Chateaubriand on Writing Memoir between Two Societies



Charles Etienne Pierre Motte, The Surroundings of Dieppe, 1833, licensed under CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was born in Saint-Malo, on the northern coast of Brittany, the youngest son of an aristocratic family. After an isolated adolescence spent largely in his father’s castle, he moved to Paris not long before the revolution began. In 1791, he sailed for America but quickly returned to his home country, where he was wounded as a counterrevolutionary soldier, and then emigrated to England. The novellas Atala and René, published shortly after his return to France in 1800, made him a literary celebrity. Long recognized as one of the first French Romantics, Chateaubriand was also a historian, a diplomat, and a staunch defender of the freedom of the press. Today he is best remembered for his posthumously published Memoirs from Beyond the Grave.


Sojourn in Dieppe—Two Societies

Dieppe, 1836; revised in December 1846.

You know that I have moved from place to place many times while writing these memoirs, that I have often described these places, spoken of the feelings they inspired in me, and retraced my memories, mingling the stories of my restless thoughts and sojourns with the story of my life.

You see where I am living now. This morning, out walking on the cliffs behind the Château de Dieppe, I gazed at the archway that leads to those cliffs by means of a bridge thrown over a moat. Through that same archway, Madame de Longueville escaped from Queen Anne of Austria. Stealing away on a ship that set sail from Le Havre, she landed in Rotterdam and rendezvoused in Stenay with Marshal de Turenne. The great captain’s laurels had by then been sullied, and the exiled tease treated him none too well.

Madame de Longueville, who did honor to the Hôtel de Rambouillet, the throne of Versailles, and the city of Paris, fell in love with the author of the Maxims [Turenne] and tried her best to be faithful to him. The latter lives on thanks less to his “thoughts” than to the friendship of Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné, the poetry of La Fontaine, and the love of Madame de Longueville. So you see the value of having famous friends.

The princesse de Condé on her deathbed said to Madame de Brienne, “My dear friend, write to that poor wretch in Stenay and acquaint her with the state in which you see me, so that she may learn how to die.” Fine words—but the princess was forgetting that she had once been courted by Henry IV and that, when her husband took her to Brussels, she yearned to find her way back to Béarn, “to climb out a window at night and ride thirty or forty leagues on horseback.” She was at that time a “poor wretch” of seventeen.

At the foot of the cliff, I found myself on the high road to Paris. This road rises steeply as it leaves Dieppe. To the right, on the ascendant line of an embankment, stands a cemetery wall; along this wall is a wheel for winding rope. Two rope makers, walking backward side by side, swinging their weight from one leg to the other, were singing together in low voices. I pricked up my ears. They had come to these two lines in “Le vieux caporal,” that fine poetic lie which has led us where we are today:

Qui là-bas sanglote et regarde?
Eh! c’est la veuve du tambour.

The two men sang the refrain, Conscrits, au pas; ne pleurez pas Marchez au pas, au pas, in such manly and melancholy voices that tears welled in my eyes. As they kept in step and wound their hemp, they seemed to be spinning out the old corporal’s dying moments. I cannot say what share of this glory, so forlornly disclosed by two sailors singing of a soldier’s death in plain view of the sea, belonged to Béranger.

The cliff had put me in mind of monarchical grandeur, the road of plebeian celebrity, and I now compared the men at these two ends of society. I asked myself to which of these epochs I would prefer to belong. When the present has vanished like the past, which of these two forms of fame will most attract the attention of posterity?

And yet if facts were everything, if in history the value of names did not counterweigh the value of events, what a difference between my days and the days that passed between the deaths of Henry IV and Mazarin! What are the troubles of 1648 compared to the revolution that has devoured the old world, of which it will die perhaps, leaving behind neither an old nor a new society? The scenes I have described in my memoirs—are they not incomparably more important than those recounted by the duc de La Rochefoucauld? Even here in Dieppe, what is the blithe and voluptuous idol of seduced, insurgent Paris set beside Madame la Duchesse de Berry? The cannon fire that announced the royal widow to the sea sounds no longer; those blandishments of powder and smoke have left nothing on shore except the moaning waves.

The two Bourbon daughters, Anne-Geneviève and Marie-Caroline, are nowhere to be found; the two sailors singing the song of the plebeian poet will sink into obscurity; Dieppe is void of me. It was another “I,” an “I” of early days long gone who lived in these places, and that “I” has already succumbed, for our days die before us. Here, you have seen me as a sublieutenant in the Navarre regiment exercising recruits on the shale. Here, you have seen me exiled by Bonaparte. Here, you will see me once more, when the days of July take me by surprise. Here I am again, and here I take up my pen one more time to continue my confessions.

So that we understand each other, it will be useful to take a look around at the current state of my memoirs.

What has happened to me is what happens to every contractor working on a large scale. To begin with, I built the outer wings, then—shifting and reshifting my scaffolding—raised the stone and mortar of the structures in between. It took many centuries to complete the Gothic cathedrals. If heaven permits me to go on living, this monument of mine will be finished in the course of my years; the architect, still one and the same, will have changed only in age. Still, it is taxing to keep one’s intellectual being intact, imprisoned in its weather-beaten shell. Saint Augustine, feeling his clay crumbling, said unto God, “Be Thou a tabernacle unto my soul.” And to men he said, “When you find me in these books of mine, pray for me.”

Thirty-six years divide the events that set my memoirs in motion from those that occupy me today. How can I resume, with any real intensity, the narration of a subject that once filled me with fire and passion, now that there are no longer any living people with whom I can speak of these things, now that it is a matter of reviving frozen effigies from the depths of Eternity and descending into a burial vault to play at life? Am I not already half-dead myself? Have my opinions not changed? Can I still see things from the same point of view? The prodigious public events that accompanied or followed those private events that so perturbed me—has their importance not dwindled in the eyes of the world, as it has in my own? Anyone who prolongs his career on earth feels a chill descending on his days; he no longer finds tomorrow as interesting as he found it yesterday. When I rack my brains, there are names, and even people, that escape me, no matter how much they once may have caused my heart to pound. Oh, the vanity of man forgetting and forgotten! It is not enough to say “Wake up!”  to our dreams, our loves, for them to come to life again. The realm of the shades can only be opened with the golden bough, and a young hand is needed to pull it down.


From Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1800–1815 by François-René de Chateaubriand, translated by Alex Andriesse, which will be published by NYRB Classics in September. 

François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a writer, historian, and diplomat, and is considered one of France’s first Romantic authors.

Alex Andriesse is a writer and translator. In addition to Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, he has translated the work of Roberto Bazlen, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Schwob. He is the editor of The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick and an associate editor at New York Review Books.