Eighteenth-Century Paris

Les Nuits de Paris

by Restif de la Bretonne, with an Introduction by Jacques Barzun, translated by Linda Asher, by Eileen Fertig
Random House, 375 pp., $5.95

Restif de la Bretonne, probably best known as a prolific pornographer…,” says the notice on the cover of this book. If the remark is intended to mean that Restif was, in fact, a prolific pornographer, then for once a blurb is less than fair. Prolific Restif undoubtedly was. He published his first book in 1767, when he was thirty-three, and it is said that his total score, by the time he died in 1806, was 240 volumes. The figure sounds incredible, but he was a printer by trade and, during the second part of his life, seems to have concentrated on printing and publishing his own works—sometimes even composing them directly into print, without going through the process of writing them down before-hand. Of these 240 volumes only a proportion are available in the British Museum and the London Library, but they appear to be sufficiently representative to allow one to rebut the charge that Restif was first and foremost a pornographer. He was something of a mild sex maniac—a foot-fetishist with an incest fixation—which is quite a different matter. He himself claims in the original, uncut version of Les Nuits de Paris that he never wrote a line “for any other motive than the public good.” Although this assertion is partly eighteenth-century commonplace, his reforming zeal is only too obvious, since he wrote projects for the reorganization of practically everything, from prostitution to spelling. It is true that in all his works the lay sermons alternate with what the French call “livelier scenes,” but I doubt whether any of these were written deliberately and with mercenary intent. Restif shows all the signs of being a genuinely obsessed writer; his sexiness is no more intentional than Boswell’s and, as far as I know, it has never been suggested that Boswell’s Journals are pornographic.

Boswell, indeed, frequently comes to mind as one reads Restif, and for more than one reason. Restif was a young provincial who came up to Paris from Burgundy, just as the uneasy young laird gravitated towards London from the dying cultural center of Edinburgh. They both had a naive respect for great men and for learning; neither could venture into the streets without meeting a pretty woman; and they both puzzle the modern reader by writing at times well above the level one might expect of such feverish eccentrics. Their eccentricity itself is perhaps not an individual trait, but a sign that the Scot and the Burgundian both belonged very much to the second half of the eighteenth century; they are, recognizably, members of the same company as Casanova, Beaumarchais, Rousseau, Rameau’s Nephew, and the Marquis de Sade. They both stood in a special relationship to Rousseau. Rousseau was the man Restif most tried to emulate; Boswell claims to have copulated thirteen times on the cross-Channel boat with Rousseau’s housekeeper-mistress, Thérèse (the crossing was, of course, longer in those days). This conjunction seems weirdly appropriate to the mad late eighteenth-century …

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