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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 atmosphere; several episodes from Boswell’s life would fit quite neatly into Les Nuits de Paris.

Les Nuits is neither Restif’s most famous book nor, I think, his best. The most celebrated in France is his pious account of his provincial childhood, La Vie de mon père, and of those I have read the most impressive are his autobiography, Monsieur Nicolas, and his picaresque, epistolary novel, Le Paysan et la Paysanne pervertis, which give a full-scale reflection of his strange personality. But Les Nuits has the fascination of a highly imaginative document about Paris in the years immediately before, and during, the Revolution. Restif claims that the idea of writing it came to him spontaneously in 1786; he had always been in the habit of prowling the streets after nightfall, he says, and he felt compelled to put down his more significant experiences. Actually, I wonder if he had not read Sebastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris, which had started to appear in 1781, and decided to go one better. He may also have been thinking of other collections of anecdotes about life in the capital, such as Lesage’s Le Diable Boiteux and Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes. It was a feature of Restif’s slight dottiness that he felt the urge to rewrite most of the successful books of the century. La Vie de mon père reads very much like a second version of Diderot’s Entretien d’un père avec ses enfants; Monsieur Nicolas (although Restif denies the fact) is clearly an attempt to improve on Rousseau’s Confessions, just as the sociological tracts are echoes of Emile and Le Contrat social; Le Paysan et la Paysanne pervertis is obviously a rewrite of Marivaux’s Le Paysan parvenu and Marianne. Restif was also very conscious of Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses and of Sade’s works, which he professed to think abominable. However, the derivativeness of his writing is of little importance because, whatever he tried his hand at, he always fell back into his own version of the eighteenth-century style, with invocations to nature, a dubiously paternal interest in young girls who are to be saved from a fate worse than death, and a lurid intensity which somehow carries conviction. Whereas Mercier’s Tableau is a flat, factual document, just as commonsensical as Mayhew’s London although less interesting, Restif’s Nuits, like his vast, comparable series of Parisian anecdotes called Les Contemporaines, is a passionate mixture of fact and fiction. It purports to be journalism but is nearer to literature since, in its welter of amorous intrigues, it has the same kind of flavor as Les Liaisons dangereuses or Le Marriage de Figaro.

This English version is a translation of the abridgment published in Paris in 1960 by a society with the un-French title of Le Livre Club du Libraire. The anonymous editor has trimmed away a good deal of the eighteenth-century rhetoric, leaving, as far as possible, only the bare bones of the stories. This is not altogether a happy solution, because part of the charm of long-winded authors is their long-windedness and, in the case of Restif, the garrulity is a sort of mythomaniacal fabric in which the episodes are set. He pretends that he is writing his account, day by day, for a certain Marquise whom he has heard one night, at her open window, bewailing her boring life of pampered ease. Restif, the Nocturnal Spectator, the Poor Man, the Philosopher of Nature, who can speak to the rich on a footing of equality since he has all the humble pride of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, undertakes to cure the Marquise’s vapors by interesting her in the adventures and misfortunes of the lower classes. The Nocturnal Spectator and the Marquise vie with each other in high-mindedness and are at times so carried away by the thrill of their own virtue that they address each other in the thou-form, as is befitting in the case of two Children of Nature. Restif presents himself as an inveterate righter of wrongs; always following people home and getting involved in their affairs or knocking on their doors and telling them that, if they do not behave, the Marquise will use her influence to have them punished. He is like the preceptor from Emile, roaming the world at large and instructing all and sundry. He also reminds one of Mr. Gladstone, because he is constantly rushing back to the Marquise’s house with young women he has rescued from the streets. When the Marquise dies (before the Revolution, fortunately), like all good eighteenth-century fictional characters, she is given a sublime death-bed scene. She leaves a small estate to the Nocturnal Spectator as a token of gratitude for being saved from the spleen, but he, behaving like a character in a lachrymose drama, nobly renounces it in favor of her grandchildren, who need to be brought up as gentlefolk. We have here that extraordinary tangle of snobbery and anti-snobbery, do-goodism and calm enjoyment of privilege, artificial naturalness and natural artificiality, reforming zeal and complacent conservatism which make the last phase of the ancien régime so curious a period. Literature and life both seem to take on the aspect of a comic opera with tragic undertones.

Apart from the interest of this general, eighteenth-century psychological pattern, the book contains a lot of those little details which are so banal when they relate to our own time and so strangely absorbing when they concern an extinct civilization. For instance, Restif tells us that the streets were so bad in wet weather that Auvergnats would put down planks and exact a small fee from passers-by who walked along them; if no fee was forthcoming, they would tip the pedestrian into the mud. On this point, as on the question of public lavatories, public baths, street-lighting, etc., Restif, strolling nightly through his complex, neo-feudal setting, has all the instincts which distinguish a good tax-payer of today.

When he gets to the Revolutionary period, he tends to forget about being a nocturnal wanderer and describes some terrible day-time episodes, such as the September Massacres. It is curious to see how, at this point, he is jolted out of his flowing rhetoric and gropes, not altogether successfully, for some ready-made attitude. At best, he manages to reflect the change in collective feelings. He begins by being strongly Monarchist and writes sympathetically of Louis XVI. Here is a typical sentimental message which shows how sensitive he was to the mood of the moment:

Let others concern themselves with useless details; my own intention is to tell only such things as are likely to yield some good. I have exonerated the nation. I have tried to enlighten certain individuals who believe that the Parisians did violence to the king in the National Assembly. Whereas the truth is that the King and the National Assembly was necessary to the advancement of business and to the good of the whole kingdom; Paris is the queen of cities, as the king is the ruler of men. There can be no prosperity, no national glory, unless there is unity between the French and their king, and unity between the cities and Paris. The capital has been pictured as a man-eater. This is an error. The city is the bestower of delights, the mistress of the kingdom; if she brings the people happiness, it cannot do too much to repay her. In any case, she returns all that the people gives her. Generous lover, do not forget your gifts! If there is no greater coquette than your mistress, there is none more charming either, and her very coquetry becomes one of her assets.

By the time the King has been condemned to death, he seems to accept the verdict as inevitable and has become very circumspect in his remarks. Later, the account of Marie Antoinette’s final hours is followed by a conventional outburst about tyrants and the fate that awaits them all. How sincere it is, we cannot be sure; perhaps the concept of sincerity hardly applies in his case since, at all times, he was such a compendium of borrowed opinions. But if he had aimed consciously at conveying the pathos of those two very mediocre monarchs going to the scaffold in dignified bewilderment, he would no doubt have swamped the scenes in doubtful eloquence. As it is, both episodes are short, sober and unforgettable. Paradoxically, his style appears to become less heated as events become more appalling; it is as if the impact of reality were cooling his imagination.

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