Thursday, February 22, 2024

'I Have Less Energy to Do Wrong'

On his thirtieth birthday – February 22, 1894 – Jules Renard writes in his journal: “Thirty years old! Now I’m convinced I shall not escape death.” 

At thirty I was still immortal, blundering through life, plan-less but confident I could transcend mere death. I don’t remember my thirtieth birthday being traumatic, despite my benighted generation pretending not to trust anyone over that age. Talk about stupid advice. In his journal on his fortieth birthday Renard writes: “Forty years old! For the sage, death is perhaps merely the passage from one day to the next. He dies, as others turn forty.”


It’s typical of Renard that he contemplates death on his birthdays. This is not morbidity but a constitutional inability to take himself too seriously, a sort of punitive humility. Renard is one of literature’s perennial “isolatoes” (Melville’s coinage), a genuine human novelty. He survived a difficult childhood and as a result has a way of reducing life to essentials and making it sound amusing if not terribly exciting. On February 22, 1906, Renard writes:


“Forty-two years old. What have I done? Next to nothing, and now I do nothing at all.


“I have less talent, money, health, fewer readers, fewer friends, but more resignation.”


And this: “Am I a better person? Not much. I have less energy to do wrong.”


That’s quintessential Renard, ever the comical realist. He never exempts himself from his sense of humor. In his birthday journal entry for 1908 he writes:


“Forty-four is when you begin to give up hope of doubling before quitting.


“I feel old, but would not wish to be younger by as much as five minutes.”


I was a fool when young. I don’t want to revert to that state. Renard was forty-six when he died in 1910 of arteriosclerosis.


[All quoted passages are from Renard’s Journal 1887-1910 (trans. Theo Cuffe, selected and introduced by Julian Barnes, riverrun, 2020).]

1 comment:

Faze said...

Treating Renard's cardiovascular disease would be a routine matter at any modern hospital. He could enjoy many additional years of health and writing, no empathy required. (Referring here to yesterday's post about doctors.)