After witnessing the Revolution's initial stirrings, Chateaubriand headed for the Americas on an ultimately futile quest to discover a Northwest Passage. This section of his memoirs is suspiciously thin and full of seemingly made-up events, as when he supposedly meets George Washington and spends an evening with him. The fruits of this brief encounter take up about half-a-page in the memoirs. And yet Chateaubriand continually refers back to this formative experience, contrasting the noble simplicity of Washington later with the hollow ideal Napoleon’s person had come to symbolize. He also spends a great deal of time down in Florida and along the frontier, where he meets merchant pioneers and groups of Native Americans.
This adventure abroad suddenly comes to an when he stumbles upon a newspaper reporting the imprisonment of the French King and Queen. At this point he decides to abandon his trailblazing plans and return to Europe. There he joins the Emigrant army fighting against the newly established Republic. After being wounded in battle, Chateaubriand flees again, this time to England, where he ekes out a living as a tutor and begins his career as a writer in earnest.
He eventually returns to France once Napoleon has come to power and accepts an ambassadorial position in Italy. However, this position lasts but a short while once Chateaubriand discovers that an acquaintance of his has been executed on Napoleon’s orders. Chateaubriand resigns. His resignation is treated as a betrayal by Napoleon, and afterwards he is forced to go into hiding.
It’s while he’s in hiding that Chateaubriand begins writing his memoirs (around 1811). The work will be picked up at different times throughout the remainder of his life. The initial section is written while he’s living at a fishing cottage in Brittany, and then is picked up again, following the Restoration, once Chateaubriand has been made an ambassador to England. This progressive composition gives the work an interesting flavour and nostalgic tone. His objectives seem to change while he writes, and by the end his focus has shifted away from himself and become preoccupied with Napoleon and describing/assessing his career.
This is the weakest section of the book. It goes on for a hundred pages or so, and I doubt anyone would be worse off if they skipped it—that is, unless of course you want to read Chateaubriand’s opinions about Napoleon. I can summarize his assessment thus: Napoleon was a military genius who put in place a number of important and lasting reforms for the French Government; that aside, his ambition pushed him in the direction of hubris. He took unnecessary risks and disrespected his position, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives in the process. In sum, the man was a tyrant.
This portrait/history would have been needful in its own time but now seems hardly accurate or detailed enough to be particularly interesting.
Chateaubriand was a romantic, but his peculiar outlook ws a mixture of traditionalism and Enlightenment principles, one that ultimately relies on dogmatic religion for its ballast. His life, you might say, was a struggle to define itself against a backdrop of extremely disorientating social circumstances.
As a record of its times, the memoirs are certainly interesting. But as art they are even more interesting. Chateaubriand’s style is magnetic. He writes with extraordinary aplomb and can extract from almost any incident a wonderful, fitting epigram. His style makes for easy and enjoyable reading. The only reservation I have is the long section dealing with Napoleon, which drastically diverges from the rest of the memoirs and, as I mentioned, can be skipped. Taken as a whole, however, the book is wonderful. Highly recommended.
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