Chateaubriand – Memoirs of Beyond the Tomb (Volume III)

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Chateaubriand – Memoirs of Beyond the Tomb (Volume III): “If Napoleon had finished with kings, he had not finished with me,” proclaims Chateaubriand at the beginning of this third volume of the Memoirs of Beyond the Grave. The statement may seem exaggerated, even from an author who has never sinned by excess of modesty. Still, between his return from Jerusalem in 1807 and the fall of the Empire in 1815, the writer became one of the most formidable figures of the opposition.

In 1807, while Napoleon was at the height of his glory, Chateaubriand published in the Mercury several articles in which he denounced the despotism of the State: he even dared to compare the Emperor with Nero. This temerity immediately earns him the wrath of Napoleon who suppresses the magazine and threatens the author of arrest Forced to leave the capital, Chateaubriand buys at a low price the property of the Valley-aux-Loups, near Sceaux, that he undertakes to renovate. It was during this involuntary exile that he composed his epic prose, the Martyrs. It will be violently attacked in newspapers when it was published in 1809. The same year comes a new event that blurs it once again with power. His cousin, Armand de Chateaubriand, who serves as a clandestine intermediary for the Princes in exile, is arrested for conspiracy. Forced to swallow his pride, the writer will plead his parent’s case with Fouche, the minister of Napoleon’s police. In vain. Good Friday morning, he learns, an hour too late, that Armand has been summarily executed.

In 1811, back in Paris, Chateaubriand published his Route from Paris to Jerusalem. The book, warmly welcomed by the public and critics, marks the end of his literary career proper. At the same time, the Emperor, concerned with his own fame, sought to conciliate the famous author and had him appointed to the French Academy. It is customary for the new immortal to praise not only his predecessor but the Emperor’s. But Chateaubriand has many faults, but he has never been the lackey of anyone. He composes a reception speech where the allusions to the liberty scorned are legion. Napoleon, to whom the text has been submitted, furiously removes a part of it and demands profound revisions. Chateaubriand, outraged, refuses, preferring to give up brilliantly to an armchair to which, in reality, he hardly holds. On September 4, 1812, after various quarrels with the government, the writer is asked to move away from the capital again. It was therefore at Dieppe that he took up his Memoirs and transformed them little by little into a vast historical fresco. The figure of the Emperor, of which he claims to be the new Tacitus, holds a preponderant place.

Napoleon, whom he considers his enemy brother and his greatest rival, has really haunted Chateaubriand, who devotes all the rest of the volume to him. To the conquering genius of the conqueror of Arcole and Austerlitz, the memorialist opposes his genius of writer and intellectual who himself marked the history of his time. In Napoleon, whom he admires for his daring, endurance and tenacity, Chateaubriand sees neither the heir of the Revolution nor the wise reformer of the State, but a new Attila, thirsty for power and blood. This biography, drawn with vigorous strokes, presents fascinating glimpses of the youth of Bonaparte; it also offers visionary pages on the Jaffa massacres, the Spanish and Russian campaigns and the fall of the Empire. Volume III ends in 1815, on the eve of Waterloo, just as Chateaubriand prepares to embark on his third career, the one he takes above all else: the political career. [Sources: Ghislain de Diesbach, Chateaubriand (Perrin 1995); Jules Lemaître, Chateaubriand (Calman-Levy 1912).]

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