Tuesday, January 26, 2016

`An Absence of Vanity, Rare in a Writer'

“Misanthropes are, generally speaking, delightful people. At least I’ve never met one I didn’t like.”

With a small qualification, I would endorse this observation in an email from the poet Marius Kociejowski. We must distinguish genuine misanthropes from poseurs, either cranks disappointed by life or environmentalists who blame the species for everything they don’t like, including the heat death of the universe. One’s bitter personal history and ideology have nothing to do with the more entertaining forms of misanthropy. Think of Juvenal, Swift, Waugh, Bierce, Mencken and Cioran. If they had merely ranted, they would probably have a radio talk show, and we wouldn’t bother with them, but each is a powerful writer who amuses his readers while fulminating. Unaccompanied by wit, misanthropy is tiresome and often a symptom of mental illness. A minor member of this tribe is Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), a French theater critic and diarist who is little known in English. I decided to investigate him after reading a poem in which Robert Melançon placed him in the company of Montaigne, Leopardi, Montale and Borges.

 I found two books in English: Léautaud’s Journal of a Man of Letters 1898-1906 (trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury, Chatto & Windus, 1960) and Lost Illusions: Paul Léautaud and His World (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975) by James Harding. I’m in the middle of both. In his preface to the Journal, Alan Pryce-Jones opens with a promising sketch:

“There are few odder figures in literature than Paul Léautaud. He could have existed nowhere but in Paris, unless possibly in the London of Richard Savage. He wrote very little beyond literary journalism and the diary which comprises this book. He was not particularly easy or agreeable.”

As to Léautaud’s writing, Pryce-Jones says: “He is evidently utterly unsentimental. He makes a parade of cynicism; he hates cant in any form. He has no time for love—although there is, on the evidence of his own writings, a hidden store of tenderness thrust under a brusque exterior. He is clearly capable of a verbal thrust which can cut to the quick.” Much of his journal amounts to Parisian literary gossip, something like the journal of the Goncourt Brothers, but more unforgiving and less discrete. The first entry reports the death of Mallarmé in 1898. It was through his admiration for Mallarmé that he came to befriend Valéry. Here is Léautaud in his role as theater critic: “Malice is certainly not devoid of pleasure. Despite my tendency to be displeased with what I write, it is all the same amusing to run down those actors whom I’ve taken a delight to on sight.” About Oscar Wilde’s death he writes: “The world is full of flatness and mediocrity, both of life and mentality. Such people remind us of the fact and shake us a little bit out of the rut.” His portrait of the inbred literary world remains apt:

“Went to the Mercure. Talked to Jen de Gourmont about his literary column in which he hands out bouquets so freely. It’s hopeless. On all sides indifference and laziness. It’s astonishing the fear people have nowadays of speaking their minds. Newspapers and reviews, even the most daring, are as mild as the academicians. Some are prompted by self-interest, some by fear, some by friendship. Everyone is drenched in mutual eulogies, and the lowest of the low are hailed as geniuses. Great mediocrity, great poverty of spirit, great stupidity at the bottom of it all.”

In his introduction to Lost Illusions, Harding writes: “An English equivalent to him would be that crabbed and testy gossip Anthony à Wood. Add a dash of John Aubrey’s quiddity and Boswell’s interest in human nature, and you have a rough idea of his personality.” Mavis Gallant includes the essay “Paul Léautaud (1872-1956)” in her Paris Notebooks (Random House, 1988). Her fondness for the ever-difficult Léautaud suggests the generosity of a good fiction writer at home projecting herself into others:

“He was mean, slanderous, and cruel; he could also display generosity and great delicacy in his judgments. Even at his most caustic there was a simplicity, an absence of vanity, rare in a writer. He talked about death and love, authors and actors, Paris and poetry, without rambling, without moralizing, without a trace of bitterness for having fallen on hard times. He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist. Léautaud, at rock bottom, still had his credentials."

Gallant adds: “He wanted to say before he died, `I regret everything,’ words, he said, `that will sum up my life.’ The last thing he did say before dying in his sleep was, `Foutez-moi la paix,’ [`Give me a break’ or `Leave me alone’] which was more typical.”

1 comment:

Andrew Rickard said...

A few notes that may be of interest:

If I remember correctly Mavis Gallant first discovered Léautaud on the radio, in an interview with Robert Mallet. Some of these amusing conversations can be found on Youtube. This is one of my favourites.

Humphrey Hare translated three of Léautaud's books in the late 1950s (Le Petit ami, In memoriam , Amours), and they were published in a single volume as A Child of Montmartre.

Those who wish to peer into Léautaud's reconstructed bedroom can do so at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris; it is located just across from Proust's cork-lined chamber.