The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part II)

Considering all the excitement generated by Lacenaire’s memoirs, I expected more. The acerbic wit Lacenaire ably demonstrated in the courtroom is, unfortunately, absent for large chunks of the text. Instead Lacenaire’s memoirs, which are chronological, take a mostly banal expository approach to life, and the best bits occur when Lacenaire opens up with his philosophy and moves away from chronology and the blame game.  He seems to want his future readers to understand his actions and so he doesn’t risk alienating his audience. Instead of defiance, he portrays himself largely as a victim of circumstance. The memoirs were, not too surprisingly, censored before publication. This was something that Lacenaire expected, and before his death he expressed his doubts about the memoirs ever being published:

These are my memoirs–I do not know what will be done with them. I do not know whether Monsieur Allard, to whose generosity I am much indebted, will publish them one day; I do not know whether the police will tear pages out or add chapters… Ah well!

There are, according to Stead, rumours of “another manuscript” and then there’s speculation that part was added by the publisher or invented by Lacenaire. Stead argues that the style change in the last few pages indicates that the conclusion was ghosted. Throughout the memoirs, Stead painstakingly notes the number of lines censored and missing from the text–about forty gouges in all, and he includes in-page notations indicating missing lines. Stead states:

Over half the deletions concern Lacenaire’s materialistic views on religion. Then come his criticisms of the existing social order.

Well no wonder they had to go. Stead, vigilant in his attempts to package the memoirs together as faithfully as possible, also “restored” one of Lacenaire’s poems to the text.

 Both the first and second preface to the memoirs exhibit the sort of wit Lacenaire proved he was capable of during the trial, and to be fair to the author, it must be remembered that the memoirs were written in haste, under pressure and interrupted by the guillotine before they could be completed. A large portion of the memoirs is spent on Lacenaire’s childhood–a miserable one by all accounts. Throughout these pages Lacenaire sprinkles the tantalizing idea of ‘if only’ . If only he’d been more loved…if only his parents had been this or that…if only he’d been given a chance…and I suspect readers will have a range of reactions to Lacenaire’s life and claims that he could have been a contender if fate (and circumstance) had been a little kinder

Lacenaire states that his father, a “rich bachelor” and a successful businessman was 47 when he met and married an eighteen year-old-girl. They had no children in the first six years of their marriage, and then followed 13 little Lacenaires. Six survived: the first son (Lacenaire’s brother), Lacenaire and four sisters. Lacenaire continually expresses the belief that he was unloved and unwanted while his elder brother was a favourite with his parents. He was, he states, “a victim of injustice since infancy.”

Lacenaire’s education was composed of various schools from which he was expelled for a range of infractions. Sometimes he presents himself as the victim of wrong-doing and at another time he argues that he was trying to protect another boy. Of course it’s impossible to know the truth of these stories, but by the time he was an adult, he needed to earn a living, and this was problematic.

Lacenaire had been raised and educated as a gentleman, and yet he found himself trying to make his way in the world. Ordinarily, perhaps he would have joined his family’s business concerns or perhaps become a lawyer. Indeed Lacenaire mentions that he was intended for either the Bar or medicine, but that those plans fell apart when his father’s business interests failed. This left Lacenaire in the position of having to earn his living, but at the same time having expensive tastes for a lifestyle he could not support. Lacenaire tried a brief stint (well, two in the army) and he also tried various lines of work.  He “nearly always spent above his means” plus he had a gambling habit. He worked as a public scribe, for a lawyer, in a bank, became a commercial traveler  “in wines and spirits”  and even tried to launch a literary career (“I had a vaudeville produced, which was not entirely mine, but I wrote the couplets for it“).  His fortunes waxed and waned. On the rare occasions that he had a sizeable amount of money (usually borrowed from relatives), he rapidly lost it at the gaming tables. Lacenaire admits that he wasn’t troubled by:

leading such a vagabond existence [because] I sincerely believed that one day I should inherit more money than I needed to live in peace and devote myself to my beloved literature.

Lacenaire’s only relatives with money to spare were aunts, and he eventually wore out his welcome by continually hitting them up for money which was rapidly lost gambling. By this time the Lacenaire family moved (ran off), and when he deserted from the army, Lacenaire discovered that his family had absconded to Belgium leaving a trail of debts behind. He’d already dabbled in forgery and now found himself “dying of hunger.”

According to Stead “whenever Lacenaire found things difficult, he instinctively turned to crime.” Lacenaire, who was a great admirer of Vidocq, by the way, eventually decided to become “a thief and an assassin,”  and he deliberately got himself incarcerated in order to find a likely accomplice to help him with his life of crime:

I determined to be the scourge of Society, but I could do nothing alone. I needed partners; where should I find them? I had long been ignorant of what a professional thief was really like. But I had just been reading the Memoirs of Vidocq and had formed some idea of the criminal class in its state of continual hostility against Society. In its ranks, I told myself, I must find the men to second me; only there shall I find them. But how to set about it? I gave it long consideration, and consideration convinced me that to attain my end and make the acquaintances I needed it was absolutely necessary to spend some time among such people.

Stead makes a great deal out of Lacenaire’s death-wish. Apparently, Lacenaire’s father, despairing of his son, had at one time pointed out the guillotine and predicted that Lacenaire would end up having his head chopped off. After reading the memoirs, Lacenaire’s drive to commit murder struck me as a significant factor, and his desire to kill comes up more than once.

When Lacenaire went on trial in Paris, he was charged with the murder of the Chardons, but  in fact, he had committed murder before. He shot a man in the face and then left the scene of the crime to look like a case of suicide. At another point in the memoirs, he gives frustratingly few details about his attempts to murder a former mistress (he failed). He also fought a duel with the nephew of Benjamin Constant. Some sources state that Constant’s nephew was not killed in the duel, and so I’m including this statement from Lacenaire concerning the event:

In 1829, I fought a duel with Benjamin Constant’s nephew. The scene of the combat was one of the dry moats of the Champs-de-Mars. I did all I could to avoid the affair; I tried to enter into some arrangement, for it troubled me to fight him. He refused and fired first. The direction of his pistol and the assistance of the two banks of the moat gave his aim told me I was a dead man. However, he missed me. I fired in my turn; he fell immediately. The sight of his death-agony caused me no emotion.

François, Lacenaire’s accomplice for the botched robbery and attempted murder of the bank employee was ready to murder someone for twenty francs, and this seems to be a ‘selling point’ as far as Lacenaire was concerned. Here’s Lacenaire on the subject of murder, and while he argues that a murderer, if caught, is guaranteed the scaffold for his crimes rather than a sentence to the galleys, somehow that rings false when he lets slip a sentence such as this:

Throughout this period I never remitted my search for someone prepared to assist me in a murder.

In his memoirs, Lacenaire emphasizes the idea that he was a victim of circumstance, and there’s some substance to that argument. He’d been raised as a gentleman but did not have the means to sustain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. He enjoyed dressing elegantly, dining in fine restaurants, and attending the theatre. He also loved to gamble.  All these things are hardly entitlements, of course, but he found them hard to give up. Lacenaire’s life was without prospects, and he had no wealthy relatives ready to pull strings to advance his employment. He tried various avenues of employment but found himself cast out time after time. But was he a really a victim of circumstance? Lacenaire seems to giving us just a version of events, and some significant events are passed over with triviality. He mentions, as an aside, fighting 8 duels for example (and killing 2 men) and there’s also mention of a vice-squad scam involving wealthy men–again Lacenaire gives frustratingly few details. Lacenaire seems to be one of those people destined to self-destruct quickly in life, and this is manifested by his desperate crime and gambling sprees. Here’s a quote from Stead on the veracity of Lacenaire’s memoirs:

 Can we accept the version of his life which he offers us? Is he telling the truth? He told the truth as far as he could. Hostile critics of the Memoirs will refuse to see more than the frenzied vanity of a failure, making a last hysterical attempt at self-justification. But there is more than that. There is the history of a lost and baffled spirit, and a feverish attempt at finding the truth. If we feel that Lacenaire sometimes places a construction upon events which they would not have borne at the time, we can still recognize the inescapable characteristic drift of his nature in everything he tells us. When he twists the interpretation of a fact, we are not deceived, because he has first told us that fact. As his quill races on, the story darkens into truth. The impression of savage, swift hate, of inflamed sensibility and inverted pride, of fatal blindness grows deeper. We catch glimpses of the incomplete virtuoso, the unrealized artist, the damaged, defensive sceptic. The psychologist and the moralist will judge him according to their respective fashions; he offers them both every facility. The Memoirs stand, unique, grotesque, a murderer’s cast into his own darkness for the secret of his fate.


Filed under Non Fiction, Stead Philip John

5 responses to “The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part II)

  1. Interesting how he would justify his crimes by the lack of love in childhood or the need to maintain a standard of living. It is very modern, considering where psychology was at that time. It can explain how he came to commit crimes but doesn’t excuse what he did.
    Not all the poor people are criminals. They just adapit tol
    The idea of killing to preserve one’s way of life reminds me of that Woody Allen film in London with Scarlett Johansonn and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

  2. That must be Match Point.

    Yes, Lacenaire’s justifications were rather ordinary when it came down to it. I’m going to go into the lifestyle argument in the third and final post. There’s a lot to read between the lines when Lacenaire presents his version of events.

  3. Fascinating, particularly in relation to Dostoevsky. This “There is the history of a lost and baffled spirit, and a feverish attempt at finding the truth” and the point in that same excerpt from Stead to do with different perspectives on the memoirs e.g. from the psychologist and the moralist. (I see I originally commented on your first post, but not this one).

  4. As you can probably guess, since this inspired no less than three posts, the book left an impression on me.

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