The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 15 December 2003

The Memoirs of Chateaubriand

by Francois-René de Chateaubriand

edited by Robert Baldick

In one long (for its time) life, the Comte de Chateaubriand lived through several monarchies and at least two popular revolutions in his native France. He lived a life of aristocratic and political involvement that had him meeting key figures of his day, from Louis XVI to George Washington to Napoleon Bonaparte to Mme de Staël. He lived a life of adventure and literary aspirations. He lived a "humble" political life, and lived in riches and in deep debt. And he captures much of his life in this highly remarkable memoir.

Born in 1768, Chateaubriand was a mid-level aristocrat who started out as the second son with his parents' ambitions of military glory or religious devotion. His youth was marked by indecision and a lethargic uncertainty of goal. After being presented at court, meeting Louis XVI (he would later be asked to help identify the skeletal remains of that monarch when they were exhumed), he traveled to America with ambitions to be an explorer. He returned in poverty, just in time for the opening days of the French Revolution. He lived in a British exile, fought in the exile army, and later sought and failed to earn the regard of Napoleon. Chateaubriand was a bit of an opportunist. The book is rife with a modesty that seems actually prideful. He opposed Empire, but put forth both monarchist and republican attitudes. He aspired to the ambassadorship in Rome, but another revolution forced him out of that coveted post. The book has the compelling tone of being written from beyond the grave, holding true to its original title: Les Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe. The first-hand reportage of major historical events is absolutely riveting. The everyday life of the time is brought to life in several passages. One might crave much more in the way of personal details, though, as Chateaubriand was also quite a womanizer and social butterfly. The author also put in long passages of history to which he was not a witness, perhaps to give a more general historical feeling to the book. Baldick, serving as editor, has an unknown effect on the book, despite having pared it down from legendary proportions to this Penguin paperback. Otherwise, this is an absolutely compelling historical document. Most highly recommended.

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