Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIX, chapter 3
JOURNAL FROM PARIS TO VENICE: Jura – the Alps – Milan – Verona – A Roll-call of the Dead – The Brenta



En route, the 7th to the 10th of September 1833..


I left Paris on the 3rd of September 1833, taking the Simplon road via Pontarlier.

Salins, destroyed by fire, had been rebuilt; I preferred it in its ugliness and Spanish decrepitude. The Abbé d’Olivet was born on the banks of the Furieuse; Voltaire’s first schoolmaster, who welcomed his pupil to the Academy, had no similarity to his native stream.

The great storm which caused so many shipwrecks in the Channel assailed me on the Jura. I arrived at night among the wastes of the Lévier relay station. The caravanserai built of planks, brightly illuminated, full of travellers taking refuge, looked remarkably like the gathering-place for a witches’ Sabbath. I did not want to stop: they brought the horses. When it was necessary to shut the lamps on the calash, there was some difficulty; the hostess, a young and extremely pretty sorceress, leant her assistance while laughing. She took care to hold her light, protected by a glass cover, near her face, so as to be seen.

At Pontarlier, my former host, a great legitimist in his lifetime, was dead. I supped at the National Inn: a good omen for the newspaper of that name. Armand Carrel is the leader of those who did not tell lies during the July Days.

The Château de Joux protects the approaches to Pontarlier; it has seen two men whose memory the Revolution will preserve occupy its dungeons in succession, Mirabeau, and Toussaint-Louverture, the black Napoleon, imitated, and done to death, by the white Napoleon. ‘Toussaint,’ said Madame de Staël, ‘was sent to a prison in France where he perished in the most wretched manner. Perhaps Bonaparte only fails to remember that crime, because he has been less criticised for it than others.’

The storm passed by: I suffered its worst violence between Pontarlier and Orbes. It made the mountains seem taller, made the bells chime in the hamlets, smothered the sound of the torrents with that of the thunder, and threw itself howling at my calash, like a black squall at a vessel’s sails. When flashes of lightning below lit the heather, you saw flocks of motionless sheep, heads hidden between their front legs, presenting their docked tails and woolly rumps to the flurries of rain and hail whipped along by the wind. The cry of a man shouting out the time, from the top of a mountain belfry, seemed like the voice of doom.

At Lausanne everything was smiling again: I had visited the town a few times before; I no longer knew anyone there.

At Bex, while they hitched the horses, which may have drawn Madame de Custine’s coffin, to my carriage, I leant against the wall of the house where my hostess of Fervaques died. She was noted, before the revolutionary Tribunal, for her long hair. In Rome I saw lovely blond hair recovered from a tomb.

In the Rhône valley, I met a little lass, almost naked, dancing with her goat; she begged charity of a rich well-dressed young man travelling post, with a courier in gold-braid in front and two lackeys seated at the back of the gleaming coach. And you imagine such a distribution of property can continue? Do you not think it justifies popular uprisings?

Sion recalled an epoch in my life: from being Secretary to the Rome Embassy, the First Consul nominated me as Plenipotentiary Minister to the Valais.

At Brig, I left the Jesuits trying hard to re-create what can no longer exist; established vainly at the feet of time, they were crushed beneath its weight, as their monastery was by the mountainous masses.

I was crossing the Alps for the tenth time; I had said what I had to say to them at various times and in the differing circumstances of my life. Forever regretful of what he has lost, forever wandering among memories, forever marching towards the grave, weeping and in isolation: that is Man.

Images borrowed, above all, from mountainous regions bear an obvious relationship to our lives; this one passes silently like the outflow from a spring; this makes a noise on its way like a torrent; that one pours out its existence like a cataract that terrifies and vanishes.

The Simplon already has a deserted air, like the life of Napoleon; like that life, it no longer possesses any glory; it is too great a work to belong to the little States to whom it has devolved. Genius has no family; its heritage fell by right of alienation to a plebeian people, who scratch away at it, planting a cabbage or growing a cedar.

Last time I crossed the Simplon, I was going to Rome as Ambassador; I have fallen; the shepherds I left behind on the mountain heights are still there: snow, clouds, shattered cliffs, pine forests, thunderous waters, endlessly surround the hut menaced by avalanches. The liveliest personage among those chalets is the she-goat. Why die? I know. Why be born? I have no idea. Yet you realise that the greatest suffering, moral suffering, the torments of the spirit are lessened among the habitations of that region of chamois and eagles. When I went to the Congress of Verona in 1822, the summit station on the Simplon was run by a Frenchwoman; in the midst of a cold night and a squall that prevented my seeing, she spoke to me of La Scala in Milan; she was waiting for ribbons from Paris; her voice, the only thing I could know of the woman, was very sweet in the wind and darkness.

The descent to Domo d’Ossola seemed more and more wonderful to me; some play of light and shadow increased the magic. One was caressed by a little breeze, in our ancient language called l’aure, a kind of advanced breath of the morning, bathed and perfumed with dew. I found Lake Maggiore again, where I was so sad in 1828, and which I glimpsed from the valley of Bellinzona in 1832. At Sesto-Calende, Italy proclaimed itself: a blind Paganini was singing and playing his violin by the edge of the lake as we crossed the Ticino.

I saw once more, on entering Milan, the magnificent avenue of tulip-trees which no one mentions: travellers apparently take them to be plane-trees. I protest against this silence, in memory of my savages: it is the slightest of ways in which America grants shade to Italy. One could also plant magnolias mixed with palm and orange trees at Genoa. But who dreams of that? Who thinks of adorning the earth? They leave all that to God. Governments are pre-occupied with their survival, and people prefer a cardboard tree in a puppet-theatre to the magnolia whose flowers might perfume Christopher Columbus’ birthplace.

In Milan, the vexation occasioned by passports is as stupid as it is brutal. I never pass through Verona without emotion: it was there that my active political career really began. What might have become of the world, if that career had not been interrupted by wretched envy, presented itself to my mind.

Verona, so animated in 1822 by the presence of the European sovereigns, had returned, in 1833, to silence; in those solitary streets the Congress seemed as distant as the Court of the Scaligeri and the Roman Senate. The amphitheatre, whose tiers had offered themselves to my eyes charged with a hundred thousand spectators, yawned empty; the buildings I had admired, beneath the illuminated embroidery of their architecture, were enveloped, grey and bare, by a rainy atmosphere.

How many ambitions were stirred among the actors at Verona! The destinies of how many nations were examined, discussed and weighed! Let us make a roll-call of those pursuers of dreams; let us open the book of the Day of Wrath: Liber scriptus proferetur;the book that is written will be revealed; Monarchs! Princes! Ministers! Here is your ambassador, here is your colleague returned to his post: where are you? Can you reply?

Alexander, Emperor of Russia? – Dead.
Francis II, Emperor of Austria? – Dead.
Louis XVIII, King of France? – Dead.
Charles X, King of France? – Dead.
George IV, King of England? – Dead.
Ferdinand I, King of Naples? – Dead.
The Grand Duke of Tuscany? – Dead.
Pope Pius VII? – Dead.
Charles-Félix, King of Sardinia? – Dead.
The Duke of Montmorency, Foreign Minister of France? – Dead.
Mr Canning, Foreign Minister of England? – Dead.
Count von Bernstorff, Foreign Minister of Prussia? – Dead.
Herr von Gentz, of the Austrian Chancellery? – Dead.
Cardinal Consalvi, Secretary of State to His Holiness? – Dead.
Monsieur de Serre, my colleague at the Congress? – Dead.
Monsieur d’Aspremont, my secretary at the Embassy? – Dead.
Count von Neipperg, husband of Napoleon’s widow? – Dead.
Countess Tolstoï? – Dead.
Her younger and elder son? – Dead.
My host at the Palazzo Lorenzi? – Dead.

If so many men appearing with me on the register of attendees at the Congress have been inscribed in the death register; if nations and royal dynasties have perished; if Poland has succumbed; if Spain is being torn apart once more; if I have been to Prague to inquire about the fugitive remnants of the great race whose representative I was in Verona, what then are the things of this earth? No one remembers the speeches we uttered around Prince Metternich’s table; but, oh the power of genius! No traveller can hear the lark sing in the fields around Verona without recalling Shakespeare. Each of us, searching the depths of their memory, finds a different obituary column, other extinguished feelings, other chimeras nursed in vain, like those of Herculaneum, at the breast of Hope. On leaving Verona, I was obliged to alter my way of measuring past time; I travelled back twenty-seven years, since I had not taken the route from Verona to Venice since 1806. At Brescia, Vicenza, and Padua, I traversed walls due to Palladio, Scamozzi, Franceschini, Nicholas of Pisa, and Fra Giovanni.

The banks of the Brenta failed my expectation; in my imagination they had remained more welcoming; the elevated dikes along the canal enclose too much marshland. Several villas have been demolished; but several elegant ones still remain. There, perhaps, Signor Procurante lives whom great ladies in need of sonnets disgust, whom two pretty girls are beginning to weary, whom music fatigues after a quarter of an hour, who finds Homer a mortal bore, who detests pious Aeneas, little Ascanius, idiotic King Latinus, vulgar Amata and insipid Lavinia; who cares little for Horace’s bad dinner on the road to Brindisi, who declares that he never reads Cicero, and still less Milton, a barbarian who ruins Tasso’s hell and his devil. ‘Alas!’ Candide whispered to Martin, ‘I fear this man has a sovereign contempt for our German poets!’

Despite my partial disappointment and the many gods among the little gardens, I was delighted with the silk trees (asclepias), the orange and fig-trees and the mildness of the air, I who, such a short time before, was travelling through German pine-woods and Czech mountains where the sun barely shows its face.

I arrived at Fusina, which Philippe de Comines and Montaigne call Chaffousine, at daybreak on the 10th of September. At ten thirty I embarked for Venice. My first care was to send to the post-office: there was nothing for me under either my direct address or my indirect one, via Paolo: of Madame la Duchesse de Berry, no news. I wrote to Count Griffi, the Ambassador of Naples to Florence, to ask him to let me know Her Royal Highness’ whereabouts.

Settling in, I resolved to wait patiently for the Princess: Satan sent me a temptation. I chose, through his diabolical suggestion, to live alone for a fortnight in the Hôtel de l’Europe, to the great detriment of the Legitimacy. I wished the august voyager a poor journey without considering that my restoration of King Henri V might be delayed by a half-month: I asked, as Danton did, forgiveness for it of God and men.