Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Journals of Jules Renard

As with most journals and books of aphorisms, Renard’s Journal is best taken in small bites. Still, as a whole it is a remarkable portrait of one man’s life, and highly recommended.

It is difficult to convey the beauty of this book without quoting extensively, but to do so would require missing some excellent passages and thus giving an incomplete picture (beware of Renard “quotes“ on the internet - some sound suspiciously like fortune cookies). Jules Renard (1846-1910) was a French author, a largely rural personage although he did have some success in Paris. Many of the longer entries concern his townsfolk, although Verlaine, Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and Gide also pass through the pages.

Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He gives you a cigarette, but he selects it himself. He does not walk around a table, he moves a table out of the way. His face is kneaded with tiny red worms, and he has long teeth, containing caves. He is enormous, and he carries and enormous cane.

I don’t mind signing the petition for Oscar Wilde, with the proviso that he will give his word of honor to stop - - writing.

His journal entries tend to be decidedly mixed towards his parents - he seems to despise them both, perhaps a reflection of how they felt about each other (they ceased speaking soon after Jules was born):

She is resentful because of her humiliations, of his obstinate silence. But if he said a word to her, she would cast herself upon his neck with a storm of tears, and, quickly go repeating the word to the entire village. But it is thirty years since he has said a word.

Maurice took the revolver out of the drawer of the night table, saying he wanted to clean it. Papa, who feels well tonight, says:
“He said that but he was lying. He is afraid that I’ll kill myself. If I had a mind to kill myself, I wouldn’t use a tool that can only mutilate.”
“Will you stop talking like that!” says Marinette.
“I’d go at it squarely and take my rifle.”
“You’d do better to take an enema,” I tell him.

The story of his mother’s death, falling (suicide?) backwards into a well is too long to recount here, but it is masterful, betraying his inner conflict: “A skirt floating on the water, a slight eddying such as there is when one has drowned an animal. No human face.”

Renard died the following year.

Some of his more terse observations prefigure the paradoxical comic Steven Wright: “I like solitude - even when I am alone.“ “Truth that creates illusions is the only kind I like.” “What happens to all the tears we do not shed?”

He has a clear-eyed view of human nature, and can be in turns, lyrical and astringent. Religion, aging, and death preoccupied him, although with no clear conclusions drawn.

As a man, Christ was admirable. As God, one could say of him:
“What? Was that all He could do?”

There is no paradise on earth, but there are pieces of it. What there is on earth is a broken paradise.

And, at the end, this jewel:
“One should say nothing, because everything offends.”