Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIV, chapter 4
The Études Historiques

Finally, my Études Historiques have appeared; I record the Foreword here: it is a true page of my Memoirs, it continues my story to the moment when I wrote it:


‘Remember, in order not to lose sight of the world’s course, that at that epoch (the fall of the Roman Empire)… there were citizens who like me searched the archives of the past in the midst of present ruins, who wrote the annals of ancient revolutions to the sound of new ones; they and I took for a table, in the crumbling edifice, the stone fallen at our feet, while awaiting that which would crush our skulls.’

(Études Historique, Book Vb, page 175)

‘In what remains to me of life, I would not wish to re-live the eighteen months which have just passed. No one has any idea of the violence done to me; I have been forced to remain mentally detached for ten, twelve or fifteen hours a day, detached from everything happening around me, in order to give myself simply to the composition of a work of which no one will read a single line. Who will read four fat volumes, when they have enough trouble reading the pages of a newspaper? I was writing ancient history, and modern history knocked at my door: in vain I called out to it: “Wait, I will come to you”; it passed by to the sound of cannon, carrying away with it three generations of kings.

And how happily the times suited the very nature of those Studies! They pulled down crosses, they pursued priests; and the pages of my tale were a matter of crosses and priests; they banished Capets, and I am publishing a history eight centuries of which is concerned with Capets. The longest and final work of my life, that which has cost me most research, care and time, that in which I have aired perhaps the largest number of facts and ideas, appears when it would find no readers; it is if I had thrown it into a well where it will sink between the heap of rubble following it. When a society makes and unmakes itself, when the life of one and all goes into it, when one is not sure of the future for a moment, then who cares what his neighbour does, thinks, or says? Do Nero, Constantine, Julian, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Church Fathers, the Goths, the Huns, the Vandals, the Franks, Clovis, Charlemagne, Hugh Capet and Henri IV really matter; do the problems of the ancient world really matter, when we are concerned with the problems of the modern one? Is it not a sort of wool-gathering, a sort of feebleness of mind to occupy oneself with literature at such a moment? True: but this wool-gathering has noting to do with my brain, it has its antecedents in my wretched poverty. If I had not made so many sacrifices for my country’s liberty, I would not have been obliged to enter into contracts which have had to be fulfilled in circumstances doubly deplorable to me. No author has suffered a like experience; God be thanked, it is over: I no longer have to sit amongst the ruins despising a life which I disdained to follow in my youth.

After these quite natural complaints, which escape me involuntarily, a thought comes to console me; I began my literary career with a work in which I envisaged Christianity in the context of philosophy and history: I began my political career with the Restoration, I finished it with the Restoration. It is not without a secret satisfaction that I find myself so in accord with myself.’