Noble Memories

Chateaubriand; drawing by David Levine

One might start with his tomb, which he had built on the islet of Grand Bé, just off the Breton port of Saint-Malo, facing the tempestuous sea that was the companion of his first years. He was adamant that it should have no inscription, no name, no date, only a simple cross: “The cross will tell that the man at rest was a Christian: that will suffice to my remembrance.” It is typical Chateaubriand in its passive-aggressive insistence on an extraordinary monument (it took years of negotiation with the local authorities to permit the gravesite) along with the claim of anonymity and Christian humility. Throughout his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (Mémoires d’outre-tombe), the claims of privacy, retreat, and submission rub against the assertion of greatness. The “enchanter,” contemporaries called François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, in response to his fluid, mellifluous, eloquent, and often cutting style. The Memoirs, designed to be posthumous, echo the grandiosity of his tomb but are distinctly more interesting.

There is a moment in book three of the Memoirs when Chateaubriand in 1817, in the park of his friend Madame de Colbert-Montboissier’s château—reduced by the French Revolution to two modest outbuildings—is meditating on the collapse of Napoleon’s empire, fallen like so many others over the centuries, and hears the song of a thrush. “This magic sound brought my father’s lands back before my eyes in an instant. I forgot the disasters I had only recently witnessed and, abruptly transported into the past, I saw again those fields where I so often heard the thrushes whistling.” It’s a Proustian moment of recovery of the past, as readers have often noted. Also a Rousseauian moment, very much like that in book six of the Confessions when Rousseau comes upon a periwinkle flower in bloom and is transported back to his idyllic happiness with Madame de Warens at the country house Les Charmettes. The play of memory within the present moment has the same resonance in all three writers. What makes recollection important is its transformative function within passing time, the ability it gives to hold in the mind simultaneously two strata of time, to straddle them as it were, and live for an instant in both.

Chateaubriand again and again tells us the date on which he is writing reflectively about the past as he delves into his memories, giving an effectively stereoscopic vision of his life and times. And extraordinary life and times they were. Born in 1768 into a noble Breton family that had gone from pennilessness to a modest affluence because his father owned ships engaged in the slave trade, he grew up largely in the gloomy castle of Combourg, as his taciturn father nightly paced the floor, disappearing into shadows at the end of the great hall and then reappearing, always without a word.

His evocations of a solitary childhood are memorable. As a very young man he joined a…

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