Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 1

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XVII, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVIII, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

The years 1805 and 1806 – I return to Paris – I leave for the Levant

When, in returning to Paris by the Burgundy road, I caught sight of the cupola of Val-de-Grâce and the dome of Sainte-Geneviève, which overlooks the Jardin-des-Plantes, my heart was troubled: yet again a life’s companion left behind on the journey! We went back to the Hôtel de Coislin, and, though Monsieur de Fontanes, Monsieur Joubert, Monsieur de Clausel, and Monsieur Molé would have come to spend the evening with me, I was worked upon by so many thoughts and memories I could no longer meet them. Living alone, beyond the dear subjects who had parted from me, like a foreign sailor whose term has expired and who has neither home nor country, I kicked my heels on shore; I burned with a longing to swim in a new ocean to refresh myself and forge my way across. A scion of Pindar, bred in Jerusalem, I was impatient to merge my solitudes with the ruins of Athens, my sorrows with the Magdalen’s tears.

I went to see my relatives in Brittany, and, on returning to Paris, I left for Trieste on the 13th of July 1806: Madame de Chateaubriand accompanied me as far as Venice, where Monsieur Ballanche came to meet her.

My life having been documented hour by hour in the Itinerary, I would have nothing more to say here, if I did not possess several unpublished letters written or received during and after my voyage. Julien, my servant and companion, has, for his part, written an Itinerary to accompany mine, as passengers on board ship keep a detailed journal during a voyage of discovery. The short manuscript which he placed at my disposal has served to confirm my narration: I will be Cook, he can be Clerke.

In order to fully reveal the manner in which one was struck by the ordering of society and the hierarchy of intellects, I will interweave my narrative with that of Julien. I will let him speak first, since he covers several days sailing without me from Modon to Smyrna.


‘We embarked on Friday the 1st of August; but, the wind not being favourable for leaving harbour, we moored until the following dawn. Then the port pilot came aboard to advise us that he could now allow us to leave. Since I had never been to sea, I was given an exaggerated idea of the risks, since I saw nothing of any such for two days. But on the third, a tempest blew up; lightning, thunder, finally a terrible storm assailed us and whipped up the waves with terrifying force. Our crew was made up of only eight sailors, the captain, an officer, a pilot, a cook, and five passengers, including Monsieur and myself, making seventeen men in all. We all set to, assisting the sailors to take in the sails, despite the rain which we were soon passing through, having discarded our coats to work more freely. The work occupied my mind, and made me forget the danger which, in truth, is more frightening in concept than it is in reality. For two days, the storms succeeded one another, which hardened me to my first days’ navigation; I was not troubled in the least. Monsieur had feared lest I suffer from sea sickness; when calm was re-established he said to me: ‘Now I am reassured about your health; since you have endured these two days of storms, you can rest easy regarding any other incidents.’ Nothing more took place during the rest of our course to Smyrna. On the 10th, which was a Sunday, Monsieur disembarked near to a Turkish village named Modon, where he landed in order to visit Greece. There were two men from Milan among the passengers with us, who were travelling to Smyrna to report on the tin-making and pewter operations. One of the two, who spoke the Turkish language quite well, was named Joseph, to whom Monsieur suggested that he might accompany him, as a private interpreter, and he mentions him in his Itinerary. Monsieur told us on leaving us that the voyage would only take a few days, and that he would rejoin the vessel at an island we were bound to pass in four or five days time, and that he would wait for us at that island, if he arrived there before us. Since Monsieur thought that this man would be all the company he needed for his little trip (from Sparta to Athens), he left me on board to continue my journey to Smyrna and take care of all our possessions. He entrusted me with a letter of recommendation to the French Consul, in case he failed to rejoin us; and that is what happened. On the fourth day we arrived at the island indicated. The Captain went ashore and Monsieur was not there. We anchored for the night and waited until seven in the morning. The Captain returned on shore to give warning that he was obliged to leave, having a fair wind and obliged as he was to take account of the distance. Moreover, he could see a pirate vessel seeking to approach us, and he had an urgent need of preparing our immediate defence. He charged his four cannon, and displayed his shotguns, pistols and blades on the bridge; but, as we had the advantage of the wind, the pirate abandoned us. We arrived in the port of Smyrna, on Monday the 18th, at seven in the evening.’

Having crossed Greece, touching at Zea and Chios, I found Julien at Smyrna. Today, in my memory, I see Greece as one of those bright circles that one sometimes perceives when closing one’s eyes. On that mysterious phosphorescence are drawn the ruins of a fine and admirable architecture, the whole rendered still more resplendent by some further brightness of the Muses. When will I see the thyme of Hymettus once more, the oleanders on the banks of the Eurotas? One of the men I have most envied leaving behind on a foreign shore was the Turkish customs officer at Piraeus: he lived alone, the keeper of three deserted harbours, casting his eyes over the bluish islands, the gleaming promontories, and the golden waters. There, I only heard the noise of waves breaking against the obliterated tomb of Themistocles and the murmur of far away memories: in the silence of Sparta’s ruins, even fame was mute.

I abandoned, in the cradle of Melesigene, my poor dragoman (interpreter) Joseph, the Milanese, in his tinsmith’s workshop, and headed for Constantinople. I went to Pergamum, wishing above all to reach Troy, out of poetic sympathy; a fall from my horse awaited me at the start of my journey; not because Pegasus flinched, but because I was asleep. I have recalled the incident in my Itinerary; Julien tells of it also, and he makes remarks, regarding the trails and the horses, to whose truth I can bear witness.


‘Monsieur, who fell asleep on horseback, fell off without waking. As soon as the horse had halted, so did mine which was following. I quickly set foot to ground to find out the cause, since it was impossible for me to find out from six feet away. I saw Monsieur half-awake beside his horse, and quite astonished to find himself on the ground; he assured me he had suffered no hurt. His horse had not tried to bolt, which would have been dangerous, since the place where we were was close to the cliff-edge.’

Leaving Soma, having passed through Pergamum, I had an argument with my guide, recorded in the Itinerary. Here is Julien’s version:

‘We left that village at a very early hour, after having recharged our canteen. A short distance from the village, I was extremely surprised to se Monsieur furious with our guide; I asked the reason. Then, Monsieur told me that he had agreed with the guide, at Smyrna, that he would lead him to the plains of Troy, on the way, but that, at this moment, he refused saying that the plains were infested with brigands. Monsieur believed not a word of it and would listen to no one. As I could see he was getting more and more excited, I signalled to the guide to come closer to the interpreter and the janissary (guard), to explain to me what he been told of the dangers which might be present in the plains which Monsieur wished to visit. The guide told the interpreter that he had been assured that it was necessary to travel in great numbers to avoid attack: the janissary told me the same thing. So I went to Monsieur and told him what all three had said, and, further, that we would find a little village within a day’s travel where they had a sort of Consul who could inform us of the true position. After this conversation, Monsieur calmed down and we continued our journey towards that place. As soon as we arrived, he went to the Consul, who told him of all the risks he ran, if he persisted in his intention to travel with such a small group into the plains of Troy. Then Monsieur was obliged to forgo his project, and we continued our journey to Constantinople.’

I arrived at Constantinople.


‘The almost complete absence of women, the lack of wheeled vehicles and the packs of master-less dogs were the three distinctive characteristics that first struck me in the interior of that extraordinary city. Since nearly everybody walks about in oriental slippers, since there is no sound of carts or carriages, since there are no bells, and almost no trades requiring a hammer, the silence is continuous. You see a mute crowd around you who seem to wish to pass by without being perceived, and who always have the air of hiding from their masters. You arrive continually at a bazaar or a cemetery, as if the Turks were only there to buy, sell or die. The cemeteries, lacking walls and set in the midst of the streets, contain groves of magnificent cypress trees: the doves make their nests in these cypresses and share the peace of the dead. Here and there one finds ancient monuments which bear no relationship to modern man or later monuments, with which they are surrounded: one might imagine they were transported to this oriental city for talismanic effect. No signs of joy, no indications of happiness reveal themselves to your eyes; what one sees are not a people, but a crowd led by an imam and whose throats a janissary slits. Among prisons and penal colonies, rises a seraglio, Capitol of slavery: there a sacred guardian carefully conserves the germs of plague and the primitive laws of tyranny.’

Julien, for his part, does not lose himself thus among the clouds:


‘The interior of Constantinople is very unpleasant on account of its sloping towards the canal and the port; one is obliged to beat a retreat time after time from all the streets which descend in that direction (very badly paved streets) in order to keep to the land that the water surrounds. There are few vehicles: the Turks make much more use of saddle-horses than other nations. In the French quarter there are several chairs with porters for the ladies. There are also horses and camels for hire for transporting merchandise. One also sees porters, Turks with very thick long sticks; they can fasten five or six items to each end and carry enormous loads at a steady pace; a single man can also carry very heavy burdens. They have a sort of hook, which is fitted to them from the shoulders to the small of the back, and with remarkable skill in balancing they carry all the parcels without them being secured.’