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Jules Renard

No one ever talks about the journal of Jules Renard.

I hadn’t heard of it until I fell upon the work of Julian Barnes, who references it occasionally in his nonfiction. But I was so struck by these crisp, cited epigrams that I decided to pick up a copy of Renard’s journal several months ago — and now, having parsed through them, am sharing some of the highlights with you.

These words are nowhere else on the internet; TheBullyPulpit is the only site on the web with a substantial selection of this text. Yet it is only a fraction of Renard’s entire magisterial work, and I encourage you to pick up your own copy of this very readable, very witty, and very wise tome. Some scholars have made the astounding assertion that Renard’s journals make him unique in the annals of history: he is the only writer whose private jottings supersede in every respect his published work.

To give you some sense of their magnitude, Wikipedia describes his journal as, “a masterpiece of introspection, irony, humor and nostalgia.” W. Somerset Maugham was so moved after reading Renard’s journal that he decided to publish his own collection called A Writer’s Notebook. In the introduction, Maugham pays tribute to Renard’s masterpiece, calling it, “… wonderfully good reading. It is extremely amusing. It is witty and subtle and often wise…”

I think of it as a chronicle of life from a man who brimmed with humor and perspicacity, and grew in wisdom through the patient examination of both nature and human beings.

What follows are my selected highlights from the first half of this collection (1887 to 1899). They should be read in the context of Renard’s life: he was a relatively well-known Parisian novelist as well as a statesman (the governor of his provincial French town), so his musings are not only gratuitous literary witticisms, but utilitarian, applicable, and sage reflections on the lived-life of a common man. I have bolded my personal favorites.

Renard began this journal in 1887, when he was 23. He kept writing it until his sudden death in 1910.

__________

1887

Work thinks; laziness muses.

She has a very mean way of being kind.

I have an almost incessant need of speaking evil of others; but no interest at all in doing evil to them.

It astounds us to come upon other egoists, as though we alone had the right to be selfish, and be filled with eagerness to live

We often wish we could exchange our natural family for a literary one of our choice, in order that we might call the author of a moving page “brother”.

Sometimes everything around me seems so diffuse, so tremulous, so little solid, that I imagine this world to be only the mirage of a world to come: its projection. We seem to be still far from the forest; and even though the great trees already cast their shadow over us, we still have a long journey to make before we walk under their branches.

It is in the heart of the city that one writes the most inspired pages about the country.

1888

A thought written down is dead. It was alive. It lives no longer. It was a flower. Writing it down has made it artificial, that is to say, immutable.

In order to do certain crazy things, it is necessary to behave like a coachman who has let go of the reins and fallen asleep.

1889

A peasant must be twice sure of a fact before he will bet on it.

The scholar generalizes, the artist individualizes.

The blackbird, that minuscule crow.

Men of nature, as they are called, do not spend much time talking about nature.

The ideal of calm exists in a sitting cat.

A simple man, a man who has the courage to have a legible signature.

To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.

The friendship of a talented man of letters would be a great benefaction. It is a pity that those whose good graces we yearn for are always dead.

I can’t get around this dilemma: I have a horror of troubles, but they whip me up, they make me talented. Peace and well-being, on the contrary, paralyze me. Either be a nobody, or everlastingly plagued. I must make a choice.

I prefer to be plagued. I am stating it.

I’ll be properly annoyed when I am taken at my word.

I read novel upon novel, I stuff myself with them, inflate myself with them, I’m full up to my throat with them, in order that I may be disgusted with their commonplaces, their repetitions, their conventions, their systematic methods of procedure; and that I may do otherwise

This evening, memories are using my brain as a tambourine.

1890

The annoyance of having to pass in front of a bench on which people are sitting. Because, in truth, sitting on a bench places a man at a great advantage. He can look people over, laugh if he pleases, think his thoughts. He knows that the passers-by can do nothing of the kind; they can neither stop, nor look, nor, in their turn, laugh.

Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it.

I have built such beautiful castles that I would be satisfied with their ruin

We are ignorant of The Beyond because this ignorance is the condition sine qua non of our own life. Just as ice cannot know fire except by melting, by vanishing. 

1891

To write in the manner that Rodin sculpts

When someone shows me a drawing, I look at it just long enough to prepare a comment.

Style is to forget all styles.

The critic is a botanist. I am a gardener. 

To seize the fleeing idea by the scruff of the neck and rub its nose on the paper.

I very humbly confess my pride. 

1892

We are all poor fools (of course I am speaking of myself), incapable of being either good or bad for two consecutive hours.

When he looked at himself in a mirror, he was always tempted to wipe the glass.

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 an enormous can.

In art, never do as others do; in morals, act like everybody else.

At twenty, one thinks profoundly and badly.

There is in my heart something like the reflection of a beautiful dream that I no longer remember.

He is deaf in the left ear: he does not hear on the side of the heart.

The fear of boredom is the only excuse for working.

To be a boy, and to play alone, in full sunlight, in the square of a little town.

He had a fear of working, and was annoyed because he did not work.

He wept cats and dogs.

1893

When he praises anyone, he feels that he is slightly disparaging himself.

The more one reads, the less one imitates.

It is now the fashion, when one has completed someone’s portrait in the blackest of strokes, to add: “But he is very nice.”

To spend one’s life judging oneself is very entertaining, and, on the whole, not very difficult. 

I am moved by nature because, when I look at her, I need not worry about looking stupid.

If the word arse appears in a sentence, even in a sublime sentence, the public will hear only that one word.

And the brook murmurs without pause against the stones that try to prevent it from flowing.

A village where only the trees are capable of emotion.

How to describe the delicate thing that happens when a brilliant insect alights on a flower? Words, with their weight, fall upon the picture like birds of prey.

I am never bored anywhere: being bored is an insult to oneself. 

The clouds, their bellies swollen with rain, crawl over the woods like black spiders.

He has always encumbered himself with unnecessary friendships.

It is, when all is said and done, when faced with the subject of death that we feel most bookish.

The reward of great men is that, long after they have died, one is not quite sure that they are dead.

I don’t care about knowing many things: I want to know the things I care about. 

1894

As sad to watch as someone you love disappearing into the fog.

There are no friends; only moments of friendship.

Life can do without logic; literature cannot.

Thirty years old! Now I am sure that I shall not escape death.

Who will tell, who will paint the strange things I see?

To think is to search for clearings in a wood.

Happy people have no talent.

All day, I was drugged with sadness.

I like rain that lasts all day, and don’t feel that I am really in the country until I am well caked with mud.

We spend our lives talking about this mystery: our life.

Lifting one’s head, one could see up there, between the top branches of the trees, a river of sky flowing.

What does the bird do in a tempest? It does not cling to the branch: it follows the storm.

When I have experienced great difficulty in writing a page, I consider it well written.

Suppose, instead of earning a lot of money in order to live, we should try to live on little money?

1895

The good that one expects does not come to pass, but unexpected good does. There is justice, but he who dispenses it is playful. He is a jovial judge, who laughs at us, plays tricks on us, but who, when all is weighed, never makes a mistake.

There are good writers and great ones. Let us be the good ones.

Toulouse-Lautrec. The oftener you see him, the taller he grows. He ends up by being taller than average.

In literature, the real is distinguishable from the false as fresh flowers are from artificial flowers: by a sort of inimitable scent.

With its purring, the cat accompanies the tick-tock of the clock; it is the only music in the room.

What pleases women most is gross flattery concerning their intelligence.

All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities that we believe ourselves to have.

At work in the morning: at first, mist, sometimes impenetrable. And, gradually, clearing. It is like a small sun slowly rising in the brain.

The truly free man is the one who will turn down an invitation to dinner without giving an excuse.

Literature, a queer sort of occupation: the less one produces, the better it must be.

1896

To take notes is to play the scales of literature.

The little light existing in the mystery that surrounds us comes from ourselves: it is a false light. The mystery has never shown us its own.

There is in me a substratum of coarseness that allows me to understand peasants and to enter deeply into their lives.

It is cheating to try to be kind. You must be born kind or never meddle with it.

I am made only to listen to the earth and watch it live.

Put a little moon into what you write.

Incapable of sustained effort, I read here and there, and write here and there. But I do believe that this is the lot of the true artist.

We did not have the same thoughts, but we had thoughts of the same color.

A morning so gray that the birds went back to bed.

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

We are never happier than when our jokes have made the maid laugh.

It is in the cafés of small towns that one sees humanity at its most hideous.

1897

I have not renounced ambition. The fire still burns in me—a banked fire, but alive.

A man in love with truth need not be either great or a poet. He is both without trying.

Men like my father respect only those that get rich, and admire only those that die poor.

I am a realist bothered by reality.

Nothing adds to your age like the death of a father. What? So I am now father Renard, and Fantec, from being a grandson, becomes a son.

Half-past one. Death of my father.

One can say of him: “This was only a man, merely a mayor of a poor little village,” and yet speak of his death as though it were the death of Socrates. I do not reproach myself for not having loved him enough. I do reproach myself for not having understood him.

For a while, his death made me feel uprooted.

My father. The next day I had to leave the table in order to go away and weep. It was the first time, in the twenty hours that I had sat by him. Floods of tears came to my eyes; I had not been able to squeeze out one before.

He killed himself, not because he suffered too much, but because he did not want to live otherwise than in good health.

I read what I write as though I were my mortal enemy.

It is in the gentle climate of this woman that I should like to live and die.

1898

Failure is not our only punishment for laziness: there is also the success of others.

I was brought up by a library.

When I give a hundred-franc bill, I give the dirtiest one.

First you love nature. It is only much later that you reach man.

If you want to please women, tell them the things you would not want other men to tell your wife.

Inspiration is perhaps only the joy of writing; it does not precede writing.

Our egoism is so excessive that, in a storm, we believe the thunder to be directed only at us.

Death is comforting: it delivers us from the thought of death.

A stupid faith cannot but displease God.

Let us stay at home: there we are decent. Let us not go out: our defects wait for us at the door, like flies.

There is nothing like a disciple to show us our faults.

I turn home, my heart filled with anguish because I have watched the sun set and heard the birds sing, and because I shall have had so few days on this earth I love, and there are so many dead before me.

One could say of almost all literature that it is too long.

God does not believe in our God.

I always feel like saying to music: “It isn’t true! You lie!”

1899

I feel that someone guides me.

I was born with two wings, one of them broken.

Spiders draw plans of capital cities.

The cat is the life of furniture.

The gentle melancholy of working on Sunday, when the others are loafing.

I am not content with intermittent life: I must have life at each instant.

For a writer who has been working, to read is like getting into a carriage after a toilsome walk.

I am not content with intermittent life: I must have life at each instant.

In an instant, the mind travels over immense dream countries, while the eyes go over reality like tortoises.

At the bottom of all patriotism there is war: that is why I am no patriot.

The air, at midday, burns and hums.

To think is not enough; you must think of something.

Our life seems like a trial run. 

Meadows are meadows, but fields are earth.

Return to Paris. The setting sun is pink like the interior of a seashell.

One should have the courage to prefer the intelligent man to the very nice man.

Style is the habit, the second nature of thought.

Jules Renard

__________

The highlights of Jules Renard’s journal entries, 1887 to 1900.

Be on the lookout for highlights from the second half of his journals, which I’ll hopefully post in the next few weeks.

If you liked these, read more reflections from a variety of thinkers on the quotes page.