I’d intended for a long time to read Chateaubriand’s (1768-1848) memoirs, and a new translation from New York Review Books sealed my resolve. But wait… at over 500 pages, this is only a section of his memoirs–the first of four parts, and there I was feeling all proud of myself.
The memoirs start with a 77 year old Chateaubriand writing a preface as he looks over his long life. He talks about being “forced” to sell his memoirs for financial reasons, and he even expresses the idea that he wishes they could be “suppressed.” I’m not an expert on French history, or Chateaubriand, so I can’t tell if his wish for his life to remain private is sincere. But whatever the truth is, these memoirs are a gift to the world. I’m not sure that I would have liked Chateaubriand if we’d met (he mentions at one point that he is “not much interested in wit; it is almost repugnant to me,”) but this man had an incredible life and fortunately kept detailed records of incredible events and journeys.
The memoirs begin somewhat heavily with a history of the aristocratic Chateaubriand family and their family estate at Combourg, Brittany. François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand was the last of ten children, and there’s the sensation as you read the memoirs that he fell into the cracks of family life. While Chateaubriand loved his mother dearly, his strongest relationship was with his sister Lucile. Chateaubriand’s father was a distant, morose figure, but Chateaubriand was a good son and loved his family very much.
Chateaubriand notes his sisters being married off, and loving long solitary walks in the countryside, he begins to feel the first inklings of wanderlust as the family disperses. But the Chateaubriand family have other plans for this tenth child, and he’s intended for a life in the church. Fortunately, his mother offers him a moment to reflect on his future, and instead of the church, Chateaubriand comes up with a “harebrained scheme” to travel to Canada or India. Chateaubriand’s father announces he’s dying, gives him a hundred louis, and basically tells him to get his act together.
The memoirs reach a turning point at this stage. Chateaubriand leaves Combourg and nothing is ever the same again. Of course, we know that the French revolution is on the horizon…
Chateaubriand recalls travels to America, the beginnings of the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and finally exile in England. While Chateaubriand was a Royalist, he was also a realist and understood the political scene well:
Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.
At times the memoirs are not easy reading. Chateaubriand assumes he has an audience who knows what he is talking about. The sections are dated for the time he wrote them, and that adds to some of the confusion. He also mentions many people I’d never heard of (my fault not his) but when I tried to find out more information, there was very little available. The memoirs take flight, however, when Chateaubriand begins his amazing travels.
These memoirs really are an incredible read, so I’m glad that I finally got to them. There’s too much to detail, but the highlights for this reader are Chateaubriand’s brilliant observed moments such as when he visits the castle of Potsdam, the home of King Frederick the Great:
Only one thing held my attention: the hands of a clock stopped at the minute that Frederick expired. I was deceived by the stillness of the image. The hours never suspend their flight; it is not man who stops time, but time who stops man. In the end it matters little what part we have played in life. The brilliance or obscurity of our doctrines, our wealth or poverty, our joy or pain: these things have no effect on the measure of our days. Whether the hand moves around a golden face or a wooden one, whether the dial fills the bezel of a ring or the rose window of a cathedral, the length of the hour is still the same.
That’s a brilliant quote.
Chateaubriand’s travels in North America are incredible. He lived with various tribes, and slept with various Indian women. He often solicits sympathy from his audience–for example he’s married off to an heiress for her fortune only to discover that she’s not that wealthy after all. Throughout the memoirs, Chateaubriand hears the call of duty to his class–even though, at times, he realises that his class is guilty of folly. I’d never heard of the hearth tax before, but Chateaubriand explains it well.
At one point he sees Marie Antoinette and remarks how pretty she is, but even as he writes this, there’s the shadow of death across the page. There’s a tremendous sense of loss running through the memoirs–loss for the world he knew which disappeared, loss of the family members executed during the revolution, and loss of the past.
Since that day, I have seen Combourg three times. After my father’s death, the family met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say our goodbyes. Another time I accompanied my mother to Combourg, when she was busy furnishing the castle for my brother, who was to bring my sister-in-law to live in Brittany. My brother never arrived. Beside his young wife, at the executioner’s hands, he was to receive a very different place to lay his head than the pillow that my mother prepared for him. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on my way to Saint-Malo, before I embarked for America. The castle was abandoned, and I had to spend the night in the steward’s house. When, wandering on the Grand Mall, I looked down a dark alley of trees and saw the empty staircase and the closed windows and doors, I felt faint. I dragged myself back to the village and sent for my horses. I left in the middle of the night.
The sections of his adventures in North America are wonderfully contrasted with scenes of the Revolution. Is it possible to get two more dissimilar worlds? These were two worlds that were both disappearing. At times this reads like an adventure story as he sees a bloodthirsty mob looking for aristocrats or when he flees to England. The memoirs end with Chateaubriand returning from exile. He’s lost everything and arrives “in France with the century.”
I brought back nothing from the land of exile but regrets and dreams.
Translated by Alex Andriesse