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Jules Renard

No one ever talks about the journal of Jules Renard.

That’s how I began my first post about this journal, and it’s regrettably true. Renard’s journal is rarely cited, nearly impossible to find even on the internet, and virtually unmentioned in lists of the greatest diaries in history. Still, those who are aware of this collection of witticisms and observations know how stunning it is. It floored W. Somerset Maugham when he first fanned through it and it’s flatly described on Wikipedia as, “a masterpiece of introspection, irony, humor and nostalgia.” I recommend you pick up your own copy of the text, which many scholars have suggested is unique in the annals of literary history, as it is the only private work that surpasses the entirety of its author’s published oeuvre. This post features highlights from its second half (1900-10).

For context: when we left off at the end of 1899, Renard was a 36-year-old writer and budding politician, splitting his time between Paris, which he alternately romanticizes and loathes, and his country home in Chitry, a provincial town in Burgundy where he indulges his passion for nature and quiet reflection. A year and a half before, Renard’s father, François, had taken his own life at the peak of an excruciating chronic illness. Jules was the first on the scene, and that lacerating experience has stirred in his mind a latent fixation on mortal questions. In addition, this tragedy propels Jules into a fresh state of mind as the family’s new patriarch: he recommits himself to his political ambitions (he would be elected mayor of Chitry in 1904), while overseeing the workers of his country estate (including its noble foreman Philippe) and cherishing more and more the serene presence of his wife, Marie (whom he affectionately refers to as Marinette).

Beyond that, however, my impressions about the general significance and trends in Renard’s thinking are merely that – impressions, and I think you’ll have a more rewarding engagement with the words if you browse through them at your own pace and without preconceptions. Ultimately there are many adjectives to ascribe to these jottings, through perhaps the most apt word is also that most overused one: beautiful (It’s too heavy to be “pleasurable,” too airy to be “profound”). It’s a beautiful series of reflections which are the product of a patient but swift intelligence, sharp eye, and palpably human heart. I have bolded my personal favorites.

__________

1900

You think about death as long as you hope to escape from it.

The task of the writer is to learn how to write.

My imagination is my memory.

The bird feels nothing when you clip its wings, but it can no longer fly.

At the Exposition from Great Britain, Guitry shows me paintings by, I think, Reynolds. No need to explain myself: the beauty of these works reach to the bottom of the heart. It is painting for lovers. Images of children, little girls, women, leave us with the sadness of not being loved by them.

The best in us is incommunicable.

Time passed through the needle’s eye of the hours.

A dream is only life madly dilated.

To be content with little money is also a talent.

1901

There are places and moments in which one is so completely alone that one sees the world entire.

The poems of our dreams, upon which reason acts, on waking, as the sun acts upon the dew.

Love kills intelligence. The brain and the heart act upon each other in the manner of an hour-glass. One fills itself only to empty the other.

A great shiver of wind passes over the countryside.

It is hailing over the hills. A disaster! But, once the hail has melted, the peasant does not spend time being sorry for himself: he goes back to work.

God, so much mystery – it is cruel, it is unworthy of you.
Taciturn God, speak to us!

A walk through the fields. Each one of my steps raises a friendly ghost, who comes with me. The memory of my father, his smock blown by the wind.
Marinette appears, and the earth is gentler to the feet.

The wind that knows how to turn the pages, but does not know how to read.

At work, the difficult thing is to light the little lamp of the brain. After that, it burns by itself.

Keep going! Talent is like the soil. The life you observe will never cease producing. Plough your field each year; it will bear fruit each year.

I ought to have a tiny portable table, so that I could go out and work, like a painter, under the open sky.

1902

The theatre is the place where I am the most bored, and where I most enjoy being bored.

So long as thinkers cannot tell me what life and death are, I shall not give a good goddamn for their thoughts.

I have lived on all the planets: life is a joke on none.

Those unexplored expanses, always fallow, in even the best friendships.

Weep! But not one of your tears must reach the tip of your pen and mix itself with your ink.

Sarah’s attitudes: she can look intelligent when she is listening to things she does not understand.

I shall end by not being able to do without city life in Paris. I shall acquire an anxiety in solitude. After a day, not of work, but of study, a walk on the boulevards in the evening – those lights, those women, those people – takes the shape of a reward.

When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.

It’s many days since I’ve felt ashamed of my vanity, or even tried to correct it. Of all my faults, it is the one that amuses me most.

Reverie is nothing but thought thinking of nothing.

Not the smallest charm of truth is that it scandalizes.

A cloud, for Philippe, is a threat of rain. He does not know that certain clouds have no function but to be beautiful.

Philippe does not like to dream: it tires him as much as to do the harvest.

Suddenly I stop in the middle of a field, and this question alights on me like a great black bird: ‘By whom were we created and why?’

Words must be nothing but the clothing, carefully made to measure, of thought.

1903

In my church, there is no vaulting between me and the sky.

When you rejoice over being young, and notice how well you feel, that is age.

Irony is an element of happiness.

A sentence must be so clear that it pleases at once, and that it is reread for the pleasure it gives.

Nature is never ugly.

Philippe. Fresh air and garlic will make him live a hundred years.

He who has not seen God has not seen anything.

If rest is not to some extent work, it quickly becomes boredom.

A butterfly got on the train at Clamecy and traveled with me.

There is nothing as meanly practical as religion.

The falling leaves tumble away on the ground what life is left to them. One of them has the honor of being pursued by my kitten.

One can quickly discover if a poet has talent. In the case of prose writers, it takes a little longer.

1904 

The beggars know me. They lift their hats to me and inquire about my family.

As mayor, I am supposed to look after the maintenance of the rural roads; as a poet, I like them better neglected.

I no longer dare to say: “Tomorrow I shall work.”

The window pane has faults that double the stars.

Ah, yes!, the dream: To be a socialist and make a lot of money.

1905

The simple life. We need a servant to close the shutters, light a lamp, as though a decent man shouldn’t find pleasure in these little household chores.

I have an anti-clerical mind and the heart of a monk.

The cat asleep, well buttoned into its fur.

I am no longer capable of dying young.

In the taste of life, there is something of a fine liqueur.

Little Joseph, Philippe’s young son, died last night.

The sparrows say of us: “They build houses so that we can build our nests in their walls.”

I am very fond of looking at the faces of young women. It amuses me to try to guess what they will be like when they are older.

On Sunday evenings Philippe is bored. He replaces the strap on a wooden shoe and goes to plant potatoes. He walks the dog and weeps for little Joseph.

God is no solution. It doesn’t arrange anything. It makes nothing right.

To what good are mementoes, even photographs? It is comforting that things die, as well as men.

Without its bitterness, life would not be bearable.

If you desire popularity, do not try to be right.

The working man goes to political meetings, the bourgeois to lectures.

The joy of a finished work spoils the work you are about to begin: you now believe it is easy.

The peasant is perhaps the only man who does not like the country and never looks at it.

Old age does not exist. At least, we do not suffer from continuous old age at the end of our lives; like trees, we have, every year, our attack of age. We lose our leaves, our temper, our taste for life; then they come back.

It is enough to have a sumptuous taste of success: no need to stuff yourself with it.

Life is badly arranged. The poor and uneducated should be rich, and the intelligent man, poor.

1906

The clock marching, with its heavy, rhythmic tread – One, two! One, two! – while standing still.

Yes, God exists, but He knows no more about it than we do.

I do not know whether God exists, but it would be better, for His own credit, that He did not.

I have come to the age where I can understand how deeply I must have annoyed my teachers when I went to see them and never talked to them about themselves.

A cat, who sleeps twenty hours out of twenty-four, is perhaps God’s most successful creation.

Today, at last, I look at Paris.
Twenty years ago I did not see it. I had only my ambition. I only read books.
Now I stop in front of the Louvre, in front of a church, at a street corner, and I say: “What wonders!”

Perhaps genius is to talent what instinct is to reason.

An honorable man of talent is as rare as a man of genius.

The page you write on autumn must give as much pleasure as a walk through fallen leaves. 

Imagine life without death. Every day, you would try to kill yourself out of despair.

Laziness: the habit of resting before fatigue sets in.

I may be my age and a mayor: when I see a policeman I am uneasy.

“New poets.” Remember that term, for you will not hear from them again.

Walk in the little wood. Sniff the scent of mowed hay. On the road, a blackbird hops along in front of me as though inviting me to follow it.

God, in His modesty, does not dare brag of having created the world.

The profession of writing is, after all, the only one in which one can make no money without being thought ridiculous.

The sun rises before I do, but I go to bed after it does: we are even.

The beauty of new things, after all, is that they are clean.

What happens to all the tears we do not shed?

The friends one is very fond of and never thinks about.

In the evening, when Marinette, after a good day filled with work, listens to her children or other youth, looks at one, then at the other, never missing a thing, she is beautiful, she has something holy about her.
With a single glance, she takes in their entire life, of which she remembers every detail.

1907

As I age, I understand life less and less — and value it more and more.

To the young. I shall tell you a truth that you may not like, because you look forward to novelty. This truth is that one does not grow old. Where the heart is concerned, the fact is accepted, at least in matters of love. Well, it is the same with the mind. It always remains young. You do not understand life any more at forty than you did at twenty, but you are aware of this fact, and you admit it. To admit it is to remain young. 

A young man without talent is an old man.

We are in the world to laugh. In purgatory we shall no longer be able to do so. And in heaven it would not be proper.

It is more difficult to be an honorable man for eight days than a hero for fifteen minutes.

The fields of wheat in which partridges have their little streets.

Immense morning sky. Clouds will never be able to fill it.

One must write as one speaks, if one speaks well. 

I want to do things right, and have someone, anyone, take note of it.

I stopped in the middle of a field, like a man suddenly hearing beautiful, solemn music.

Walks. The body advances in a straight line, while the mind flutters around it like a bird.

1908

A window on the street is as good as a stage.

If my books bore painters as much as their paintings bore me, I forgive them.

A cloud sails along as though it knew where it was going.

My life gives the impression of being in harmony with itself, and yet I have done almost nothing of what I wanted to do.

Collectivism — ridiculous! Talent can be nothing but individual.

My ignorance and my admission of ignorance – these constitute the best part of my originality.

Silence. I hear my ear.

When the defects of others are perceived with so much clarity, it is because one possesses them oneself.

What most surprises me is this heart which keeps on beating.

You sit down to work. For a long time, nothing. You don’t even try. All at once, a sort of breath passes, and the fire catches.

1909

One shouldn’t run down friends: they are still the best thing we have.

Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.

There is false modesty, but there is no false pride.

The Luxembourg gardens are nothing but a dome of leaves under which people dream.

Life is neither long nor short: it merely has drawn-out moments.

__________

Jules Renard suddenly succumbed to arteriosclerosis in April of the following year. You can read the highlights from the first half of the journal here, or buy your own copy of the real thing.

Jules Renard