“I was brought up by a library.”

— Jules Renard.

“The entire countryside trembles with cold.”

— Jules Renard, Journal, January 1905

“I am often dissatisfied with what I have written. I am never dissatisfied with what I am writing, because if I were, I would not be writing it.”

— Jules Renard, Journal, August 1895.

The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).
The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).

When in doubt, pick up Jules Renard. His journal is unrivalled. A few choice picks from today’s reading (translated from the French by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget):

  • On the ridiculous: ‘Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it’ (February 1890).
  • On André Gide: ‘He is clean-shaven, has a cold in the nose and throat, an exaggerated jaw, eyes between two welts. He is in love with Oscar Wilde, whose photograph I perceive on the mantel: a fleshy gentleman, very refined, also clean-shaven, who has recently been discovered’ (December 1891).
  • On Oscar Wilde: ‘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’ (April 1892).
  • On criticising others: ‘All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities that we believe ourselves to have’ (July 1895).
  • On observing nature: ‘I want my ear to be a shell that keeps in itself all the sounds of nature’ (September 1895).
  • On modesty: ‘Be modest! It is the kind of pride least likely to offend’ (September 1895).

Rain, wind, moments of bright sunshine. Continuing to enjoy Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain: having completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia, he is now studying William Blake‘s poetry at postgraduate level.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.

I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St AugustineHenri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.

In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.

It is a fascinating task to disentangle, in a young writer, the influences of the established ones. How hard we work before we help ourselves, quite simply, to our own originality.

— Jules Renard, Journal (October 1887)