It’s safe to say that the work of François-René de Chateaubriand remains a closed book to American readers. His name is familiar from literary history, as the founding father of French Romanticism (not to mention the cut of steak that was named after him). But when was the last time you heard someone mention René, Chateaubriand’s arch-Romantic novel about world-weariness, incest, and life among the Native Americans? Yet when it was first published, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, René rivaled Goethe’s Werther and Byron’s Childe Harold as an emblem of the Romantic spirit. Chateaubriand’s defense of religion, Génie du christianisme, was equally influential, helping to inaugurate the nineteenth century’s romantic return to religion after the Enlightenment scoffing of the eighteenth century’s philosophes. On the strength of his literary fame, Chateaubriand became a major political figure in early-nineteenth-century France. An outspoken critic of Napoleon during the Empire, he rallied to the cause of the restored Bourbon monarchy and served in a number of high offices, including as foreign minister. If Byron had been lucky enough to be born in France rather than puritanical England, he might well have ended up with Chateaubriand’s career.
With such a dramatic life, it’s no wonder that one of Chateaubriand’s most enduring works is his memoirs. The very title of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb — now published in a new Penguin Classics edition, based on the 1965 translation by Robert Baldick — is a seductive advertisement for the Romantic gloom that saturates the book. All memoirs are, in some sense, written from beyond the grave — at least, if they keep being read after their author’s death, which immediately rules out most politicians’ efforts. But Chateaubriand’s title is specially fitting: he left instructions for his book to be published only after his death, and he relishes writing from the perspective of a ghost, someone who has already departed the life he is chronicling. “These Memoirs will be a mortuary temple erected by the light of my memories,” he writes early on, and he returns to the image in the book’s eerie last lines: “I behold the light of a dawn whose sunrise I shall never see. It only remains for me to sit down at the edge of my grave: then I shall descend boldly, crucifix in hand, into eternity.”
The continuity of mood and theme is all the more striking because, between the writing of the first chapter of the Memoirs and the last, thirty years had passed. Chateaubriand wrote his book in installments throughout his adult life, and he regularly breaks into the narrative to let us know when and where he is working on it: in retirement in a cottage in France or amid the splendors of his office as France’s ambassador to England. This double time scheme creates a vivid sense of time passing, underscoring Chateaubriand’s arch-Romantic obsession with transience and mutability. “That is how everything proves abortive in my life,” he moans, “and why nothing is left me but pictures of what has passed me by: I shall go down to the Elysian Fields with more shades than any man has ever taken with him.”
One of the mysteries of the Memoirs, which eventually breeds a certain skepticism in the reader, is how a man who professes himself so unworldly, so gloomily indifferent to everything that other people value, managed to become so powerful and celebrated. “I do not know of a fame in history that tempts me: if I had to stoop to pick up at my feet and to my profit the greatest glory in the world, I would not take the trouble,” he avows, in keeping with the Romantic’s stylized melancholy and misanthropy. Clearly, Chateaubriand went to more than a little trouble; yet rhetorically, the book is so much of a piece that the pose of indifference manages to convince. Even when we glimpse Chateaubriand as a minister of state, he insists that high office means nothing to him, that he is actually happy to lose it.
Chateaubriand’s constitutional depression, as we might call it today, is attributed by the writer himself to the circumstances of his childhood, which were as gothic as any novelist could invent. The youngest son of a minor Breton nobleman, he grew up in a family whose intense pride of caste went along with poverty and isolation. Combourg, the remote and forbidding château where he was raised, sounds like a perfect house for haunting: “its bleak, grim facade” stood among “heaths ringed with woods, fallow land which had barely been cleared, fields of poor, short, black corn and scanty oats.”
As in the Grail legend, there seems to be a blight on the land, and on the Chateaubriand family. When two of his sisters were married on the same day, he writes, “they wept and my mother wept; I was surprised at their sorrow: I understand it today. I never attend a christening or a wedding without smiling bitterly or experiencing a pang. After being born, I know no greater misfortune than that of giving birth to a human being.” As a teenager, Chateaubriand played a kind of Russian roulette, putting the barrel of a rifle in his mouth and striking the butt against the ground, hoping it would go off. “If I had killed myself,” he writes, “nothing would have been known of the story which had led to my catastrophe; I should have swelled the crowd of nameless sufferers, and I should not have induced others to follow me by leaving a trail of sorrows as a wounded man leaves a trail of blood.”
Yet Chateaubriand’s sense of the world’s futility did not cancel out his instinct for adventure. After training as a soldier, he impulsively decided that he would cross the Atlantic and single-handedly discover the Northwest Passage. He didn’t, but his experiences in the fledgling United States — including a meeting with President George Washington and romantic encounters with Natchez maidens in the South — provided material for his colorful fictions. He was drawn back to France by the increasingly bloody Revolution, which he opposed both out of class loyalty and personal instinct. The Memoirs are valuable in large part as a record of how the French Revolution looked to its enemies, as in this scene of the king’s progress through Paris:
I hurried to the Champs-Élysées. First there appeared some guns, ridden by harpies, thieves, and prostitutes making obscene remarks and filthy gestures. . . .Tattered rag-pickers and butchers with bloodstained aprons wrapped around their thighs, clung to the [king’s] carriage doors; other sinister guards had climbed on to the roof; yet others hung on to the footboard. . . . By way of an oriflamme, held high in the air by Swiss halberds, there were carried before the descendant of Saint Louis the heads of two Lifeguards, powdered and curled by a Sèvres wigmaker.
Chateaubriand joined the bulk of the French aristocracy by emigrating, joining an army of exiled noblemen that fought against the Revolutionary forces. Later he lived for years in obscurity and poverty in England, before Napoleon’s amnesty of the émigrés allowed him to return to France in 1800. And it is here, just as Chateaubriand enters into his years of greatest fame and success, that Memoirs from Beyond the Grave becomes evasive and spotty. Writing about his own triumphs does not interest him.
Instead, the second half of the book almost ceases to be an autobiography and becomes instead a study of Napoleon, who was Chateaubriand’s exact contemporary. Chateaubriand’s feelings about Napoleon are irretrievably mixed: he despises him as a tyrant but remains fascinated by the man of destiny, the self-created emperor who rose from nowhere to conquer the world. It’s impossible to avoid the sense that, in making Napoleon the central figure in what is supposed to be his own life story, Chateaubriand is expressing his secret desires. For all his renouncing of the world, his Romantic egotism could be satisfied with nothing less than dominating the world; he lived to see another man carry out his own hidden dream. The influence of Napoleon’s example on a generation of European Romantics is nowhere more perfectly documented. Chateaubriand’s Memoirs, with all their myth making, posing, and dark glamour, are his Arc de Triomphe, and may yet prove more lasting than their equivalent in stone.
Editor’s Note: an earlier edition of this article did not list the date of Robert Baldick’s original 1965 translation.