Steve Wasserman, Chateaubriand on the smell of home


It is a pleasure to have Steve Wasserman back on the West Coast as publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books, after years as editor-at-large at Yale University Press and, prior to that, his nine-year stint as the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, when it was the best in the nation. (We’ve written about him here and here and here.)

But the mini-reviews he occasionally offers on Facebook are equally available to all coasts, whether here or Kamchatka or North Africa. Here’s one yesterday, on one of his favorite writers, Chateaubriand.

Heading into the homestretch of my re-reading of Proust‘s last volume, “Time Regained,” and have come upon the passage I well remember–where Proust gives explicit acknowledgment to one of his most admired inspirations: the remarkable memoirs of Chateaubriand, recalling the vanished world that preceded Proust’s by a century and more.

Proust finds in Chateaubriand a kindred spirit, quoting the following sentence as having given him the same “sensation of the same species as that of the madeleine”: “Yesterday evening I was walking alone. . .I was roused from my reflections by the warbling of a thrush perched upon the highest branch of a birch tree. Instantaneously the magic sound caused my father’s estate to reappear before my eyes; I forgot the catastrophes of which I had recently been the witness [he refers here to the terrors of the French Revolution] and, transported suddenly into the past, I saw again those country scenes in which I had so often heard the fluting notes of the thrush.”

Proust then goes on to cite the following sentences as perhaps among the loveliest in Chateaubriand’s lengthy recollections: “A sweet and subtle scent of heliotrope was exhaled by a little patch of beans that were in flower; it was brought to us not by a breeze from our own country but by a wild Newfoundland wind, unrelated to the exiled plant, without sympathy of shared memory or pleasure. In this perfume, not breathed by beauty, not cleansed in her bosom, not scattered where she had walked, in this perfume of a changed sky and tillage and world there was all the diverse melancholy of regret and absence and youth.” (I too had similarly been prey to such emotions, as indeed my return to California eighteen months ago was in no small measure prompted by my inability to rid myself down the decades of the scent of night jasmine, eucalyptus, and a wee bit of the Berkeley tear gas, which had clung so insistently to my nostrils, inflaming my imagination and beckoning me to return to what even after forty years away I still considered home.)

It is to be regretted that, in 2018, nearly a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, we still have no felicitous English translation of the complete unexpurgated Chateaubriand (other than A.C. Kline’s workmanlike effort available only in an online iteration) but must instead make do with abridgments or in the case of the latest New York Review Books publication the first twelve volumes of the forty-two that exist in French. Well, it’s a start. Highly recommended.

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2 Responses to “Steve Wasserman, Chateaubriand on the smell of home”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    Yes, for me it’s the mix scent of eucalyptus and tear gas from my beloved Berkeley….

  2. George Says:

    There is a biography of Chateaubriand, The Longed-for Tempests covering roughly the period of this volume, which seems mostly to paraphrase the memoirs. As I recall, it does so uncritically, failing for example to raise questions about whether Chateaubriand actually went where he said he did in America.

    For those who can manage the French, the four volumes of Livre de Poche edition are not that hard to come by.