French writer, politician, diplomat, and historian François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand was born on September 4, 1768. He was the son of an aristocratic but dysfunctional family from Saint-Malo. His father was a morose slave trader and his only close friend was his own sister. He became a Naval officer at the age of 17 and was promoted to captain just two years later. Curiously enough, he spent quite a lot of time in inland Paris where he became friends with the influential writers of the day.
He was in the capital when the French Revolution broke out. Although he initially supported the Revolutionaries, when the guillotine started working overtime, he left France for the New World. This gave him the material to write three novels, Atala, René, and Les Natchez that became the first works of what was later known as the Romantic movement.
He went back to France where he joined an army of Royalist émigrés who sought to restore Louis XVI to the throne. He was terribly wounded and ended up exiled in England. His time in England was marked by poverty, but gave him the opportunity to discover English literature, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Chateaubriand translated into French. He was able to return to France in 1800 when there was an amnesty for the émigrés.
He became a celebrity when he published Génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity), a defense of the Catholic faith. His timing was excellent, as Napoleon was seeking the favor of the church, and the writer was appointed to a legation in the Vatican. It was during this time that Napoleon’s chef created a special dish for the envoy, a particularly flavorful steak, known simply as Chateaubriand.
Chateaubriand and Napoleon soon parted ways, and he was dependent upon his writing to make a living. Fortuitously, the Russian Tsarina gave him quite a lot of money due to his defense of Christianity. He set off on a first-class tour of Spain, Greece, and the Middle East, which gave him the material for another series of books, Les Martyrs, Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, and Les aventures du dernier Abencérage.
When he returned to France, he published a much riskier work; he ripped into Napoleon. The Emperor was not amused and threatened to have him run through with a saber on the steps of the palace but contented himself with exiling Chateaubriand from Paris. He was elected to the Académie Française but had to delay his acceptance until the restoration of the monarchy under Louis XVIII, since his speech was an attack on the Revolution.
When Louis XVIII fell, Chateaubriand followed him into exile. He switched sides to the ultra-royalists, however, and supported the future Charles X. When Charles X was replaced by King Louis-Philippe, Chateaubriand refused to take the oath of loyalty, which killed him politically. He left public life and wrote what is considered to be his greatest book, Mémoires d’outre-tombe (memwar dootruh tom), Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, which he arranged to be published posthumously, as well as four volumes of the history of France.
He lived a hermit-like existence in his apartment on the rue du Bac, working on his final book, Vie de Rancé, the autobiography of an aristocrat who formed the Trappist order of monks, rather the way Chateaubriand himself withdrew from society. He died on July 4, 1848 and is buried on Grand Bé, an island off the coast of Saint-Malo accessible only at low tide. What a place! I scrambled over there one beautiful day in August. It’s a sufficiently dramatic resting place for one of France’s greatest men of letters.