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First day : Chateaubriand, Balzac

 


 


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Our itinerary starts with an evocation of one of the greatest French writers of the early 19th Century: François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). The author of Génie du Christianisme (1802), Chateaubriand allied himself with the Consulat cause and was greatly impressed by what he perceived to be Napoleon's abilities. For Bonaparte the feeling was mutual and in 1803 the First Consul appointed the writer to the post of secretary to the French Embassy in Rome under Cardinal Fesch; Chateaubriand was later promoted to the post of French minister to the Valais republic. But with the assassination of the Duke of Enghien in 1804 the writer distanced himself from Napoleon and directly criticized him in an article appearing in the Mercure in 1807: "When, in the silence of the abjection, the only sound that can be heard is the clink of the chains of a slave and the voice of the informer; when all tremble before the tyrant and it is as dangerous to incur his favor as to merit his disgrace, then the historian appears, bringing with him with the vengeance of the people."
 
With the publication of this article, Chateaubriand was ordered by the imperial police to move away from Paris. Thus began his exile on the Valley-of-Wolves estate in Châtenay-Malabry. And it was here that he wrote a large part of his account of his life, Mémoires d'Outre-tombe, a life which had been so closely linked to the history of the period. In 1814, he published a pamphlet entitled De Buonaparte et des Bourbons in which he denounced the Emperor as a usurper and even denied his military genius. But in the Mémoires - which only appeared after Chateaubriand's death in 1848 - the writer in fact reveals himself as an admirer of Napoleon, consecrating gradually as the book progresses almost one third of this work to the great man. Although Chateaubriand recanted some of his former condemnations, he did not however become an unqualified supporter of the man and his actions: "Bonaparte was not great through his words, his speeches, his writings, or through love (which he never had) for liberties (which he never intended to establish); he is great for having created a regulated and strong government, a code of laws adopted in different countries, courts of justice, schools, a strong, active and intelligent administration which guides our lives still today; he is great for having revived, enlightened and established Italy better than anyone else could have done; he is great for having brought France out of chaos to renaissance [...] he is great above all for, from illegitimate birth, having raised himself up by his own efforts to the height where thirty-six million subjects obeyed him, in an age when the crown had lost all credibility [...] for having filled ten years with such wonders that it is hard today to comprehend them".
 
During his lifetime Napoleon was for the most part celebrated by authors whose popularity was short-lived: "It is the mediocre writers who support me, not the great", was the Emperor's shrewd comment. In fact, Chateaubriand was not the only one to oppose Napoleon. Two other writers of note during the Empire period also expressed their disapproval, namely Germaine de Staël, exiled to Coppet in Switzerland in 1803 for her hard-line political, religious and social views, and Benjamin Constant (also exiled to Coppet), the author of a violent pamphlet entitled De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation which appeared in 1814.
 
Our itinerary then brings you back towards Paris, to Passy, or more precisely to number 47 rue Raynouard, to Balzac's house.
 
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a giant of French literature, drew his creative energy from the Napoleonic saga. Indeed, he even went so far as to have inscribed on the bust of Bonaparte which sat imposingly on the mantlepiece in his study in rue Cassini the words "All that he [Napoleon] did with the sword, I will accomplish with a pen". In La Comédie humaine, Balzac's enormous literary canvass comprising series of novels grouped under the headings Scènes de la vie politique, Scènes de la vie privée, Scènes de la vie de Campagne and Scènes de la vie militaire, he observed and analyzed the French society which had emerged from the Revolution (a society which Napoleon had largely been responsible for forming) and cast everything in Napoleonic light.
 
For Balzac the act of writing was in itself a struggle of Napoleonic proportions: "When inspiration comes, all my intellectual forces shake in anticipation for the fight. My ideas move off like the battalions of the Great Army [...] The infantry of memories charges in, banners streaming; the light cavalry of comparison spreads out in a magnificent gallop; the big guns of logic, with their wagons and shells, provide support; flights of genius come like sniper shots. The actors stand face-to-face. The paper gets covered in ink as battle commences. And as with battles and their black gunpowder, everything ends in a downpour of blackness. Each day is an Austerlitz of creation".
 
Described by Paul Bourget as a "France's own literary Napoleon", Balzac represented the Emperor many times in his novels and short stories. He gave a direct version in the historical, detective novel Une Ténébreuse Affaire, from Scènes de la vie politique. He took a sideways glance at Napoleon both in the novel Une double Famille, from Scènes de la vie privée, and in his famous Colonel Chabert, the man whom all thought had died at the battle of Eylau. With Le Médecin de Campagne (from Scènes de la vie de Campagne) Balzac composed his most decidedly Napoleonic novel of the whole Comédie humaine, the narrator being an old soldier of the Empire named Goguelat. According to Balzac's initial plan for the Comédie humaine, the series Scènes de la vie militaire was to recount the Napoleonic epic in its entirety. Of the twenty novels planned for this series only two were completed, namely Les Chouans and Une passion dans le désert, a curious story about a soldier in the Egyptian Army. Also of Napoleonic interest (and both published in the volume Etudes philosophiques) are the the piece entitled El Verdugo, set during the Spanish campaign, and the remarkable novella Adieu, where Balzac suddenly transports his reader to the icy plains of Russia with a poignant description of the crossing of the Berezina river.

 

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