CHATEAUBRIAND, Vol. 1: (1768-1793) The Longed-for Tempests by George D. Painter

CHATEAUBRIAND, Vol. 1: (1768-1793) The Longed-for Tempests

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A callow, passionate, self-concerned youth at loose ends emerges from the first of three biographical volumes, a densely authoritative study which approaches the early years of the pioneer Romantic with a certain jocose detachment from Chateaubriand himself and a fluent sense of the crosscurrents of late-18th-century French society. From his father, a fierce, solitary privateer and slave trader who retired during Chateaubriand's boyhood to an ancient Breton castle, Chateaubriand gained a sense of ""anarchy and isolation""; from the women that surrounded him, especially favorite sister Lucile (with whom Painter discerns no evidence of literal incest), he drew indulgent love, but never enough. When, with relief, the young FranÇois-RenÉ found his regimental career foreclosed by Revolutionary turmoil, he absorbed the Enlightenment creed of the venerable statesman Malesherbes while ably conducting Parisian stocking salesmanship; as Jacobin chaos intensified, he placed the noble-savage principle above the quest for universal brotherhood, and undertook an exploratory mission to North America, pledged to find a Pacific passage route. Instead, it seems that he never got past Ohio (though further than other scholars have believed) after his Rousseauian precepts had been jarred by the spectacle of Niagara Indians' addiction to brandy and the services of a French dancing-master named M. Violet. The volume closes back in France with two rites of passage: FranÇois-RenÉ's marriage to a pallid heiress found by his sister, and his flight from the Terror to Britain. Painter's sketches of the decrepit petty nobles, progressive salons, and New World adventurers add depth to Chateaubriand's own immaturity. It is character, not literature, which preoccupies Painter, unlike Richard Switzer in Chateaubriand (1971); the other, more rounded biographies--Maurois' sympathetic 1938 Chateaubriand, and Friedrich Sieburg's florid 1962 Chateaubriand--will undoubtedly be surpassed by this trilogy, to which Painter's stature as student of Gide and Proust will draw heightened attention.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1978
Publisher: Knopf