BEAUMARCHAIS by Frederic Grendel


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Of all French men of letters Whose memory is still alive today, Beaumarchais is definitely the most honourable."" ""For a few months Beaumarchais was France--single handed and alone."" Make no mistake: Grendel, abetted by his British translator, is a biographer of the hyperbolic partisan school, determined to vanquish any detractors who might see Louis XVI's secret Kissinger--and the author of Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro--as something of an opportunist (""Dishonesty!"") or adventurer (""Slander I tell you!""). Chattily taking issue with the standard 19th-century biographies (""Fiddlesticks!""), Grendel deduces only the most patriotic, noble motives as low-born Pierre Caron marries a womanly widow, adopts her late husband's noble name, carries favor at the Louis XV court as music master and master clockmaker, and becomes the protÉgÉ of financier Paris-Duverney. Beaumarchais' enemies in the tangle of lawsuits, criminal charges, and public demonstrations that arose from Duverney's last will and testament were chicken-plucking, bribe-taking Devils, but ""the most dazzling polemicist in French history"" courageously took them on and--though frequently jailed and forced to live under a ""reprimand"" for decades--triumphed. Grendel's exuberant, free-form approach is entertaining while the ""born seducer"" seduces, spies, publishes Voltaire, experiments with aviation, and trades insults. When the American and French revolutions bounce up, however, with Monsieur B. given no less than 100% credit for France's aid to the colonies and lauded for his republican-royalist ambivalence, the unscholarly mannerisms reduce credibility. And the plays benefit from little literary perspective, though their biographical overlays are ingenious: Figaro=fils Caron (""get it?""). By turns sentimental, glib, astute, and infuriating, Grendel says, ""We shouldn't be hard on Beaumarchais."" But being this easy on even so dashingly Renaissance a man as Beaumarchais is the least honorable path to what is, admittedly, lively (if not life-like) portraiture.

Pub Date: June 10th, 1977
Publisher: T. Y. Crowell