Tour de France (2) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry 2

At Chateaubriand’s Tomb

I like Chateaubriand. I’ve got three copies of his post-humous memoirs, Mémoires-d’Outre-Tombe : a cheap paperback edition, a luxurious two-volume Pléaide leather-bound edition, and a rather erratic electronic edition on my e-reader. It’s the last one I’m reading now.

François-René Chateaubriand was a Saint-Malo boy. Born in 1768, he expected to enjoy a privileged aristocrat’s life. Then along came the Revolution, and his life was shattered. He spent years in exile (in Germany, in East Anglia, then in America), made his peace with Napoleon, but then thrived as a Catholic writer during the Restoration of the monarchy (1814-30). He belongs to a uniquely French generation of conservatives: like his contemporary, de Tocqueville, he understood that the old order was gone forever, and – without ever being in any way a progressive thinker – this made him more interested in the new society that was emerging. He was able to study it closely, without bitterness.

His Mémoires are a bewildering mixture of historical narrative, autobiography, religious and political speculations, travel-writing and score-settling. He really did intend that they would only be published after his death, but he ran into debt in the 1840s, and hence his posthumous memoirs were then published while he was well and truly alive.

He made a deal with the Saint-Malo town hall, and arranged to be buried on a small island just outside the old city, where – as he put it – he would only hear the wind and the sea. You can still walk out to this tomb at low tide, and it’s interesting to hear successive French tourists ask each other ‘But who was he?’. No one seems to remember. Today, the tomb was looking a bit grubby, so I’ve attached one long-distance view (that doesn’t show the bird-droppings). The weather today was bright and sunny: like the first day of summer. I doubt if Chateaubriand noticed.

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