A Double Life

Chamfort

by Claude Arnaud, translated by Deke Dusinberre, foreword by Joseph Epstein
University of Chicago Press, 340 pp., $27.50

In 1795, the year following the Terror, the critic Pierre-Louis Ginguené published in four volumes the Works of his late friend and mentor Nicolas Chamfort, including in them some hundreds of “Maxims, Characters, and Anecdotes.” In his prefatory memoir he explained their origin: Chamfort, he said, had been

for many years in the habit of writing, each day, on little squares of paper the fruits of his reflections, reduced to maxims; the anecdotes he had gleaned; the events, illustrative of the history of manners, that he had witnessed in society; and the piquant epigrams and brilliant repartees he had heard or had perpetrated himself.

He had, wrote Ginguené, thrown all these little scraps pell-mell into folders, telling nobody what he intended to do with them, and it was from what remained of these notes after his death—a large number having mysteriously gone missing—that Ginguené had made his selection.

These “Maxims, Characters, and Anecdotes” caught the world’s imagination instantly, both for their own sake and because of the romance of their origin. For here was a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

For these first readers, as for later ones, Chamfort was an intriguingly ambivalent figure. He was so, for instance, for Chateaubriand. As a young man, Chateaubriand had known Chamfort and felt overshadowed by him, and when he was exiled to London by the Revolution, he read Ginguené’s volumes with tears. In an Essai sur les révolutions, which he wrote at this time, he characterized Chamfort and his witty sayings, together with those of La Rochefoucauld, as—no less—the type of modern wisdom, compared with that of the Seven Sages. When he reread this thirty years later, the disgust of the ambassadorial Chateaubriand had no bounds. “Let alone the impertinence of comparing certain witty maxims of Chamfort with the maxims of the Sages of Greece,” he exploded in a footnote, “there is total error in the judgment that I bring here on Chamfort himself. I retract, in all the maturity of my age, what I said about this man in my youth.” By this time, indeed, he had already settled accounts with Chamfort in his memoirs, describing him as “beyond dispute the most bilious” of the men of letters he had known before the Revolution.

Stricken with the disease which created Jacobins, he could not forgive mankind for the accident of his birth [Chamfort was an illegitimate child]. He betrayed the confidence of the houses which gave him admittance; he mistook the cynicism of his own language for a painting of the Court. To him, in his arrogance, the bonnet …

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Letters

Limits of Translation September 24, 1992