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 rouge was merely another kind of crown, and sans-culottisme a sort of nobility, of which the Marats and the Robespierres were the grands seigneur.
For many years there was a mystery about Chamfort’s birth. The true story, as we learn from Claude Arnaud’s vivid and fascinating biography, first published in 1988, appears to be that his mother, a married woman of noble family from Clermont-Ferrand, had become pregnant by a canon of Clermont Cathedral. When the infant of a local grocer happened to die at the moment of her lying-in, she arranged an exchange, so that the future Chamfort was passed off to the world as Sébastien Roch Nicolas, son of the grocer François Nicolas and his wife Thérèse. His foster-mother looked after him with the greatest devotion. She arranged (no doubt with his natural mother’s help) for him to have a first-class education, first under a tutor and then at the Collège des Grassins in Paris. He was, according to Claude Arnaud, “a privileged child in an underprivileged environment,” and by his mid-teens he had become the premier student in France. By this time, however—indeed most probably at the age of seven or eight—he had learned the truth about his birth and parentage, and the knowledge had a powerful effect on him. It gave him a grievance against the world that colored all his later career.
As a young man Chamfort was exceedingly good-looking, blue-eyed and delicate, also engagingly cocky and arrogant, and, according to a schoolfriend, “impetuous and cunning, studious and mischievous.” There had been plans for him to enter the church, but he told his college principal that this would never do: “I am too fond of sleep, philosophy, women, honor and real fame; and not fond enough of quarrels, hypocrisy, honors, and money.” For a year or two after leaving college he lived from hand to mouth, supporting himself by tutoring and the like, but before very long he had acquired well-to-do patrons, and, at the age of twenty-one, had rebaptized himself in “noble” fashion as “Nicolas de Chamfort.” In 1764 his comedy La Jeune Indienne, on the fashionable “noble savage” theme, was put on by the Comédie Française and became a considerable hit. It was performed subsequently across half of Europe, and won him the influential friendship of the Comte d’Angiviller, tutor to the royal princes, and of the count’s mistress, Mme. de Marchais, who launched him in high society. By now he had a reputation as a wit, a lover, and a rake, and he seemed a made man. Diderot met him at about this time and, in a letter to Sophie Volland, described him as “a young poet with an adequate amount of talent, the finest exterior in the world, and the best-furnished self-confidence…. He is a little balloon, from which a pin-prick will release a mighty gust of wind.”
Then there was a hitch. Chamfort fell ill with some disorder which the doctors could not fathom. Also, his friend, the benevolent d’Angiviller, had mildly rebuked him for “living dressed in velvet and lace, with actresses and opera-dancers, while his mother starved in a garret.” It seems that the rebuke about his mother (or rather foster mother) was not merited and that Chamfort looked after her tenderly. However, the accusation disturbed him; and he suffered some kind of minor breakdown, during which he took to talking in a “black” and misanthropic style.
During the next twenty years or so the pattern of success, setback, illness, and withdrawal repeated itself many times. Convalescing at a spa in 1774, he met and with his conversation enchanted the Duchesse de Gramont, sister of the great ex-minister Choiseul, and with the backing of the Choiseul clan he was once more riding on a wave of worldly success. His long-promised, long-postponed magnum opus, the verse-tragedy Mustapha et Zéangir, at last took shape and was put on with great éclat at Fontainebleau. Louis XVI wept at its fervent celebrations of brotherly love, and Marie-Antoinette adopted it as “her” play. When it was staged at the Comédie Française the following year, however, it was undermined by a cabal of actors who gave such an exaggerated and poor performance that it was stopped several times by a heckling audience, and a rumor spread that it was a plagiarism. Chamfort resolved to give up writing and retired in pique to a country cottage on the outskirts of Paris (even though the country bored him) and began to amass his hoard of stinging aphorisms on the human condition. For example:
Everything I have learned I no longer know. The little that I still know, I have guessed.
The rareness of genuine feeling sometimes makes me stop in the street to watch a dog gnawing a bone.
It has to be admitted: to be happy, living in the world, there are sides of the soul one must entirely paralyze.
Then there was a further surprise. The cynic and misogynist Chamfort met the middle-aged Marthe Buffon, a conversationalist as brilliant and vociferous as himself, and fell in love. He retired to the countryside with her, the real country this time—Marthe had a house near Etampes—and for six months enjoyed health and unclouded happiness, until Marthe fell ill and died.
Heartbroken, he fell ill again, and his aristocratic friends Choiseul-Gouffier and Narbonne had to rescue him and take him on a tour of the Netherlands. (Joseph Epstein, in his lively foreword to the present volume, speaks of Chamfort as “all but friendless.” This seems a very odd remark—he seemed, on the contrary, to have an endless supply of friends.) He was gloomy company, but against all odds he managed to make his friends laugh; interrupting an anecdote of theirs, about some aristocratic acquaintance, he ceremoniously took them by the hand, asking solemnly: “Do you really know of anything duller, anything more abysmally stupid, than a French gentleman?” It was, Narbonne wrote later, a sort of prefiguring of the Tennis-Court Oath.
We have reached the last stage of Chamfort’s prerevolutionary life. He became the house guest and bosom friend of a very glittering Court figure, the Comte de Vaudreuil, “Grand Falconer” to the king and crony of the king’s brother the Comte d’Artois. For some years now Chamfort had been pensioned by the king and the Prince de Condé, and he took a sinecure post or two at Versailles. There was no need for writing of the sordid business of literary rivalry: all that was asked of him was to talk, which he did wittily, oracularly, and incessantly.
But almost at the same moment, he became the close friend of Mirabeau, the avowed enemy of the establishment. Mirabeau appointed him as his mentor, and indeed regarded him almost as a superman. With Mirabeau, in turn, Chamfort discovered the role that suited him best of all: that of prompter, phrase-maker for others, and inspirer of action from behind the scenes. It appears that he was responsible for the momentous first words of Siéyès’s famous pamphlet: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it own? Nothing.”
Claude Arnaud makes much of Chamfort’s bastardy, describing it, and his sense of social dispossession and rage against his mother, as the key to his career. He also holds that Chamfort thought of his successes, such as they had been, as triumphs for the Third Estate—that in his relations with the ancien régime, as with the Revolution, he identified himself with the “People.” One is inclined to question this, for the way in which he first welcomed the Revolution seems rather to show intense contempt for the “People.” When his friend Marmontel asked if Chamfort and his friends might not be going further than the nation wanted, he replied with scorn: “Does the nation know what it wants?” No, he told Marmontel, the throne and the altar would soon be falling together, each being the buttresses of the other. It was all arranged: the difficulties had been foreseen and the means calculated. It was a matter of using, not the fine salon speechifiers, but the hungry and reckless. Decent people were too timid. “The advantage of the People in revolution lies in their having no morals. Mirabeau is right: not one of our old virtues can serve us now. The People do not need virtues, or they need ones of a different kind.” The elitist tone of this, the appeal to “superiority” and theatrical hints of plots and inside knowledge are just what, in view of Chamfort’s career so far, one might gloomily have predicted.