Saturday, May 22, 2010

All literary discussions

The French literary writer Jules Renard died 100 years ago today. He was not well known in the English-speaking world, nor is he today, though a bitterly ironic novel based on his own childhood, Poil de Carotte, was filmed several times. His diaries have been published often in France, and were first translated into English in the 1960s, though in a much reduced form. They are full of epigrams (‘Style is to forget all styles’) and opinions about his fellow writers and artists, such as Rodin, Daudet, Goncourt.

Renard was born in Châlons-du-Mayenne, France, in 1864, but grew up mostly in Chitry-les-Mines, near Chaumont, central France. He was educated in Nevers and Paris, and served for a short time in the military. He married Marie Morneau in 1888 and they had two children. They lived mostly in Paris (although Renard retained close links with Chitry-les-Mines) where he devoted his life to literature. Although not part of the avant-garde movement, he did become a member of the Académie Goncourt, a French literary organisation founded in opposition to the traditional Académie française.

In France, Renard’s early story, L'Écornifleur, is considered to one of great novels of the 19th century. But his best known works include Poil de Carotte (Carrot Hair), a fictionalised, but bitterly ironic, account of his own childhood, and Histoires Naturelles (Natural Histories/Stories). He died, aged only 46, on 22 May 1910 - a century ago today.

Other than Wikipedia’s short entry, there is not much biographical information in English about Renard available on the internet. His chief fame in English-speaking countries has come through Poil de Carotte which was turned into a silent film in 1925 and a talkie in 1932 by Julien Duvivier, both of which are considered far better than a 1973 remake by Henri Graziani.

Renard, however, is probably remembered as much for his journals as for his novels. They were first published in several volumes by François Bernouard, Paris, starting in 1926; then by Gallimard in 1937; and then, in the 1960s, as part of the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series. This latter edition contains nearly 1,300 pages. The French literary critic, Albert Thibaudet, named Renard’s journal alongside that of André Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt as the two autobiographical masterpieces of the 20th century.

Renard’s diary did not appear in English until 1964. The Journal of Jules Renard was edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, and published by George Brazilier, New York. It only only contains about 250 pages. Bogan says, in her introduction, that Renard’s journal ‘abounds in mockery of the false, the half-observed, and the grandiose’. She concludes: ‘The final impression received from the Journal is one of delicacy backed up by power - power of character and power of intellect. Again and again those moments of insight appear which can only stem from absolute honesty of perception added to complete largeness of spirit.’

Renard’s journals can be read online in French at ABU: la Bibliothèque Universelle. And a few pages from a modern edition in English are available for viewing at Here, though, are a few extracts from the original 1964 edition of The Journal of Jules Renard. The extracts are only identified by month and year (not by day); moreover it is never clear when the paragraphs in the book are continuous in the original or are not. (The quotations below are as they appear in the book, inclusive of trailing dots.)

March 1891
‘Yesterday at Daudet’s. . . Why did I leave disgusted? No doubt I had imagined Goncourt was not a man. Must the old be possessed of all the pettinesses of the young? How they worked over that poor Zola . . .

Goncourt looks like a fat, retired army man. I saw no wit in him: that will have to wait for another time. Until that second impression, all he has is the repetitiousness I find so intolerable in the works of the Goncourts . . .

A bad day, yesterday. At L’Echo de Paris they found my story Le Navet Sculpté (The Carved Turnip) too subtle; and I found our great men too coarse.

Today, went to Daudet’s, then we went to see Rodin, then Goncourt. Very unluckily, I seem to have made Goncourt dislike me. Why didn’t I blindly compliment him on his books, which I haven’t read! Cold greeting, the barest civilities, no sort of invitation, not a word from his wife concerning my wife and child. My boy, you must have properly put your foot in it. Ah, the way life steps on one’s toes! . . .

At Rodin’s, a revelation, an enchantment: The Door of Hell, and that little thing, no bigger than my hand, that is called The Eternal Idol; a man, vanquished, his arms behind his back, kisses a woman under the breasts, his lips against her skin, and the woman seems overcome with sadness. I cannot easily detach myself from that . . .

In the court, blocks of marble wait to be given life; they are strange, in their shapes, and, it would seem, in their desire to live. It is funny: I play the man who has discovered Rodin.’

March 1891
‘In Rodin’s atelier, it seemed as though my eyes suddenly burst open. Until now sculpture interested me like work done on turnips.

To write in the manner that Rodin sculpts.’

March 1891
‘Discussion between Raynaud and myself on the subject of Mallarmé. I say: ‘It is stupid.’ He says: ‘It is marvellous.’ And that resembles all literary discussions.’

March 1891
‘Balzac is perhaps the only one who had the right to write badly.’

April 1891
‘Style is to forget all styles.

Daudet in fine fettle, tells us of the embarkations of Gauguin, who would like to go to Tahiti in order to find nobody there, and who never goes. So that his best friends are finally saying to him: ‘You must leave, my dear fellow, you must leave.’

The critic is a botanist. I am a gardener.’

April 1891
‘A clean-shaven gent speaks to me interminably about my book. How insufferable I should find him if he talked about anything else!’

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