Jean-Paul Sartre once described good literature as “an act of faith” and bad literature as the product of “good sentiments.”1 But that was sixty years ago, when “sentiment” was at least self-effacing, when even the bad writers read Hugo. Today the sentimental is nigh unto the object of literary faith. Behold, the age of the memoir.
As the sales-bins of 2008 collide with the shelf-stock of 2009, it is clear that publishers have wagered much on our ache for precious tales of personal awakenings. If Tori Spelling’s attempt at sTORI Telling doesn’t quite cut it, we can still “amazon” ourselves to cathartic insight as we Eat, Pray, Love our way through Three Cups of Tea, look up from A Million Little Pieces and wonder Are You There, Vodka?, then hope for an Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as we lay The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates on the nightstand. Well, bless their sweet, retrospective hearts, but deliver us, O Lord, from the wages of memoir. “New poets,” grumbled Jules Renard over one hundred years ago, “Remember that term, for you will not hear from them again.”2 He most likely had in mind the savants of the Parisian avant-garde, far cries from today’s darlings of self-discovery. One generation’s symbolism is another’s sentiment, and Renard himself, as it turns out, may be an agent of literary salvation.
Thanks to the anachronistic wisdom of the folks at Tin House Books, the old poet, playwright, novelist, and homme de lettres who Sartre praised as being “at the origin of contemporary literature” is on a reunion tour of sorts. With this new edition of The Journal of Jules Renard (2008), Tin House has blown the dust off a work that was the literary act of faith for its day—a skillful compendium from the pen of a man who opts for restraint over fancy, the everyday over the romantic, and the resulting discovery of all those stubborn revelations threaded through the heart of the human situation. The Journal (1887-1910) is not a contrived coming-of-age memoir or a plea to be found interesting, much less the haymaking strategy of a worn-out celebrity mulling over marketable anecdotes. By all appearances, Renard wrote it for himself (by himself!), wrote it to avoid other work, and found it a real pain in the ass to keep up.
The first French edition (1935) numbered 1,267 pages. The Tin House version is a touch more manageable, yet it sustains the humble wager of Renard’s observation, “It is the old, tattered novel read forty times on the sly that has left the most lasting mark on us.”3 That he understands the value of such “marks,” and the toil in generating them, is immediately evident when opening to the first page, a moment in 1887 when twenty-three-year-old Renard drops this arresting insight:
Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter how lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they sweat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use up the paper. This is the only difference between men of talent and cowards who will never make a start. In literature, there are only oxen. The biggest ones are the geniuses—the ones who toll eighteen hours a day without tiring. Fame is a constant effort.4
Renard is French for “fox,” but “ox” will do. He is famous for a body of work that includes Poil de Carotte (Carrot Hair, 1894), Les Histoires Naturelles (Natural Histories, 1896), and Huit jours à la campagne (Eight Days in the Countryside, 1906). Born in 1864, he spent a rather miserable childhood in the rural town of Chitry (Nièvre) with a hen-pecking mother and silent father. Renard sought refuge as a penniless writer in Paris, ghost-wrote a book on furniture, self-published a few collections of poetry and stories, then spent his married years between Paris and the family estate before dying at the age of forty-six. His professional résumé bears witness to the cosmopolitan/rural, literary/pastoral tensions that mark his life and work: He was elected a small-town socialist mayor in 1904 and admitted into the prestigious Académie Goncourt in 1907. Early editors even speak of his countrified accent and facial features, as if to underscore his inevitable consignment to the margins of artistic circles in his day. But the place of his oeuvre in the French canon and culture need not concern us now, for it is above all The Journal that writers have been reading and rereading on the sly for some time, and for good reason.
Renard is oriented by a keen sense of the relationship between language and thought, art and truth, “Words would be nothing but the clothing, carefully made to measure, of thought.”5 The Journal is an act of faith in this relationship, a discipline, a habit in the traditional sense. This remarkable synthesis, however, does not bear the baggage of self-aggrandizement or stylistic hyperbole. It is as though his private project is to excavate the vocation of the word, stripped of all pretension, so as to write the secrets of life from within the landscape of the obvious. To say that “a sentence can only be the filter of thought”6 is not to declare the limits of prose or verse; rather, it is to charge the writer, especially himself, with a craft that is, at the point of its most humble gesture, already radical. This is why “the task of the writer is to learn how to write.”7 It is not to dazzle, flatter, or impress a product upon the public, but to write one’s way into the barest wardrobe of thought. It takes a rather resolute patience and restraint to “only care for cakes that taste a little like bread,”8 which, put in terms of style, means “I always stop at the brink of what will not be true.” This same resolve is perhaps why he sounds a lonesome note when reflecting on his interactions with icons such as Sarah Bernhardt, Edmond Rostand, Lucien Guitry, and Oscar Wilde: “The public confuses verisimilitude with truth.”9
Nevertheless, the realist vocation need not imply a sterile pen. On the contrary, Renard’s fragments ascend that thin edge between still-life and outburst, nature and transcendence. He writes of “a tree bandaged in snow, like a wounded finger,” of how “the feet of birds make lilac sprigs on the snow,” of the caterpillar that “plays a soundless little tune on its accordion,” the bat that “always seems to be flying within four walls,” and then seams together land and spirit by taking note of an evening when “a soul is wandering; you can hear its little bell.”10 Indeed, he will play on simile to cross the terrain of earth and word: “The poet. Like the cicada: a single note indefinitely repeated.”11 And he will reveal how the discipline that can say such things is marked by a hunger usually reserved for the romantic: “I keep within me a fund of essential naïveté that is like eternal youth. I defy anything that is beautiful, alive, and simple not to affect me.”12 Renard believes life will give itself to him, if only he can sound its notes in his words. When he tells of “a peasant’s remark which illuminates a man to his very soul, as though the valves of the body had opened,” we feel the weight of the moment because of the way it is told. His wit, too, is attentive and beautifully affected: “We are never happier than when our jokes have made the maid laugh.”13 And “even though you are a poet, you can sleep with your wife.”14
A writer’s journal in principle pledges itself to life in a way that memoir is prone to evade. Renard’s text is neither a diary nor a forced retrospective ordering. He has made an implicit vow not to distort life with words or dream himself beyond his own faults, whims, and confessions. He would agree with Wallace Stevens’s plain assertion that “the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life,” and that poetry, even in the form of a journal’s fragments, is “a revelation in words by means of the words.”15
Renard understands, as the literary theorist Paul Ricoeur has argued, that we are “entangled in stories”16 and that every thread is worthy of our best effort. He sustains an incredible concentration on the particulars, as though he believes the very force, momentum, and meaning of life to be stowed in the branches of a tree, the depth of a well, the silence of a cemetery, and even the incongruities of one’s laziness, moods, and aspirations, even going so far as to say that a dream “is only life madly dilated.”17
All the while, he wins us over by never slackening his precise hold on language, and never glossing the grim realities of finitude and sorrow. Death, God, memory, beauty, and truth are featured in each month of each year, casting Renard as a kind of precursor to French existentialism, though without the clove cigarettes, pomp, embittered atheism, and amphetamines, “I am in no great hurry to see the society of the future [. . . .] What most surprises me is this heart which keeps on beating.”18 He even plants his own play of surprise when he admits, “Yes, God exists, but He knows no more about it than we do.”19 He doesn’t overstate the tragic side of familial angst (even if he had his reasons), but still says of his mother with a shudder, “How will I manage to pass from her life to her death while being aware of it?”20 And he does not overlook the loving miracle that is his wife, Marinette, bestowing on her the highest compliment a writer can muster: “You have prevented me from becoming a satiric poet.”21
The manifold ability to close the distance between literary skill and lived reality, without boasting about it, is perhaps the reason why the name Renard has been a shibboleth of sorts among writer’s writers who, with Nietzsche, would confess, “We want to be the poets of our life—first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters.”22 Previous incarnations of The Journal have passed through the hands of Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, Somerset Maugham, and others. Michael Silverblatt calls it “a secret book.”23 And as Cheston Knapp of Tin House remarks, “After I read The Journal, the stakes of making art became higher for me, the borders expanded, the depths deepened.”24 Indeed, what contemporary art needs is a recovery of the tempered romanticism that seems to exude from the pen of Jules Renard, despite his best efforts to contain it. Art is not a matter of self-expression or capitalist venture; rather, it is alive. It is the point at which the divisions between subject and object are removed, where art and artist become one, not in the sense that art is a an expression of the individual artist, but as the active participation in what is at once within and beyond the artist’s grasp. It is this fresh encounter with reality, a reality that is not self-contained, that Renard offers the modern artist—indeed, offers us all.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001). Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
2. Jules Renard, The Journal of Jules Renard (Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2008), 241. Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
3. Ibid., 278.
4. Ibid., 17-18.
5. Ibid., 174.
6. Ibid., 274.
7. Ibid., 151.
8. Ibid., 70, 219.
9. Ibid., 231.
10. Ibid., 231, 102, 262, 277, 261.
11. Ibid., 262.
12. Ibid., 220.
13. Ibid., 278, 102.
14. Ibid., 36.
15. Wallace Stevens. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York, NY: Vintage, 1951), 28 and 33. Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
16. Paul Ricoeur. “Reflections on a new ethos for Europe,” in Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action, ed. Richard Kearney (London, UK: Sage, 1996), 6. Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
17. Renard, The Journal, 153.
18. Ibid., 249, 281.
19. Ibid., 230.
20. Ibid., 232.
21. Ibid., 220.
22. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1974), §299.Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
23. Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm, KCRW Radio.
24. Cheston Knapp, “On the Journal of Jules Renard,” Tin House 36 (2008).