Larbaud’s name is probably no longer widely known even in France, something of him certainly survives, because I recently heard a speaker on the French radio use the phrase “Ce vice impuni, la lecture” (“Reading, that unpunished vice”), as if it were an anonymous quotation that had passed into the language. It is, in fact, the title given by Larbaud to a collection of critical essays first published in 1924, and—such are the cross-currents of literary history—it was not a phrase of his own invention but a direct translation from a passage in Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith, a contemporary Anglo-American essayist, now also somewhat forgotten.
Larbaud, as it happens, was much concerned about the cruel uncertainty of literary reputations. He did a lot to relaunch old authors he considered unfairly neglected, such as Maurice Scève and Honorat de Racan, just as he defended some controversial new authors, and in particular James Joyce. He also worried about his own status; although the standard edition of his complete works, not counting translations, fills ten volumes, was he, he wondered, truly un écrivain or just un homme de lettres? As we know from his Journal, he disliked the latter term, because of its implications of amateurism, and he hoped for eventual canonization as a classic, if only a minor one.
These three books, I am afraid, will hardly establish Larbaud as such with the English-speaking public. Barnabooth, his longest piece of fiction, was quite a famous work in the late Twenties and the Thirties when it was considered as a superior example of that exotic and sentimental travel writing—sometimes referred to derisively as la littérature des wagonslits—which was also practiced on a lower level by such novelists as Paul Morand and Claude Farrère. This is a version first published in 1924; Alan Jenkins contributes a respectful but not very enthusiastic introduction and has translated some, but not all, of the free-verse poems appended by Larbaud to various French editions. Strangely enough, he omits the best poem, which displays a wry lyricism quite absent from the others: this is “Borborygmes” (“Stomach Rumblings”), about two lovers, in bed together, listening with philosophic amusement to the sighs and gurgles of that internal, organic life, which pursues its independent, nonromantic course, and is “the only human voice that never lies.” However, Barnabooth, as a whole, has perhaps not weathered as well as some other texts, for reasons I shall try to explain.
The second volume—in French Enfantines, a much more positive title than “Childish Things,” which evokes Saint Paul’s recommendation to “put away” such things—is a beautifully subtle and poetic account of how children and adults can live side by side in different imaginative worlds. The translation gives the literal meaning with a few mistakes, but it doesn’t convey the ironical lyricism of the French text. A biographical note, confusing Larbaud with his fictional hero Barnabooth, states quite wrongly that he was born and brought up in South America; how, in that case, could he have written so vividly about childhood in France?
As for the third volume, if the English-speaking reader happens to open it, he will see that the letters to Sylvia Beach are written in ludicrously incorrect English; in reality, Larbaud’s English was very good, and the mistakes are due to abysmal editing, of exactly the sort he himself so vigorously denounced in his essays on language, collected under the title Sous l’Invocation de Saint Jérôme. All three volumes, then, do him some disservice and give little idea of the interesting figure he really was. He has a valid place in literary history, and it needs defending.
First, to put him in his social context: like his friends and near contemporaries, André Gide and Marcel Proust, he was the nonconformist son of rich bourgeois parents. His father, who died when Larbaud was still a boy, had made a fortune through developing the Saint-Yorre mineral-water spring at Vichy. There were also other resemblances with Gide and Proust. Larbaud was a delicate child, although his ailments do not seem to have been as clearly defined as Gide’s tuberculosis and Proust’s asthma. He had an intense relationship with a loving mother who, even in his late adolescence, was still accompanying him on curative and cultural visits to various parts of Europe. However, contrary to the rules, he didn’t become homosexual; at the age of twenty-one, he rebelled against maternal supervision, shocked his family by refusing to embark on a conventional career, and won his independence, based on a substantial monthly allowance.
Although his schooling had been erratic because of ill health and his mother’s changing whims, Larbaud had always been studious, and he eventually obtained an excellent degree at the Sorbonne, without much attendance at lectures, as was possible in those happy days. On the threshold of adult life—again like Gide and Proust—he found himself with an ample competence, literary ambitions, and no obligations, but no very clear idea what his future would be.
Gide, we might say, was helped by the conflict between his unorthodox sexuality and his Protestant conscience, a conflict which was to become the source of the philosophy of pagan liberation that he expressed in various direct or symbolic forms. Proust, for years, was a social butterfly and an aesthetic dabbler, like his fictional character Swann, until he found a way of enclosing the denizens of his limited milieu in a vast web of philosophical reflection. Larbaud’s first resource was foreign travel and the study of foreign languages. It was to prove a permanent interest throughout his life and to provide him with a source of both fictional and non-fictional writing.
As a boy, he had a spontaneous and unusual enthusiasm for Latin and Greek, which he learned to read with remarkable fluency; his essays abound in quotations not only from classical authors but also from the Christian fathers. For a while, in adolescence, he attended a private school at Fontenayaux-Roses, where the pupils were predominantly the sons of rich Argentinians, so that the playground language was as much Spanish as French. He later fortified his knowledge of Spanish, German, English, and Italian by long stays in the countries concerned, where he acquired a wide range of friends, and enjoyed multinational love affairs, traces of which are visible in his fiction. One suspects that sometimes, perhaps unwittingly, he may have been more in love with the linguistic and cultural background than with the particular girl. Eventually, he settled down happily with an Italian lady, who shared the second half of his life. This was in keeping with the view, expressed in his Journal, that Italy is the most civilized country in Europe—or was in his day—and Rome historically more important than Athens, because of the centrality of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.
He can be considered then, primarily, as a unique case among twentieth-century French writers of the passion for language-learning, a hobby or obsession the psychology of which has been relatively little studied, so far as I know. Most foreign-language learning is done through sheer necessity by members of small-language communities who need access to the outside world. In my experience, most speakers of a major language, such as English or French, although they may acquire a smattering of some other language, are usually quite content to be monolingual, and would probably agree with G.B. Shaw’s self-justifying assertion that anyone who has anything to say in his own language never has time to master a foreign one. It is notorious, too, that the children of immigrants and refugees usually insist on speaking only the language of the host country, often to the chagrin of their parents. What is more, not all multilingual individuals are happy with their lot. I have heard bilingual or trilingual colleagues complain of uncertainty about their personal identity through the conflicting pulls of two or more linguistic atmospheres. All this would seem to indicate that monolingualism may be the norm for the human mind, a fact which, if true, is not surprising, since each language has infinitely complex and deep-seated psycho-physiological roots and constitutes a whole intellectual and emotional universe in itself. It follows that obsessive language-learning, with its attendant rewards and dangers, is a curious minority addiction, like rock-climbing or pot-holing; perhaps even a sort of vice, which may, or may not, go unpunished.
Some inveterate language-learners are akin to chess geniuses, memory-experts, or mental calculators. They assimilate the grammatical structure and basic vocabulary of any language with remarkable speed, but of course they cannot acquire the emotional associations that the words have for the native speaker, without long, additional concentration on the cultural background. Their satisfaction seems to stem from the immediate mastering of the complex linguistic skeleton; it used to be said of a certain polyglot professor of the University of London that his only way of recovering from flu was to generate a sense of power through tackling yet another foreign language.
Larbaud clearly had a measure of this special technical ability, otherwise he could not have ranged so widely, but I suspect that, in his case, other factors were at work too. In his late teens, he was quite violently alienated from his family milieu because of the opposition to his un-businesslike intentions—“cette persécution qui a assombri toute mon adolescence” (the persecution that darkened all my adolescent years). But, significantly, this did not lead him to renounce his financial rights; he even sued his mother in order to gain access to his paternal inheritance. At that stage, in his revulsion against the closed world of the French bourgeoisie, he must have found relief and renewal in foreign languages and foreign cultures.
In a sense, he fled from France like Gide, who was endlessly peripatetic in his search for sensual fulfillment. However, once abroad, he followed a different course from Gide. By extended stays in England, Spain, and Italy, and intensive study of the three cultures, he gave himself, as it were, three extra personalities in addition to his original French one. To the latter he had an ambiguous attitude, sometimes accepting it willingly and at other times feeling it as an irritating restriction. He admits in his Journal that he experienced what he calls “euphoria” only when outside France, although in middle life, and particularly after he had inherited the family estate in the Bourbonnais area near Vichy, he rediscovered feelings of local patriotism.
He is not alone in exhibiting this love-hatred toward his native background; I have known other French people who have anglicized themselves through exasperation with France, and also English people who have gallicized themselves through exasperation with England. In such cases, as in Larbaud’s, there may be a particular personal reason for the flight from home—oppressive parents or a family feud—but another, more interesting, factor should be mentioned: the Existential itch, which is particularly strong in some people, not to be limited to the native self that chance has foisted upon them. Certainly, Larbaud spent a lot of time outside his French personality, passionately assimilating other possibilities. A striking passage in his Journal describes how, in Genoa, he began quickly assimilating some Genoese, because he thought it the most curious of the Italian dialects and then, through lack of time, was disappointed to have to fall back on normal Italian, as if it were already too familiar to him.
As a linguist Larbaud has two excellent features. The first is his tireless regard for the minutiae of each language, a characteristic that monolingual speakers often wrongly suppose to be a tedious fussiness; on the contrary, it is precisely this exquisite pedantry that makes for good translation. The second is the generosity with which he put his knowledge at the service of foreign authors he admired by rendering their works into French. He was the first person to introduce fragments of Joyce’s Ulysses to the French public, and he later supervised the complete French version of the book. He became the champion of Samuel Butler in France and translated, among other things, The Way of All Flesh and The Notebooks. The other foreign authors he translated in part or wrote about positively are too numerous to mention here; they included not only Italians, Spaniards, and South Americans, but also Walt Whitman and Archibald MacLeish. Because of his unusual catholicity of taste and his close connections with the leading French reviews, La Nouvelle Revue Française, La Phalange, and Commerce (run by Adrienne Monnier, hence the volume of correspondence), he acted as a sort of one-man bureau for cultural exchange. He was, then, a very distinguished literary figure, a polyglot European mandarin. There remains the question: How far was he un écrivain in his own right?
I have already mentioned Enfantines, a dewy-fresh little book about the pains and pleasures of childhood before adult conventions take over. Equally subtle about the rawness of adolescent feelings is Fermina Marquez, which draws on Larbaud’s experience at the international school at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Less impressive, however, are three long short stories reflecting later sentimental entanglements: “Beauté, mon beau souci,” “Amants, Heureux Amants,” and “Mon Plus Secret Conseil.” The French is admirable—perhaps too self-consciously so—but the hero, who is in each case an obvious reflection of the author, doesn’t give the impression of being vitally in love, and lyrical descriptions of landscapes and street scenes in England and Italy tend to take precedence over the personal relationship. The hero seems to be having the love affair, first because that is what is expected of a young man, and secondly because it provides a thread on which to hang the local color. In other words, these texts lack the feeling of necessity which is present in Enfantines and Fermina Marquez.
I am tempted to make the same remark about Barnabooth, in which these later novellas might have figured as episodes. Barnabooth is certainly Larbaud’s “masterpiece,” his most substantial achievement, which developed slowly over a period of ten years or more, before its first complete publication in 1913. It is the most extensive fictional expression of his personality, and amounts in its minor way to a Bildungsroman, a sentimental education or a quest. Larbaud imagines a magnified version of himself—devoid, however, of his studious side—Archibaldo Barnabooth, an Argentinian like the boys at the Fontenay-aux-Roses school, a guano multimillionaire, who is alone in the world on the threshold of adulthood. It is not explained how he has lost his family; it is just absent, as Larbaud’s was, by his own decision, after he had won his independence. To the dismay of the family solicitor, Barnabooth has rid himself of all material encumbrances—his houses, his racing stables, the routine and responsibilities of his class—in order to discover the essence of life or the absolute, as he travels in total freedom around Europe.
The theme of the book could be summed up unkindly by the phrase “poor little rich boy,” although unfortunately it is never quite clear how far Larbaud is identifying seriously with his hero, and how far he intends to present him as a callow, fatuous young man. Barnabooth is irritated by the publicity surrounding him as a young multimillionaire; he complains that people think him stupid just because he is rich; he expresses his distaste for the poor, la canaille, who lead such limited lives. It doesn’t occur to him that there is no particular virtue in giving up material possessions, if one retains their equivalent in cash. Did Larbaud himself fully realize that his private income, on which he insisted as a right, was not manna from Heaven, but a function of the general financial and social system? A rich man who lives in a certain style and plays a social role remains a good, or less good, member of the community according to his personal quality, but a rich man who turns all his possessions into money in order to become a peripatetic dweller in luxury hotels is only a wealthy version of the bum or the drop-out. Moreover, his money, the abstract, ever-available power which allows immediate satisfaction of his slightest whim, may give him a Midas touch, shutting him off from reality more effectively than poverty would have done.
In a sense, this is the message of the book, whether or not Larbaud himself completely understood its implications as a cautionary tale. Extrapolating from his own modest wealth to the situation of a multimillionaire, he has tried to make a spiritual hero out of the unattached, uncommitted rentier looking for the meaning of life. The character has affinities with other idle rentier figures: with Swann in A la recherche du temps perdu, who, however, is made real by love and jealousy; with Ménalque, the rather absurdly idealized free spirit in Gide’s L’Immoraliste; and, of course, farther back in time, with Des Esseintes, the consciously decadent dandy in Huysmans’s A Rebours, who now seems quite grotesque, although for some reason he fascinated Mallarmé and other late nineteenth-century writers. Barnabooth is a dandy in this special sense of the individual aesthete trying to live the life beautiful apart from the common herd.
The narrative takes the form of a diary, a device that allows Barnabooth to record his impressions and his thoughts as he drifts, more or less at random, from one European town to another in the halcyon days before the 1914 war. He begins in Florence and ends in Paris, after moving through Italy, France, England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. A semblance of structure is created by chance encounters and discussions with three major characters, older friends of Barnabooth, who serve to reflect different aspects or possibilities of his temperament. These are the Marquis de Poutouarey, who combines the life of a French libertine and man of fashion with a conventional marriage and respect for the outward forms of the Catholic religion; Maxime Claremoris, a cynical, Bohemian Irishman, who is interested only in the fine arts and despises respectable society as much as Barnabooth himself does; and Stéphane, a Russian grand prince, with whom, for reasons unexplained, Barnabooth has been intimate since childhood. Poutouarey and Claremoris seem to represent the tension, within Larbaud himself, between an egotistical, carnal hedonism, and the aspiration toward art. But Poutouarey also has his intelligent, more sensitive side, and at times takes over from Barnabooth as the mouthpiece or conscience of the author. In a rare moment, for instance, he points out that Barnabooth is “un rentier, un parasite social“; the tone, however, is ironic and the point is quickly forgotten, since Poutouarey believes entirely in the rightness of living for self-satisfaction.
As for Stéphane, a noble figure, punctilious in the performance of his princely duties he appears to have been brought in solely as a snobbish marker to indicate that although Barnabooth has opted out of conventional society, he still retains the dignity of being on familiar terms with royalty. Also, a Russian character allows Larbaud to introduce some Russian local color from firsthand experience.
Indeed, in the last resort, the book consists largely of local color or stylish travel writing, which is pleasant enough to read and by now has a certain historical interest. However, not being linked in any organic way with Barnabooth’s supposed quest for the good life or the absolute, it lacks a center. In any case, the quest is pursued in a very desultory fashion, and is forgotten for long stretches while Barnabooth gives his impressions of landscapes, architecture, and atmospheres. Part of his search is for l’âme-soeur, the kindred spirit, but his one or two inconclusive, sentimental adventures are, like Poutouarey’s, very superficial and based on his ability to pay. He has occasional Nietzschean urges to go beyond Good and Evil, but, as he admits to himself with disgust, he only manages a little shoplifting to which the shopkeeper turns a blind eye, since he is a rich client.
He sometimes tells himself how nice it would be not to travel, but to spend a lifetime in one place, like, for instance, a simple Swedish farmer in a remote woodland village. This is no more than an access of sentimentality, like Marie Antoinette playing the shepherdess; he does not see—that is, Larbaud apparently does not see—that the simple life in one place, which may have such exotic charm for the rich passer-by, is determined by necessity and real, or relative, poverty. His metaphysical twinges are just as perfunctory; his hedonism is interrupted by moments of acedia, but he never commits himself to serious metaphysical reflection.
In short, the would-be dandy dwindles into a disappointing anti-hero. In the end, he decides to marry an Argentinian girl of whom he had long been fond, but with whom he is not in love, and to return from Europe to his South American estates. Il se range, as the French say; he settles down, or returns to the fold. It is no doubt significant that Larbaud himself, in spite of his continuing interest in foreign travel and foreign languages, was not long in being reconciled again with his family. Nor is it surprising that such metaphysical anxieties as he attributes to Barnabooth are weak and undeveloped, since he himself converted to Catholicism, the religion of his father’s family, in 1910, at the age of twenty-nine and three years before the publication of Barnabooth. He nowhere explains the reasons for this conversion, unless he is speaking for himself when he makes Poutouarey expound a version of Pascal’s famous—or more properly infamous—argument of the wager: i.e., it is prudent to bet on the Christian religion, just in case it might be true. If this was his attitude, he was neither a robust believer nor a robust nonbeliever; that is, he differed on the one hand from Claudel, a proselytizing dogmatist, and on the other from Gide, Proust, Sartre, and Camus, who were absolute in their nonbelief. This may explain why, compared to some of the archetypal Christian or non-Christian heroes created by these writers, Barnabooth appears a milk-and-water figure.
If I am right in my judgment of Barnabooth, Larbaud did not bring to the literary expression of his early adult life the same perceptiveness he had shown in dealing with his childhood and adolescence. Was this due to some inherent failure to develop? Did his comfortable life style lead to an insidious complacency that blurred his vision? Did he pursue his alternative polyglot selves at the expense of his essential creative self, according to the principle enunciated by some rhymester?
For the more languages a man can speak
His talent hath but sprung the greater leak.
Whatever the reason, it is clear from his Journal that his worry about his literary status did not seriously cloud his happiness during the years when he wandered around Europe indulging his taste for pleasure, language-learning, and study. Between the ages of twenty-one and fifty-four, he seems to have led an idyllic existence. Then, suddenly, tragedy intervened. He suffered a stroke and, for the next twenty-two years until his death in 1957, the passionate language-lover was confined to the cruel limbo of aphasia.
December 1, 1994