The Journal of Jules Renard - Jules Renard It’s not Jules Renard that I’m giving two stars to in this review but to the editors/translators who put this compilation from his Journal together. The biggest complaint I have is the book’s lack of context. There’s only the sketchiest of biographies in the introduction. From this book you would have only the merest hints about Renard’s decidedly dysfunctional family, or the circle he ran with in Paris, or his career as a politician in Chitry (a rural French village). The nuggets you can extrapolate are frustratingly incomplete. And the stage-setting paragraphs at the beginning of each year are laughable . Examples: “1897 – Jules Renard began his Journal this year, at the age of twenty-three,” or “1910 – By the end of February, severe worsening of JR’s condition. May 22: death of JR in Paris of arteriosclerosis. Burial in Chitry.”

Bogan writes in the Preface, “Renard’s Journal, from its beginning, shows a young writer who is consciously moving away from early mistakes, whose goal is cleanness of style and precision of language” (p. 10). This may be true but one wouldn’t get that impression from the fragments reproduced here. She also writes, “Renard’s passion for factual truth and stylistic exactitude…remained central to his work throughout his career” and “(t)ruth about life…had been distorted by literature. He applied himself to correct that distortion…by an analysis based on sympathy, warmth, and tenderness” (p. 11). Again, the editors may be correct but the always-too-short selections translated here give only the faintest glimmer of that sensibility. In fact, from the extracts concerning the deaths of his father, brother and mother, one could develop exactly the opposite opinion.

And then there’s the problem that a reader in 2009 (especially an English-language one), unless they’re very exceptional, has little familiarity with the late-19th century French artistic scene, and the editors give us no help in this matter. Thus, names appear out of nowhere – some familiar enough (Rostand, Sarah Bernhardt), others less so (Goncourt, Guitry, Antoine). What’s worse, the “unknowns” of Renard’s life (his servants, family and friends) make cameos, disappear for long stretches and then pop back up in the author’s life. For example, it takes several entries to realize that “Philippe” and “Ragotte” are the couple who maintains Renard’s country estate, La Gloriette.

That said, the glimpses we do get of Renard as a writer, humanist and observer are interesting enough that I want to find a more complete translation of the Journal and perhaps read other examples of his writing.

There are pithy, little observations that become fewer and fewer as they years go by – “At twenty, one thinks profoundly and badly”; “He is deaf in the left ear; he does not hear on the side of the heart”; or “The fear of boredom is the only excuse for working” (pp. 54-5). As I’ve been emphasizing, it’s a bit hard to follow the evolution but Renard’s insights become deeper and more nuanced, and he begins to articulate his feelings without relying on the words of others. By the 1900s, Renard is confident enough to put his thoughts into his own words.

In 1906, at the age of 42, Renard produced an entry that reflected on what he had accomplished in his life. A subject of particular pertinence as I approach that benchmark this year (2009). Some of the more interesting (or depressing) observations:

“Forty-two years old. What have I achieved? Almost nothing, and already I am no longer achieving anything at all….
“Am I a better man? Not much. I have not the energy to do wrong….
“Out of forty-two years, I have spent eighteen with Marinette (his wife). I have become incapable of hurting her, but am I capable of any effort to do her good?....
“I still do certain good things pretty well: sleeping, eating, daydreaming….
“On the whole, I don’t care about women. Now and then, a romantic dream or so….
“There is nothing I desire ardently: I’d have to struggle too hard to get it….
“Nowadays, I am afraid of action itself, or, rather, I have acquired a taste for inaction….”

Observations on hunting:

“It is dangerous to carry a gun. You think it doesn’t kill. I shoot, not in order to kill the lark, but to see what will happen. I come near. It is lying on its belly; its claws flutter, its beak opens and closes, yawns open: the tiny scissors are cutting blood.
“Lark, may you become the subtlest of my thoughts and the dearest of my regrets!
“It died for the others.
“I have torn up my permit and hung my rifle on a nail”


“Advice to hunters: to go out some time without their gun and walk through the fields where they have killed. The magpie becomes familiar. The partridges sit still until one comes quite near. The prunelles wait to be picked, and the juicy little wild pear.
“The ox stops and looks around, and the ox that follows him licks his hindquarters with a lazy tongue.
“The meadow draws to itself the entire green blanket.
“And one has not murdered: that at least is something.”

A few random thoughts:

“I am in no great hurry to see the society of the future: ours is helpful to writers. By its absurdities, its injustices, its vices, its stupidities, it feeds a writer’s observation. The better men will become, the more colorless man will be”
(p. 249);

“Imagine life without death. Every day, you would try to kill yourself out of despair”
(p. 234);

and (one of my favorites)

“`I have no religion,’ says Borneau, ‘but I respect the religion of others. Religion is sacred.’ Why this privilege, this immunity?... A believer creates God in his own image; if he is ugly, his God will be morally ugly. Why should moral ugliness be respectable?”
(Apropos of this sentiment, I would recommend Tanith Lee’s “Paid Piper,” which traces a god’s descent into such a condition.)

And, finally, returning to my theme of incompleteness, there’s the frustrating instance of the lack of context about Renard’s marriage. Apparently, he was blessed with a truly happy marriage, the clearest indication being the following passage: “When I was ten years old I didn’t dream. Or, rather, I wanted to be happy day by day, no matter how. It is no secret that, for twenty years I have had the best of wives. My other dreams have never come true. No doubt it would be better not to say it, but it is thanks to her that, now and then, it has seemed to me that my other dreams might also be coming true” (p. 294).

On the whole, the reader would have been better served with a more complete and more fully annotated translation. As it stands, a better title for this book would be “The Witty Observations of Jules Renard, Without Context or Deeper Meaning.”