“Palace of Books is a great pleasure to read. It is disarming, deceptively modest, and so beyond any question of fashion, of trying to seem like the latest thing, that to me it seems wholly new. Grenier’s learning is vast; and it is all handled with great ease, as a cook might rummage familiarly in his cupboard, pulling down now this jar of spices and now that. Who, now, has the depth and range of literary culture that Grenier does? Who now lives so much in books? And yet people do, or at least they want to. The Web is paradoxically full of them. Young aspiring writers should take these essays as a kind of model, not for their own writing so much as for their own reading, a lesson in how to stock the shelves of the mind.” –Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of An American Masterpiece
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The expansion of the media has put the writer in the spotlight, even if, nowadays, people who write have lost much of their prestige and their importance in society. Some of them find themselves afflicted with a lack of privacy once reserved for movie stars. Sometimes they ask for it. Michel Contat writes about “this form of media totalitarianism that gives the right to know everything about someone based on the simple fact that he or she has created a public image.” This phenomenon is not so new, if you think about Sartre and Beauvoir, not to mention Musset and George Sand, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, or even the self-dramatizing Byron or Chateaubriand. Nowadays we have scribblers who manage to pass themselves off as writers because they’ve already made a name for themselves as celebrities.
Gérard de Nerval was a victim of the public’s need to know, due to conditions that would be unimaginable today. Jules Janin, in the Journal des débats of March 1, 1841; Alexandre Dumas, in Le Mousquetaire of December 10, 1853; Eugène de Mirecourt in a little monograph in his series Les Contemporains in 1854, wrote openly about their friend’s mental illness. Poor Gérard wrote to his father on June 12, 1854, in response to Mirecourt’s pamphlet on “necrological biography,” and said he was being made into “the hero of a novel.” He dedicated Daughters of Fire to Alexandre Dumas: “I dedicate this book to you, my dear master, as I dedicated Lorely to Jules Janin. You have the same claim on my gratitude. A few years ago, I was thought dead, and he wrote my biography. A few days ago, I was thought mad, and you devoted some of your most charming lines to an epitaph for my spirit. That’s a good deal of glory to advance on my due inheritance.”
Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or her work?
The debate was renewed with great panache by Marcel Proust in By Way of Sainte-Beuve. Proust noticed that Sainte-Beuve, a subtle and cultured man, made nothing but bad judgment calls as to the worth of his contemporaries. Why? Jealousy doesn’t explain it. He couldn’t have been jealous of writers like Stendhal or Baudelaire, who were practically unknown. The fault was with his method. Sainte-Beuve wanted to adopt a scientific attitude. “For me,” he wrote, “literature is indistinguishable from the rest of man. As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him entirely. And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his writings. For example, what were his religious views? How did the sight of nature affect him? What was he like in his dealings with women, and in his feelings about money? Was he rich? Was he poor? What was his regimen? His daily habits? Finally, what was his persistent vice or weakness, for every man has one. Each of these questions is valuable in judging an author or his book.”
Sainte-Beuve decides that he is engaging in literary botany.
Proust finds all this knowledge useless and likely to mislead the reader: “A book is the product of a different self than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching deep within us and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this effort of the heart.”
Proust also writes: “How does having been a friend of Stendhal’s make you better suited to judge him? It would be more likely to get in the way.” Sainte-Beuve, who knew Stendhal and Stendhal’s friends, found his novels “frankly detestable.”
What Proust holds against Sainte-Beuve is that he made no distinction between conversation and the occupation of writing, “in which, in solitude, quieting the speech which belongs as much to others as to ourselves, we come face to face once more with ourselves, and seek to hear and to render the true sound of our hearts.”
Proust admires Balzac, all while thinking that from what he knew of Balzac’s personal life, his letters to his family and to Madame Hanska, he was a vulgar human being. Stefan Zweig raises the same issue. He admires Balzac the writer and seeks reasons to admire the man. He is infuriated because he can’t find any. He has discovered that genius is incomprehensible.
Gaëtan Picon thinks that if Proust attacks Sainte-Beuve so violently it’s because he needs to believe that genius is based on a secret distinct from intelligence. That a man whose life is frivolous and empty, a failure, can nonetheless create a great work. The question is inevitable, beginning with the case of Proust himself. How did this intolerable social climber, whom Lucien Daudet called “an atrocious insect,” become the author of In Search of Lost Time? Paul Valéry concludes his famous study of Leonardo da Vinci with a line that shows in a striking way how much distance he puts between an artist and his work: “As for the true Leonardo, he was what he was.”
Flaubert would have sided with Proust against his friend Sainte-Beuve. He writes to Ernest Feydeau on August 21, 1859, with his customary truculence, “Life is impossible now! The minute you’re an artist, the gentlemen grocers, the auditors of record, the customs agents, the cobblers and all the rest enjoy themselves at your expense! People inform them as to whether you’re a brunette or a blond, facetious or melancholy, how many moons since your birth, whether you’re given to drink or play the harmonica. I believe that on the contrary, the writer must leave behind nothing but his work. His life doesn’t matter. Wipe it away!”
He doesn’t stop there, but insists: “The artist must arrange things so as to make us believe in a posterity he hasn’t experienced.”
You’d have to put Chekhov in Proust’s camp. From his Notebook: “How pleasant it is to respect people! When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works.”
The same is true for Henry James, who writes in his short story “The Real Right Thing”: “[. . .] his friend would at moments have shown himself as holding that the ‘literary’ career might—save in the case of a Johnson or a Scott, with a Boswell and a Lockhart to help—best content itself to be represented. The artist was what he did—he was nothing else.” In this fantasy tale, the ghost of a dead writer appears to prevent his biography from being written.
Proust seems rigid. He is right to say that there is a truth for the writer, especially if he’s a genius, that remains a mystery and cannot be explained by social appearance or private life. But he also presents a counter-argument to his own theory when he writes in Jean Santeuil: “[. . .] our lives are not wholly separated from our works. All the scenes that I have narrated here, I have lived through.”
Most of the time, the characters in Jean Santeuil and the Search are indiscreet, eager to know everything about the artists they encounter. Freud, whose theory is close to Proust’s, doesn’t hold back from delving into the private life of Leonardo da Vinci and a few others. J.-B. Pontalis suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud take the opposite tack to Sainte-Beuve’s because they don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered. . . . The private lives of others are another story!
Nietzsche also pondered the question, but from a different point of view. He thinks that knowing an author distorts our opinion of his work and his person. “We read the writings of our acquaintances (friends and foes) in a twofold sense, inasmuch as our knowledge continually whispers to us: ‘this is by him, a sign of his inner nature, his experiences, his talent,’ while another kind of knowledge simultaneously seeks to determine what his work is worth in and of itself, what evaluation it deserves apart from its author, what enrichment of knowledge it brings with it. As goes without saying, these two kinds of reading and evaluating confound one another.”
But what to do in cases where the work can only be explained by the life? Why deprive ourselves of this source of knowledge?
In the case of Albert Camus, once you know about his impoverished childhood in an illiterate milieu (he described this in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, his first book, and in The First Man, his last), you understand his attitude of respect and rigor towards literature, and the tenor of his style. In the same way, his youth near the sea and the sun, and the illness that continually threatened him, explain to a large extent the spirit of his work, his thought.
Finally—and Proust is right about this—if the author is not a simple manufacturer, if he puts his interior self in his books, the reader will be attracted by this self. The reader will seek out this personal, private self beneath the sentences.
In 1922, the young Aragon wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres— poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims—all strike me as insignificant.”
Freud showed that every child constructs a “family romance” that he will later repress. Whereas the writer continues to manufacture a novel which, if not a family romance, is at least a personal one. Marthe Robert has noted that all novelists relate to some extent their sentimental education, their apprentice years, and their search for lost time. The paradox is that they confess their secrets to a piece of paper. Yet they’re careful to disguise them as fiction.
Revealing a lot about oneself is not the purview only of novelists. It is also what poets do, and not just the elegiac poets. For centuries, and in a variety of civilizations, well before there were novels, the great majority of poems came from the poet’s effusion in speaking about his life, his loves, his torments, his anger, his religious feeling, his exile. Gérard de Nerval asks, “Which is more modest: to portray oneself in a novel disguised as Lélio or Octavio or Arthur, or to betray one’s most intimate emotions in a volume of poetry?” That his life and his illness were made public by his friends gave him an argument: “Forgive us our flights of personality, we who are constantly in the limelight, and who, whether we live in glory or in failure, can no longer hope to obtain the benefits of obscurity.”
You might think that contemporary poetry, tending towards abstraction and situated in a world where the air is rarified, has little to do with private life. This is not always true. Even an erudite poet like Jacques Roubaud, who delves into mathematics, writes about a deeply personal unhappiness in Something Black.
The same is true for the playwright, the filmmaker, even the nonfiction writer. You can sense this clearly in the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes. Descartes was already inserting elements of autobiography in Discourse on Method. In this essential essay, he portrays himself in Holland, seated next to his stove throughout the winter, reflecting. Thus there is a back-and-forth movement, a dialectic, practically a contradiction. One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others.
Authors, whenever they delve into their own private lives, even if they embellish or transpose, find themselves confronted with the issue of personal discretion. They go well beyond simple indiscretion when they attempt to bring to light what is hidden in the deepest part of themselves.
With his taste for nonsense, Julio Cortázar describes an “enlarged self-portrait from which the artist has had the elegance to withdraw.” This little joke reveals the aspirations of so many writers: to be at once invisible and present, to say everything about oneself without seeming to.
Offering your essence to nourish what you write is what Scott Fitzgerald called “the price to pay”: “I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these in every story: it was the extra I had.”
Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t write without including his entire history. And even when he lost his creative vein, he dug to the depths of his anguish to write The Crack-Up.
John Dos Passos, another American who is now neglected after having been overrated, made a distinction between a literature of confession and a literature of spectacle. Of course he categorized his own books Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy as literature of spectacle. But I’m pretty sure you can find confession beneath the spectacle.
The young novelist’s first book is often autobiographical. Yet this is the phase when one has lived the least. Other, perhaps better, writers save the most personal, the most intimate in their lives or in the history of their families for much later.
On the other hand, some seem to write primarily to cover up a secret. Paul-Jean Toulet never shows his wounds—neither in his novels, frankly mediocre and marred by the most odious clichés of his era: anti-Semitism, etc.—nor in his poetry, far more charming; nor even in the letters he addressed to himself. His friends knew he had a broken heart. Why broken? And by whom? One of the qualities of his poetry is precisely that you can perceive, beyond the light-hearted fantasy, a floating veil of sadness or perhaps despair. We’ll never know the whole story. That is the claim in the last quatrain of his Contrerimes—a kind of challenge:
If living is a duty, when I will have ruined it,
May I use my shroud as a mystery
You must know how to die, Faustine, how to grow silent,
Die like Gilbert by swallowing the key.
(The allusion is to the strange death at age thirty of the poet Nicolas Gilbert, author of the Le poète malheureux [the unhappy poet] who apparently swallowed his key in a fit of delirium.)
In the life of a man or a woman there are always one or two things that he or she will never consent to speak about, not for anything. Secret gardens. But if that man or woman is a writer, we might find those things hidden deep within a novel.
We know that Dickens lived through some very unhappy times in his childhood. The casual egotism of his parents was to blame.
His father, a loudmouth who was often imprisoned for debt, is in part the model for Mr. Micawber. In chapter eleven of David Copperfield, we find, barely altered, what Dickens experienced at age twelve. For six or seven shillings a week, he packaged shoe polish in a putrid factory, working under unspeakably miserable, humiliating conditions.
While he didn’t hesitate to use this experience for David Copperfield, in life he hid the memory as his most closely guarded secret. He refused to talk about it. He even took detours in London to avoid the place where he had been so unhappy. A fragment of his autobiography was found where he confirmed:
No word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being . . . I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence with anyone, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God.
Until old Hungerford Market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warrens’ in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blackingcorks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the Borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.
Thus Charles Dickens and David Copperfield, C. D. and D. C., meet in the person of a humiliated child. Humiliation is a feeling that very few people can tolerate. But it has inspired many books.
Léon Aréga, a forgotten writer who endured endless ridicule, once said to me about one of my novels in which I put much of myself: “It’s a treatise on humiliation.” Which, coming from him, was a great compliment. It is easy to find the humiliated child in many of Chekhov’s short stories. His remark has been quoted a hundred times: “In my childhood, there was no childhood.”
Confessions are made on purpose in David Copperfield. But in most novels they aren’t. They surface in the form of fantasies, obsessions. With Dostoyevsky it’s impossible not to find an allusion to the rape of a little girl in The Possessed, Crime and Punishment, The Eternal Husband.
One rather strange point of view comes from Joseph Conrad. He thought you needed to be a genius to dare unveil your intimate self and thus move the public. If the effect was ruined you would sink into ridicule:
If it be true that every novel contains an element of autobiography—and this can hardy be denied since the creator can only express himself in his creation—then there are some of us to whom an open display of sentiment is repugnant. I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often merely temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness. It may be pride. There can be nothing more humiliating than to see the shaft of one’s emotions miss the mark of either laughter or tears. Nothing more humiliating! And that for this reason should the mark be missed, should the open display of emotion fail to move, then it must perish unavoidably in disgust or contempt.
This is what the authors of a fashionable genre, baptized “autofiction” in 1970 by Serge Doubrovsky, seem not to fear, and their works collect like dregs on booksellers’ shelves.
Sometimes the most impersonal work can signify something deeply intimate to the author. This is the case of the great allegorical novel by Melville, Moby Dick. He achieves a fusion of a great myth with his own torment. The dire questioning, the violence of Ahab, are his. The Plague, another book that generates a myth, is also a novel about separation, since Camus wrote part of it isolated by the war, cut off from Algeria, from his wife, from his close friends. Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando seems like a fantastical novel of imagination, when it is really the portrait of Vita Sackville-West, who was so dear to the author. In a fairy tale like Alice in Wonderland, Reverend Dodgson confides his passion for Alice Liddell.
The sole fact of starting to write is motivated by a cause that belongs to what is most intimate for the author. I quoted Flaubert, who talks about the sorrow that launched him into the enterprise of Salammbô.
The critics always remind us that Proust and John Cowper Powys wrote their great novels only after the death of their mothers. You could say they waited for their mothers’ deaths to write.
We mustn’t forget the role of the unconscious. Benjamin Crémieux noticed that “the writer who rereads one of his books discovers, after the fact, secret traits he never suspected having put there, traits he may not even have known he possessed—and whose existence is suddenly revealed to him. In all that we write in our own style, the truest aspect of ourselves is inscribed in filigrain.”
How, without blushing, can we agree to deliver to the public so many confessions and intimate motivations, even those that are disguised or dissimulated? This is the mystery of the quasi-religious value we assign to literature.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 55-65 of Palace of Books by Roger Grenier, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)