Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 6
My life in 1801 – Le Mercure - Atala

Paris, 1837 (Revised, December 1846)

While I was occupied with removing, adding and altering the pages of Le Génie du Christianisme, necessity obliged me to work on other things. Monsieur de Fontanes was at that time writing for Le Mercure de France: he proposed I should also write for that paper. Such exercises were not without peril: politics was only visible through literature, and Bonaparte’s police read every word. One odd circumstance, in keeping me from sleeping, lengthened my waking hours, and gave me more time. I had bought some turtledoves; they cooed eternally: at night I shut them, in vain, in my travelling trunk; they only cooed the more. In one of the moments of insomnia they provoked, I thought to write a letter for Le Mercure, addressed to Madame de Stael. This sally suddenly caused me to quit the darkness; what my two thick volumes on Les Révolutions had failed to do for me was achieved by a few pages in a newspaper. My head emerged a little from the shadows.

This first success seemed to presage that which followed. I was busy revising the proofs of Atala (an episode included, like René, in Le Genie du Christianisme) when I realised that some pages were missing. Fear gripped me: I though that someone had stolen part of my story, which was a wholly baseless anxiety, since no one thought my work worth the effort of stealing from. Be that as it may, I determined to publish Atala separately, and I announced my intention in a letter sent to the Journal des Débats and Le Publiciste.

Before taking the risk of revealing the work to the light of day, I showed it to Monsieur Fontanes: he had already read parts of it in London in manuscript. When he reached father Aubry’s speech, by Atala’s deathbed, he said sharply in a harsh tone: ‘That’s not it; that’s poor; rework it!’ I withdrew hurt; I felt incapable of improving it. I wanted to hurl the whole thing into the flames; I spent the hours from eight till eleven in the evening, in my room, sitting at my table, my forehead resting on the back of my hands which lay open on my papers. I was angry with Fontanes; I was angry with myself; I did not even attempt to write, I despaired of my ability so deeply. Towards midnight, the sound of my turtledoves registered with me, softened, and rendered more plaintive, by the prison I had confined them in: inspiration returned; I quickly re-drafted the missionary’s speech, without a single gap, without scratching out a single word, just as it remained and exists today. With beating heart, I took it to Fontanes that morning, who cried: ‘That’s it! That’s it! I said you could do better!’

My fame in this world dates from the publication of Atala: I ceased to live for myself alone, and began my public career. After so many military triumphs, a literary triumph seemed a wonder; people were starved. The novelty of the work added to the public interest. Atala appearing in the midst of the Empire’s literature, that school of classicism, a rejuvenated old-age the first glance at which created boredom, was a kind of production of an unknown type. They were unsure as to whether to class it among the monstrosities or among the beauties; was she a Gorgon or a Venus? The assembled academicians gave learned dissertations on her sex and her nature, just as they made their reports concerning Le Génie du Christianisme. The old era rejected it, the new welcomed it.

Atala became so popular that, in company with the Marquise de Brinvilliers, she went to swell Curtius’ waxworks collection. The carters’ taverns were decked with engravings in red, green and blue representing Chactas, Father Aubry, and the daughter of Simaghan. In the wooden booths, on the quais, they displayed my characters modelled in wax, as images of the Virgin and the saints are displayed at fairs. I saw my savage lady in a street theatre plumed with a cockerel’s feathers, speaking of the soul of solitude to a savage of her tribe, in a manner such as to make me sweat with embarrassment. At the Varieties they performed a piece in which a young boy and girl, leaving their lodgings, travelled by stagecoach to marry in their little village; on arrival they spoke of nothing but alligators, egrets and forests, their parents believing they had gone mad. Parodies, caricatures, lampoons showered on me. The Abbé Morellet, to confound me, made his servant girl sit on his knees to prove he was unable to hold that young virgin’s feet in his hands, as Chactas had held Atala’s feet during the storm: if this Chactas of the Rue Anjou were to have had himself painted like that I would have forgiven him his criticism.

All this added to the hullabaloo surrounding my appearance. I became fashionable. My head was turned: I was unacquainted with the pleasures of self-importance, and I became drunk. I loved fame as one does a woman, like a first love. Nevertheless coward that I was my terror equalled my passion: a conscript, I behaved badly under fire. My natural barbarity, the doubt I had always harboured concerning my talent, made me humble in the midst of my triumph. I hid from my own splendour; I walked in splendour, searching for the means to extinguish the halo with which my head was crowned. In the evenings, my hat pulled down over my eyes, for fear lest someone might recognise the great man, I went to the tavern to read surreptitiously the praise given to me in some little known newspaper. Together with my fame, I extended my peregrinations as far as the steam-driven pumping plant at Chaillot, on the same road where I had suffered so much when travelling to Court; I was no more at ease with my new honours. When My Excellency dined for thirty sous in the Latin Quarter, his food went down the wrong way, disturbed by the gazes of which he was the object. I contemplated myself, I said: ‘It’s only you, this extraordinary creature, that eats like any other man!’ On the Champs-Élysées there was a café I was fond of, because of the nightingales in a cage suspended from the wall of the back room; Madame Rousseau, the proprietress of the place, knew me by sight without knowing who I was. About ten in the evening she would bring me a cup of coffee, and I would find Atala in Les Petites-Affiches, to the sound of my half-dozen Philomelas. Alas! I was soon to hear of Madame Rousseau’s death; our flock of nightingales and the Indian girl who sang: Sweet habit of loving, so needed for living, lasted only a moment!

If success was unable to maintain that stupid passion of vanity in me for long, nor pervert my reason, it held dangers of another kind; those dangers increased with the appearance of Le Génie du Christianisme, and my resignation over the death of the Duc d’Enghien. Then there came pressing around me, as well as the young girls who weep at novels, a crowd of Christians, and those other noble enthusiasts whose hearts beat faster at an honourable action. The ephebes of thirteen or fourteen years, were the most perilous; since knowing neither what they want nor what they want of you, they confuse your image, seductively, with one made of stories, ribbons and flowers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau speaks of the declarations he received on publication of La Nouvelle Héloïse and the conquests it offered him: I have no idea whether it would have delivered empires to me, thus, but I know that I was buried under a pile of perfumed letters; if those letters were not today those of grandmothers, I would be hard put to it to recount with fitting modesty how they competed for a word from my pen, how they gathered up some envelope I had written, and how, blushing, they would hide it, lowering their heads, beneath the veil that fell from their flowing hair. If I was not spoiled, it must be because my character is robust.

Out of real politeness or inquisitive weakness, I sometimes allowed myself to go as far as feeling myself obliged to thank the unknown ladies who sent me their names with their flatteries: one day, climbing to a fourth storey I found a delightful creature, under her mother’s wing, whose home I never set foot in again. A Polonaise invited me into silk-lined rooms; a mixture of odalisque (eastern concubine) and Valkyrie, she had the look of a snowdrop with its white petals, or one of those elegant heath-flowers that replace the other daughters of Flora, when the latter’s season is not yet arrived, or has gone by: that feminine choir, varying in age and beauty, was a realisation of my former sylph. The combined effect on my vanity and my feelings might have been all the more serious in that till then, except for one serious attachment, I had not been sought after nor distinguished from the crowd. However I must say: though it might have been easy to take advantage of passing illusion, the idea of an amorous adventure via the chaste path of Religion was an affront to my integrity: to be loved on account of Le Génie du Christianisme, loved for The Extreme Unction, for The Dance of Death! I could never have played so shameful a hypocrite.

I knew a provincial medical man, Doctor Vigaroux; having arrived at the age where every pleasure takes a day from our life, he said ‘he had no regret for time lost in such a way; without worrying if he conferred the happiness which he received, he travelled towards death which he hoped to make his last delight.’ Nevertheless I was witness to his sorry tears when he died; he could not hide his misery from me; he had left things too late; his white hairs did not dangle low enough to catch and absorb his tears. There is no real unhappiness in leaving this earth except in unbelief: for the man without faith, existence possesses something of the dread with which it senses nothingness; if one had not been born, one could not experience the horror of no longer existing: life for the atheist is a fearsome flash of lightning that only serves to reveal the abyss.

God of generosity and mercy! You have not placed us on earth for worthless sorrows and wretched happiness! Our inevitable disenchantment tells us that our destiny is more sublime. Whatever our faults may have been, if we have retained a steadfast spirit and thought of you amidst our frailties, we will be raised, when your goodness delivers us, to that realm where all bonds are eternal.