THIS excellent biography of a very important Frenchman bears the subtitle of ‘Poet, Statesman, Lover,’which would indicate that M. Maurois, in writing it, has had his work cut out for him. Born the same year as Napoleon, in an age which knew no peace, Chateaubriand was a turbulent, tempestuous character, a stormy petrel; and as he lived to be eighty, and scarcely ever let up in any of his three activities, too often indeed engaging in all of them simultaneously, his life provides enough excitement to keep a biographer busy. In many respects he out-Byroned Byron, who owed a debt to him he never acknowledged. Both his physical courage and his moral courage were considerable, and when it fell to his lot to measure strength with Napoleon he by no means came off the worst.
He was forced into an early marriage to a woman whom he did not love, who was fully determined to live as long as he; if she proved a continuous plague to him, he found compensation in a host of women, some of them the choicest of France, whose number is not to he counted on the fingers of one’s hands. It was not wholly his fault. Like most Don Juans of his imaginative and intellectual type, he was rather shy; according to M. Maurois, he might have said with younger disciple Byron: ’No one since the War of Troy has been so much abducted as I.’ Even the ‘virginal’ Récamier fell victim to his enchantments, and this affair, in spite of waywardnesses inevitable in so virile and susceptible a lover as Chateaubriand, seems to have endured longer and on a firmer foundation than any other. All in all, he had just the sort of love life to be expected of a man who ushered in the Romantic movement.
It was Atala, a highly colored tale which was the result of his adventurous journey to America, that gave the first impetus to a new literature; but it was the publication of Le Génic du Christianisme, falling in, as it did, with the schemes of Napoleon, that launched him on a career as the most significant spokesman of his time. A royalist, he could not wholly escape the liberal tendencies of his age, and this brought him into difficulties with both sides. And as he had a rather exalted opinion of himself, an opinion indeed too often deserved, bitterness was repeatedly his reward.
Since others would not do it for him. he was driven to blow his own horn, and occasionally was rewarded. His trouble was that he was not content to be merely an author; he gave some of the most valuable ideas to the age. and he thought it was his due to have an opportunity to put them in force. He felt himself to be a statesman as well as a poet, and he saw mediocrities steal his political ideas and make use of them. The fact is, as M. Maurois clearly shows, he was a statesman, and a great one. But because he was also a poet, and a great one, he was prevented from becoming the successful statesman he might have been. He was impetuous and domineering, he lacked tact, and lesser but more practical men could not forgive him his obvious superiority, his poetry, his genius, his excessive luck with women. He fell as often as he rose, and his biographer makes the most of a life as stormy as any we have read in many a moon.