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Penguins on Parade: Chateaubriand!

By (October 5, 2014) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics would have been considered by their authors as only fitting, and one clear example of this would have to be Memoires d’outre-tombe by Francois-Rene, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, his “Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb,” which he worked on for the last fifteen years of his life and which were published shortly after his death in 1848. Chateaubriand was noble-born (his brother’s descendants still live in the old family palace) and a consistent though leery champion of the social orders that underpinned the Ancient Regime and the French monarchy. He was commissioned in the army in 1786, but he dreamed of being a writer – and when the French Revolution drove him into exile from France, it also drove him to the systematic use of his pen, and upon his return to France in 1797 he published his first book, a fairly sententious work that was penguin chateaubriandnevertheless received fairly seriously. It was his next book, 1801′s Atala, ou les amours de deux sauvages dans le desert, that hit bookstores like a sirocco wind and sold in heaps.

Atala is a ghastly little work, a hysterical bit of exotic melodrama that’s every bit as unreadable today as it was two hundred years ago, but the rules of bestsellerdom haven’t changed in all that time: people bought the thing in edition after edition, and suddenly Chateaubriand was an established author. He wrote a dozen more books, many of them based at least in part on their author’s various travels (he’s one of the best travel writers you’ll ever read, and you’ll read it all the more easily if Penguin someday gets around to adding some of those books to the Classics line), and – ham that he was – he saved the best for last. For years, while he was writing other things, he was compiling his Memoirs, and in their composition he indulges in a narrative tone visible nowhere else in his collected works, a sharper, more encyclopedic, far less diplomatic tone than anything he expected to be read while he was alive. As Philip Mansel simply but rightly states in his Introduction to the pretty new Penguin Classic of Memoires d’outre-tombe (with the louche portrait on the cover by Anne Louise Girodet de Rousy-Trioson), “Memoirs From Beyond the Tomb combines the autobiography of a great Romantic with the history of a great revolution. The result is a masterpiece.”

It’s an endlessly entertaining masterpiece, like a version of Democracy in America that was written by a worldly-wise raconteur rather than a slightly blockheaded virgin. Reading Chateaubriand, you can never quite predict when his barbed sotto voce sarcasm will pop up. It plays all over his various descriptions of the brawling young America he visited in 1791:

A man arriving like myself in the United States, full of enthusiasm for the peoples of classical antiquity, a colonist looking everywhere for the rigidity of early Roman life, was bound to be shocked at the luxuriousness of the carriages, the frivolity of the conversations, the inequality of fortunes, the immorality of the banks and gaming-house, the noisiness of the ballrooms and theatres. In Philadelphia I might easily have thought myself in Liverpool or Bristol.

The book has a profusion of well-polished anecdotes worthy of Benvenuto Cellini or Charles Greville, like the time our fashionably mordant author has a premature encounter with entombment in Westminster Abbey:

One day, however, it so happened that, wishing to contemplate the interior of the basilica in the twilight, I became lost in admiration of it bold, capricious architecture. Dominated by the sentiment of the sombre vastity of Christian churches (Montaigne), I wandered slowly about and was overtaken by the night: the doors were closed. I tried to find a way out; I called for the usher and beat on the doors; all this noise, spread out in the silence, was lost; I had to resign myself to sleeping among the dead.

Chateaubriand’s most effective bits in the Memoirs are the moments when he brushes up against fame and history. In those bits, he always goes for the frisson of lucy reading chateaubriandreaderly recognition (although usually he still injects a little of his signature snideness – his quick description of meeting George Washington is priceless in this regard), probably nowhere more effectively than when dramatizing how close he came to one of the pinnacles of his century’s historical events:

On 18 June 1815, I left Ghent about noon by the Brussels gate; I was going to finish my walk alone on the highroad. I had taken Caesar’s Commentaries with me and I strolled along, immersed in my reading. I was over two miles from the town when I thought I heard a dull rumbling: I stopped and looked up at the sky, which was fairly cloudy, wondering whether I should walk on or turn back twards Ghent for fear of a storm. I listened; I heard nothing more but the cry of a moorhen in the rushes and the sound of a village clock. I continued on my way: I had not taken thirty steps before the rumbling began again, now short, now drawn out, and at irregular intervals; sometimes it was perceptible only through a trembling of the air, which was so far away that it communicated itself to the ground as it passed over those vast plains …

It turns out the ominous rumblings he was hearing were originating in a nearby battle – and which battle, you may ask? “That great battle, nameless as yet, whose echoes I was listening to at the foot of a poplar, and for whose unknown obsequies a village clock had just struck, was the Battle of Waterloo!” Sacre bleu!

This Penguin Classic of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb is the sturdy 1961 translation by Robert Baldick, and re-reading it on the occasion of getting this new paperback, I found his work holds up quite well. He doesn’t quite trust himself to Chateaubriand’s more elaborate rococo rhetorical gestures – no translator has yet managed that; but he very effectively carries through the spirit of the man, so wonderfully alive even from beyond the tomb.