ or ‘the fugitive delirium of the senses’ would destroy Julie. If Raphaël touches her, she dies.

MacKenzie observes that Raphaël is ‘more like an attempt to shore up the posthumous reputation of Julie Charles than a depiction of the way things really were’. Other critics mention the novel’s debt to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Foscolo’s Jacopo Ortis. In general, there seems to be a consensus that readers will not find much that is authentic here. Yet Lamartine’s anxieties about death and what might lie beyond it were real enough. In 1822 he and Marianne lost their first son, Alphonse, at 21 months. Two of his sisters died around the same time and in 1829 his mother was killed in a domestic accident. Lamartine wrestled with his faith and in 1832 made a trip with his wife and their surviving child to Palestine in order to quell his doubts, only for the ten-year-old Julia to fall ill and die on the way home. In 1841 his lifelong friend Aymon de Virieu died. In Raphaël the lovers appear to see the renunciation of physical pleasure as a way of achieving something eternal and immutable: ‘Our love would always preserve its flower and its perfume, for the fruit could never be culled.’ But their oscillation between ecstasy and torment makes their doubts on the matter clear and brings pathos to their yearning for transcendence. At their final parting they embrace a tree in the parc de Saint-Cloud, and persuade themselves that ‘there is … an eternal love, of which ours is but a drop’.

One might agree that in the novel’s obsessive evocation of wild mood swings and delirious states, Lamartine was trying to make literature itself a religious experience, or a space safe from death and its destruction. This would hardly be a new project, but Lamartine approached it with the immense self-confidence of a man who has seen that a fine speech before a turbulent parliament can alter the course of history. Even so, his story is also always aware of practicalities – money, travel arrangements, and social proprieties.

An American visitor to Lamartine’s Paris apartment in 1850 reported seeing in a single room ‘one full-length portrait, three half-length portraits, a bust, two medallions, an engraving and two or three miniatures – all of Lamartine’. No doubt it is more difficult for the narcissist to confront oblivion, whether political or physical. Having accumulated heavy debts, Lamartine spent his last twenty years writing book after book, but eventually had to sell the family estates and accept a subscription raised by well-wishers. After his wife’s death in 1863, his niece Valentine became his nurse, secretary and ‘angel of the house’, persuading her uncle to return to the Church in time for his death in 1869, when he left debts of more than two million francs.