The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 82/Literary Life in Paris

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The Atlantic Monthly (1864)
Literary Life in Paris
2528174The Atlantic Monthly — Literary Life in Paris1864




We are no "lion-hunters." When we wish to learn something of eminent authors, we hasten to the nearest book-shop and buy their works. They put the best of themselves in their books. The old saw tells us how completely all great men give the best part of themselves to the public, while the valet-de-chambre picks up little else than food for contempt. Nevertheless, we are as inquisitive about everything that concerns eminent people as anybody can be. We would not blot a single line from Boswell. We protest against a word being effaced from the garrulous pages of Lady Blessington and Leigh Hunt. We "hang" the stars with which Earl Russell has milky-wayed Moore's Diary. But we are no "lion-hunters," (the name should be "lion-harriers,") simply because this chase is not the best way to take the game we desire. What does the lion-hunter secure? A commonplace observation upon the weather, an adroit or awkward parry of flattery, and some superficial compliment upon one's native place or present residence; for a great man at bay is nothing more nor less than a casual acquaintance extremely on his guard, and, commonly, extremely fatigued by admirers. True, one obtains an acquaintance with the great man's voice, and the hearth where he lives, and the right to boast with truth, "I have seen him." Voilà tout! Now this is not what we want. We desire some good, clear, faithful account of these people, as they are, when they talk freely and easily to their contemporaries, to their peers. Boswell's picture of the Literary Club is invaluable, although, with the insatiable curiosity of the nineteenth century, we regret that the prince of reporters failed to sketch the persons and peculiarities of the dramatis personæ whose conversations he has so faithfully recorded.

We wish to go behind the scenes, and to hear the conversation engaged in in the green-room. We expect to see some dirt, some grease-pots, stained ropes, and unpainted pulleys,—and, to tell the truth, we want to see these blemishes. They are encouraging. They lessen the distance between us and it by teaching us that even fairy-land knows no exemption from those imperfections which blur our purest natures.

A work has lately appeared in Europe which in some measure gratifies this desire. It exhibits in full light a good many scenes of literary life in Paris. They may be and probably are exaggerated, but exaggerations do not mar truth; if they did, we should be obliged to throw away the microscope, with nativities and divining-rods. We are tempted to give our readers a share of the pleasure we have found in perusing this picture of Paris life. We forewarn them that we have taken liberties innumerable with the book. We have compressed into these few leaves a volume of several hundred pages. We have discarded all the machinery of the author, and introduced him personally to the reader in the character of an autobiographer. We have not scrupled to make explanations and additions wherever we thought them necessary, without resorting to the artifice of notes or of quotation-marks. We repeat, that we have taken a great many liberties with the author; but we have made no statement, advanced no fact, indulged no reflection, which is not to be found in the work referred to, or in some trustworthy authority. And now we leave him the door without another observation.

I am Count Armand de Pontmartin. I was born of noble parents at Aix, in Provence, in 1820. I was educated at Paris, but the first twelve years after I left college were passed on my estate in the enjoyment of an income of three thousand dollars a year. Belonging to a Legitimist family, my principles forbade my serving the Orléans dynasty, and I should scarcely have known how to satisfy that thirst for activity which fevers youth, had I not for years burned with the ambition to acquire literary fame. Circumstances conspired to thwart these literary schemes, and it was not until I had reached my thirtieth year that I came to Paris with a heart full of emotion and hope, a trunk full of manuscripts, and some friends' addresses on my memorandum-book. Before I had been a week in town they had introduced me to three or four editors of newspapers or reviews, and to several publishers and theatrical managers. In less than a fortnight I breakfasted alone at Café Bignon with one of my favorite authors, the celebrated novelist, Monsieur Jules Sandeau.[1] I was confounded with astonishment and gratitude that he should allow me to sit at the same table and eat with him. I felt embarrassed to know where to find viands meet to offer him, and beverages not unworthy to pass his lips. There were in his works so many souls exiled from heaven, so many tearful smiles, so many melancholy glances constantly turned towards the infinite horizon, that it seemed to me something like sacrilege to offer to the creator of this noble and charming world a dish of rosbif aux pommes and a turbot à la Hollandaise and a claret wine. I could have invented for him some of those Oriental delicacies made by sultans during harem's heavy hours; rose-leaves kneaded with snow-water, dreams or perfumes disguised as sweetmeats, or citron and myrtle-flowers dew-diamonded in golden beakers. Of a truth, the personal appearance of my poetical guest did give something of a shock to the ideal I had formed. Many and many a time I had pictured him to myself tall and thin and pale, with large black eyes raised heavenwards, and hair curling naturally on a forehead shadowed by melancholy! In reality, Monsieur Jules Sandeau is a good stout fellow, with broad, stalwart shoulders, a tendency to premature obesity, small, bright, gentle, acute eyes, a head as bald as my knee, rather thick lips, and a rubicund complexion; he has an air of good-nature and simplicity which excludes everything like sentimental exaggeration; he wears a black cravat tied negligently around a muscular neck; in fine, he looks like a sub-lieutenant dressed in citizen's-clothes. I got over this shock, and hunted all through the bill of fare, (which, as you know, forms in Paris a duodecimo volume of a good many pages,) trying my best to discover some romantic dish and some supernal liqueur, until he cut short my chase by suggesting a dinner of the most vulgar solidity; and when I tried to retrieve this commonplace dinner by ordering for dessert some vapory liqueurs, such as uncomprehended women sip, he proposed a glass of brandy. This was my first literary deception.

A theatrical newspaper was lying on the table. It contained an account of a piece played the evening before. The writer spoke of the play as a masterpiece, and of the performance as being one of those triumphs which form an epoch in the history of dramatic art. I read this panegyric with avidity, and exclaimed,—

"Oh, what a glorious thing success is! How happy that author must be!"

"He!" replied Monsieur Sandeau, smiling; "he is mortified to death; his play is execrable, and it fell flat."

"You must be mistaken!"

"I was present at the performance; and I have no reason to be pleased at the miscarriage of the piece, for I am neither an enemy nor an intimate friend of the author."

Monsieur Jules Sandeau then went on to explain to me how the theatrical newspapers, which contain the lists of performers and of pieces in all the theatres of Paris, (play-bills being unknown,) enter into a contract, which is the condition precedent of their sale in the theatres, stipulating that they will never speak otherwise than in praise of the pieces brought out. The report of the new piece is often written and set up before the performance takes place.

I blushed and said,—

"That is deplorable! But, thank Heaven! these are only the Grub-Street writers, the mere penny-a-liners; the influential reporters of the great morning papers, fortunately, are animated by a love of truth and justice."

Monsieur Sandeau looked at me, and smiled as be remarked,—

"Oh! as for them, they don't care a whit for piece or author or public. They think of nothing but showing off themselves. Monsieur Théophile Gautier has no care except to display the wealth of a palette which mistook its vocation when it sought to obtain from pen, ink, and paper those colors which pencil and canvas alone can give. He discards sentiments, ideas, characters, dialogue, probability, intellectual delicacy, everything which raises man above wood or stone. He would be the very first writer of the age, if the world would agree to suppress everything like heart and soul. He is never more at ease than when he has to report a piece whose literary beauties are its splendid scenery and costumes. He will dismiss the subject, the plot, the characters, and the details in five lines; while fifteen columns will not suffice for all the wonders of the decorations. If you ask him to send you to some person most familiar with contemporary dramatic art, instead of sending you to Alexandre Dumas, the elder or the younger, to Ponsard, or to Augier, he will send you to the celebrated scene-painters, to Cicéri or Séchan or Cambon. As for Monsieur Jules Janin, of whom I am very fond, he is ——— You have sometimes been to concerts where virtuosos play variations on the sextuor of "Lucie," or the trio of "William Tell," or the duet of "Les Huguenots"? You listen attentively, and do at first detect a phrase here and a phrase there which vaguely recall the work of Donizetti, or of Rossini, or of Meyerbeer; but in an instant the virtuoso himself forgets all about them. You have nothing but volley after volley of notes, a musical storm, tempest, avalanche; the primitive idea is fathoms deep under water, and when it is caught again it is drowned. Now Monsieur Jules Janin has had for the last five-and-twenty years the business of executing brilliant variations upon the piano of dramatic criticism. He acts like the virtuosos you hear at concerts. He writes, for conscience' sake, the name of the author and the title of the play at the head of his dramatic report, and then off he goes, heels over head, with variation and variation, and variation and variation again, in French and in Latin, until at last no human being can tell what he is after, where he is going, what he is talking about, or what he means to say. He will tell you the whole story of the Second Punic War, speaking of a sentimental comedy played at the Gymnase Theatre, and a low farce of the Palais Royal Theatre will furnish him the pretext to quote ten lines of Xenophon in the original Greek. Monsieur Jules Janin is, notwithstanding all this, an excellent fellow, and a man of great talents; but you must not ask him to work miracles; in other words, you must not ask him to express briefly and clearly what he thinks of the play he criticizes, nor to remember to-day the opinion he entertained yesterday. These are miracles he cannot work. He hears a piece; he is delighted with it; he says to the author, 'Your piece is charming. You will be gratified by my criticism upon it.' He comes home; he sits at his desk. What happens? Why, the wind which blew from the north blows from the south; the soap-bubble rose on the left, it floats away towards the right. His pen runs away with him; praise is thrown out by the first hole in the road; epigram jumps in; and at last the poor dramatic author, who was lauded to the skies yesterday, complimented this morning, finds himself cut to pieces and dragged at horses' tails in to-morrow's paper. Don't blame Monsieur Jules Janin for it. 'Tis not his fault. The fault lies with his inkhorn; the fault lies with his pen, which mistook the mustard-pot for the honey-jar; 'twill be more careful next time. 'Tis the fault of the hand-organ which would grind away while he was writing; 'tis the fault of the fly which would keep buzzing about the room and bumping against the panes of glass; 'tis the fault of the idea which took wings and flew away. The poor dramatic author is mortified to death; but, Lord bless your soul! Monsieur Jules Janin is not guilty."

"What do you think of Monsieur Sainte-Beuve? Is he as unfaithful a critic as Monsieur Théophile Gautier and Monsieur Jules Janin?" I asked, rather timidly.

"Monsieur Sainte-Beuve has received from Heaven (which he has ceased to believe in) an exquisite taste, an extraordinary delicacy of tact, admirable talents of criticism, relieved, and, as it were, fertilized, by rare poetical faculties. He possesses and exercises in the most masterly manner the art of shading, of hints, of hesitations, of insinuations, of infiltrations, of evolutions, of circumlocutions, of precautions, of ambuscades, of feline gambols, of ground and lofty tumbling, of strategy, and of literary diplomacy. He excels in the art of distilling a drop of poison in a phial of perfume so as to render the poison delicious and the perfume venomous. His prose is as attractive and magnetizing as a woman slightly compromised in public opinion, and who does not tell all her secrets, but increases her attractions both by what she shows and by what she conceals. Monsieur Sainte-Beuve has had no desire but to be a pilgrim of ideas, lacking the first requisite in a pilgrim, which is faith. He has circumnavigated, merely in the character of amateur, every doctrine of the century; but though he has never adopted one of them for his creed, when he abandoned them he seemed to have betrayed them. Accused unjustly of treachery and apostasy, he has done his best to confirm his reputation, and has ended by becoming the enemy of those from whom at first he had only deserted. His error has been in adulterating that which he might have put, with singular grace, talents, and natural superiority, pure into currency,—in acting as if literature were a war of treachery, where one was constantly obliged to keep a sword in the hand and a poniard in the pocket. They say he is at great pains to provide himself with an immense arsenal of defensive and offensive weapons, that he may be able to crush those he loves to-day and may detest to-morrow, and those he hates to-day and wishes to wreak vengeance on hereafter. Monsieur Sainte-Beuve might have been the most indisputable of authorities: he is only the most delightful of literary curiosities."

Such was the language of Monsieur Jules Sandeau. He spoke in the same strain of many another eminent literary man. Around these illustrious planets gravitated satellites. When new pieces were brought out, he told me one could see between the acts the lieutenants go up to the captain-critics and receive instructions from them; the consequence was, the theatrical criticisms were either collective apotheoses or collective executions. One day it was Mademoiselle Rachel they put on the black list for three months, and they raised up against her Madame Ristori, declaring that she was as superior to Rachel as Alfieri was to Racine. Then 'twas the Gymnase Theatre they put in Coventry, for having spoken disrespectfully of newspaper-writers. Another day Monsieur Scribe was their victim, to punish him for fatiguing with his dramatic longevity the young men, the new-comers, who are neither young men, nor new men, nor men of talents. Monsieur Jules Sandeau had passed through the thorny paths, the steppes, and the waste frontiers of literary life in Paris, without losing his honor, but without retaining a particle of illusion. He told me of his days of harsh and pernicious poverty, the abyss of debt, the constable at the door, the agony of hunting after dollar by dollar, "copy" hastily written to meet urgent wants, and the sweet toil of literary exertion changed into torture. I questioned him about Madame George Sand. What child of twenty has not been fired by that free, proud poetry which refused to accept the cold chains of commonplace life and justified the paradoxes of revolt by the eloquence of the pleading and the beauty of the dream? I soon discovered that the ideal and the real are two hostile brothers. De Balzac's works had kindled sincere enthusiasm in my breast. Monsieur Jules Sandeau showed me the dash of madness and of ingenuous depravity mixed with incontestable genius in that powerful mind. He told me of De Balzac's insane vanity, of his furious passion for wealth and luxury, of his readiness to plunge and to drag others after him into the most hazardous adventures, and of his insensibility to commercial honor.

After parting from Monsieur Jules Sandeau, I strolled towards a circulating-library. I was asking the mistress of the establishment some questions about the latest publications, when all of a sudden the glass door opened in the most violent manner, and who should come in but Monsieur Philoxène Boyer, rushing forward like a whirlwind, a last lock of hair dancing on top of a bald pate, a livid complexion, a feverish eye, a sack-overcoat friable as tinder, a hat reddened by the rain, trousers falling in lint upon boots run down at the heel: such was the appearance presented by Monsieur Philoxène Boyer, our old classmate at college, and now a critic, a romantic, an uncomprehended man of genius, and a literary man. I had already seen at the Exchange the martyrs of money; I now saw a martyr of letters. Monsieur Philoxène Boyer is neither a fool nor a foundling; he was educated with care; he belongs to an excellent family of Normandy; he might have been at this very hour an excellent gentleman-farmer, honored by his neighbors, and leading a quiet, useful life, while cultivating his paternal acres, and making a respectable woman happy. But when he graduated at the Law School, the demon of literature seized and refused to release him. His patrimonial estate was worth thirty thousand dollars; ignorant of business, he sold it below its true value, and, instead of placing the capital out at interest, he put it in his pocket and dissipated it in those taxes, as varied as old feudal burdens, which the poor, uncomprehended men of genius levy on their wealthy brethren. One day it went in dinners given to brethren who deliver diplomas of genius; another day it went in money lent to Grub-Street penny-a-liners who were starving; again it went to found petty newspapers established to demolish old reputations and raise new ones, and to die of inanition at their fifth number for want of a sixth subscriber. In fine, before three years had passed away, not a cent was left of Monsieur Philoxène Boyer's estate, and in return he had acquired neither talents nor fame. He is scarcely thirty years old: he looks like a man of sixty. I know no man in the world who, for the hope of half a million of dollars and a place in the French Academy, would consent to bear the burden of tortures, privations, and humiliations which make up Monsieur Philoxène Boyer's existence. He undergoes the torments of the damned; he fasts; he flounders in all the sewers of Paris. But he is riveted to this horrible existence as the galley-slave to his chain; he can breathe no other air than this mephitic atmosphere; he can lead no other life. When I saw him on the threshold of that sombre and humid reading-room, muddied, wet, pale, thin, almost in rags, I could not help thinking of this wretched galley-slave of literary ambition as he might have been at home in his old Norman mansion, cozily stretched before a blazing fire, with a cellar full of cider and a larder groaning beneath the fat of that favored land, smiling at a young wife on whose lap merry children were gambolling. He was in the vein of bitter frankness. He had not dined the preceding day. He seized me by the arm, and, dragging me out of the circulating-library, said to me, in a voice as abrupt as a feverish pulsation,—

"Don't listen to that old hag! All the books she offers you are miserable stuff, fit at best for the pastry-cooks. Oh! you don't know how success is won nowadays. I'll tell you. There is an assurance society between the book, the piece, and the judge. Praise me, and I'll praise you. If you will praise us, we will praise you. The public buys."

Then he went on with his bitter voice to utter a furious philippic against our celebrated literary men. He attacked them all, with scarcely an exception. This one sold his pen to the highest bidder; that one levied contributions of all sorts on the vanity of authors and artists; another was a mere actor; a fourth was nothing but a mountebank; a fifth was a mere babbler; and so on he went through the whole catalogue of authors. The illustrious literary democrats were Liberals and Spartans only for the public eye. They cared as much about liberty as about old moons: this one speculated on a title; that one on a vice; a third, to possess a carriage and dine at Vefour's, had become the thrall of a wealthy stockjobber who paid his virtues by the month and his opinions by the line. He spoke in this way for an hour, bitter, excessive, nervous, extravagant, and sometimes eloquent. All at once he stopped,—and pressing my hand with a mixture of bitterness and cynicism, he said,—"Old boy, I have now given you a dollar's worth of literature; lend me ten dimes." I hastily drew from my pocket three or four gold coins, and, blushing, slipped them into his hand; it trembled a little; he thanked me with a glance, and, muttering something like "Good bye," disappeared around the next corner.

The next time I met Monsieur Jules Sandeau he said to me,—"I want you to go with me to Madame Émile de Girardin's to-morrow evening. She is to read a tragedy she has written in five acts and in verse. You will meet a good many of our celebrated literary men there. You must remember that the watchword at that house is, Admiration, more admiration, still more admiration. You must excite enthusiasm to ecstasy, compliments to lyrical poetry, and carry flattery to apotheosis. But before we go there I beg you to allow me to return your aristocratic breakfast by a poor literary man's dinner, which we will eat, not in Bignon's sumptuous private room, but outside the walls of Paris, at 'Uncle' Moulinon's, which is the rendezvous of the supernumeraries of art and literature. The wine, roast, and salad are cheaper than you find them on the Boulevard des Italiens, and it is advisable that a fervent neophyte like you should take all the degrees in our freemasonry as soon as possible. 'Uncle' Moulinon's dining-saloon is to Madame Émile de Girardin's drawing-room what a conscripts' barrack is to the official mansion of a French marshal."

I gratefully accepted the invitation, and at the appointed time I joined Monsieur Jules Sandeau. We left Paris by the Barrière des Martyrs, climbed Montmartre hill, and entered "Uncle" Moulinon's dining-saloon when it was full of its usual frequenters. I had never seen such a sight before. Imagine a gourmand obliged to witness with gaping mouth all, even the most prosaic details of the culinary preparations for a grand dinner. The dining-saloon was a long, narrow room, low-pitched and sombre; it was filled with small tables, where in unequal groups were seated young men between eighteen and fifty-five, anticipating glory by tobacco-smoke. Here were beardless chins accompanied by long locks; there were bushy beards which covered three-quarters of the owners' cadaverous, wasted faces; yonder were premature bald heads, leaden eyes, feverish glances: look where you would, you saw everywhere that uneasy, startled air which bore witness to a disordered life. To the sharp aroma of tobacco were joined the stale and rancid odors peculiar to fifth-rate eating-houses. I sought in vain upon all those faces youth's gentle and poetical gayety, the exuberance of gifted natures, the amiable cordiality of travelling-companions pressing on together in different paths. The most salient characteristics of this bizarre assembly were sickly smiles, an incredible mixture of triviality and affectation, motions of wild beasts trying their teeth and claws, starving attitudes, words tortured to make them look like ideas, a brutal familiarity, and the evident desire to devour all their superiors that they might next crush all their equals. I was glad when dinner was over, for I felt ill at ease,—the sight before me differed so much from that I had dreamed.

Monsieur Jules Sandeau gave me his arm, and we walked towards the Avenue des Champs Elysées. It was nine o'clock when we reached the Rue de Chaillot, where Madame Émile de Girardin resided. She lived in a sort of Greek temple, built about thirty feet below the level of the street, and down to which we had to go as if we were entering a cellar. The house was full of columns, statues, flowers, paintings, candelabra, and servants in black dress-coats and short breeches; but everything about the place looked so accidental and ephemeral that the Comte de Saint-Brice, a very witty frequenter of the house, used to say,—"Whenever I visit the place, I am always afraid of finding the horses sold, the servants dismissed, the husband run away, the drawing-room closed, and the house razed." The Comte de Saint-Brice's fears must have been allayed on this evening. Everything was in its place,—horses, servants, husband, drawing-room, house. Madame Émile de Girardin was in full dress; the manuscript tragedy was in her lap. I found in the drawing-room Monsieur Victor Hugo, Monsieur de Lamartine, Monsieur Alfred de Musset, the three stars of our poetical heavens; Monsieur Théophile Gautier, Monsieur Méry, Monsieur Paulin Limayrac, the secondary planets; Madame George Sand, the great Amazon novelist; some doctors, some artists, two or three actors from the French Comedy, and some other gentlemen. At this period of time Madame Émile de Girardin was forty-five years old. Her flatterers still spoke of her beauty. Her conversation was dazzling, but it lacked charm: her talents forced themselves upon one; her bons mots took you by storm. Strength had overcome everything like grace, and two hours' conversation with Madame Émile de Girardin left one with a sick-headache or exhausted by fatigue. Nevertheless, one of her most fervent admirers has uttered this singular paradox about her: "She would be the first woman of the age, if she had always talked and never written a line."

Her husband, Monsieur Émile de Girardin, was present, with his pale face, lymphatic complexion, glassy eye, and forehead checkered with a Napoleon-like lock. He was then, and has remained ever since, the most exact personification of a pasteboard man of genius lighted by histrionic foot-lights. He was a compound of the dandy, the sophist, and the agitator. His talents lay in making people believe him in possession of ideas, when he had none,—just as speculators disseminate the illusion of their capital, when in reality they are worse than bankrupt. He began what others have since completed,—that is, he made trade and advertisements the sovereign masters of literature and newspapers. Abetted by the spirit of the age, he introduced into the intellectual world the risks and unexpected hazards of stock-jobbing circles. He made a great deal of money in this trade, and, besides, it gave him the pleasure of making a great deal of noise in the world, of overturning governments, of dreaming of being minister, nay, prime-minister, when the day may come in which good, sense is to be challenged and France made bankrupt. Everybody around him, even his wife, seemed to accept his superiority for something unquestionable. Their union was not one of those affectionate, faithful, and tender marriages, such as commonplace folk hope to enjoy, but it was a copartnership of two Page:The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14.djvu/217 Page:The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14.djvu/218 Page:The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14.djvu/219 Page:The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14.djvu/220

  1. Need we sat that this gentleman is a member of the French Academy, a librarian of the Mazarin Library, and the well-known author of "Mademoiselle de la Seiglière," "La Maison de Penarvan," "Sacs et Parchemins," etc.?

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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