Mirbeau is best known for writing intensely polemical and satirical works in which he attacked many of the institutions and individuals representing the established social and political order of his time. The targets of Mirbeau's wrath included the Catholic Church, the bourgeoisie, the government of the French Third Republic, politicians, foreigners, and his numerous personal enemies. Critics have noted that although his political views changed during the course of his life from monarchist to Bonapartist to republican, and finally to anarchist, throughout his career Mirbeau consistently championed the causes of individual liberty and intellectual honesty.
The son of a physician, Mirbeau was born and raised in Normandy. In 1859 he began attending a Jesuit school in Vannes, Brittany, but was dismissed four years later for unknown reasons. Mirbeau continued his studies at various boarding schools, earned a baccalaureate diploma in 1866, and spent the next three years studying law. When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Mirbeau joined the military and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant before being wounded in December of that year. He was granted a leave to seek medical attention, but when he returned he found that he had been falsely accused of desertion. Although Mirbeau was cleared of all charges after an eight-month-long investigation, the incident left him with a profound mistrust of authority. In 1872 he went to Paris and began a career as a journalist and editor, focusing primarily on art, theater, and politics for Bonapartist and monarchist papers. His opinions were often controversial: he was dismissed from the staff of several journals and at least four of the twelve duels Mirbeau is known to have fought during his life were provoked by his articles. He began publishing short stories and novels during the late 1880s, achieving his first notable literary success with the novel Le Calvaire (1887; Calvary). During the 1890s Mirbeau began to sympathize with anarchist causes, and although many of his early articles had been...
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Maitres modernes. Le Salon de 1885 (criticism) 1885
Lettres de ma chaumiere (short stories) 1885; also published as Contes de la chaumi&e [revised edition], 1894
Le Calvaire [Calvary] (novel) 1887
UAbbe Jules (novel) 1888
Sébastien Roch (novel) 1890
Les mauvais bergers (drama) 1897
L'epidemie (drama) 1898
Lejardin dès supplices [Torture Garden] (novel) 1899
Le journal d'unefemme de chambre [Celestine: Being the Diary of a Chambermaid] (novel) 1900
Les amants (drama) 1901
Vieux menages (drama) 1901
Interview (drama) 1902
Le portefeuille (drama) 1902
Scrupules (drama) 1902
Les vingt etun jours d'un neurasthénique (novel) 1902
Les affaires sont les affaires (drama) 1903
La 628-E-8 (novel) 1907
Le foyer [with Thadée Natanson] (drama) 1908
Dingo (novel) 1913
Un gentilhomme (novel) 1920
Théâtre I (dramas) 1921
Théâtre II (dramas) 1922
Théâtre III (dramas) 1922
Œuvres illustrées. 10 vols. (novels, short stories, dramas, criticism, and essays) 1934-36
[Huneker was a prominent American literary critic. In the following essay, he discusses Mirbeau's writings on literature, art, theater, and politics, as well as his fiction.]
Octave Mirbeau was a prodigious penman. When Remy de Gourmont called Paul Adam "a magnificent spectacle" he might have said with equal propriety the same of Mirbeau. A spectacle and a stirring one it is to watch the workings of a powerful, tumultuous brain such as Mirbeau's. He was a tempestuous force. His energy electric. He could have repeated the exclamation of Anacharsis Clootz: "I belong to the party of indignation!" His whole life Mirbeau was in a ferment of indignation over the injustice of life, of literature, of art. His friends say that he was not a revolutionist born; nevertheless, he ever seemed in a pugnacious mood, whether attacking society, the Government, the Institutes, the theatre, the army or religion. There is no doubt that certain temperaments are uneasy if not in opposition to existing institutions, and while his sincerity was indisputable—an imperious sincerity, a sincerity that was perilously nigh an obsession—Mirbeau seemed possessed by the mania of contradiction. After his affiliations with Jules Valles and the anarchistic group he was nicknamed "Mirabeau," and, indeed, there was in him much of the fiery and disputatious, though he never in oratory recalled the mighty revolutionist. Nevertheless, he was a prodigious penman.
He was born in Normandy, 1850 (Ernest Gaubert says 1848), the country of those two giants, Gustave Flaubert and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He died early in 1917. His Odyssey, apart from his writings, was not an exciting one. Well born and well educated, he took a violent dislike to his clerical instructors, and as may be noted in Sebastien Roch (1890), he suffered from the result of a shock to his sensibilities because of an outrageous occurrence in the course of his school years. He early went to Paris, like many another ambitious young man, and began as an artcritic, but his first article on Monet, Manet, and Cezanne was also his last in the journal l'Ordre; it created so much scandal by its attack on those mud-gods of art, Meissonier, Cabanel, Lefebvre and Bouguereau, that he was drafted into the dramatic department. There he did not last long. After a violent diatribe against the House of Moliere he found himself with several duels on his hands and enjoyed the distinction of a personal reply from Coquelin. He wrote for a little review Les Grimaces, and in 1891 defended Jean Grave's La Societe Mourante and composed a preface for that literary firebrand. He had dipped into the equivocal swamp of politics and had been a sous-prefet (at St. Girons, 1877), but the experience did not lend enchantment to his patriotism. He saw the inner machinery of a democracy greasy with corruption and it served him as material for his political polemics.
His first decade in Paris he wrote for such publications as Chroniques Parisiennes, La France, Gaulois, and Figaro. The entire gamut of criticism was achieved by him. He was fearless. His pen was vitriolic and also a sledgehammer. Like old Dr. Johnson, if his weapon missed fire he brained his adversary with its butt-end. A formidable antagonist, yet the obverse of his medal shows us a poet of abnormal sensibilities, a loather of all injustice, a Quixote tilting at genuine giants, not missing windmills; also a man of great literary endowment and achievement. His critics speak of a period of discouragement during which he smoked opium, though without ill consequences. His was not a passive temperament to endure inaction. Like others, he had perversely imitated Baudelaire and De Quincey, but soon gave up the attempt. A nature trembling on the verge of lytic pantheism and truculent satire, Mirbeau had a hard row to hoe, and it is gratifying to learn that as he conquered in his art so he conquered himself. He waged war against Octave Mirbeau to the last. And no wonder. He has written stories that would bring a crimson blush to the brow of Satan.
Turning the pages of the principal Paris reviews to which he copiously contributed we find him calling the financial press blackmailers; the law reporters "vermine judiciaire"; French journalism decidedly decadent: "The press kills literature, art, patriotism; it aggrandizes the shop and develops the shopkeeping spirit. It exalts the mediocre painters, sculptors, writers. Its criticism is venal." As for the theatre—from the frying-pan into the fire! The theatre is the prey of mediocrity, wherein Le Maitre de Forges is pronounced a masterpiece!
The comedians ("les tripots revenus; cabotinisme") of La Comedie Francaise come in for their share. Emile Zola, naturally enough, has his allegiance, but he dealt hard raps on the skulls of his followers, the Zolaettes, who hung on the fringe of the novelist's dressing-gown. He admired Barbey d'Aurevilly and Elemir Bourges, as well he might; he attacked Daudet, Paul Bourget, Ohnet, Legouve, Feuillet, Sarcey—dear old Uncle...
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[Lalou was a prominent French essayist and critic and the author of a comprehensive history of modern French literature entitled La litterature francaise contemporaine (Contemporary French Literature, 1922; revised editions 1924, 1941). In the following excerpt from that work, he provides a brief assessment of Mirbeau's major fiction and dramas.]
There are few writers as tiresome and as diverting as Octave Mirbeau—tiresome to read, but so diverting on reflection! Mirbeau's work accomplishes as a matter of fact, the miracle of clothing with the most outworn Romantic ornaments a naturalistic philosophy the meditations of which invariably end in platitude. Beginning with Sfbasden...
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[Wilson is generally considered twentieth-century America's foremost man of letters. A prolific reviewer, creative writer, and social and literary critic endowed with formidable intellectual powers, he exercised his greatest literary influence as the author of Axel's Castle (1931), a seminal study of literary symbolism, and as the author of widely read reviews and essays in which he introduced the best works of modern literature to the reading public. In the following essay, which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1949, he reflects on Mirbeau's career and literary reputation.]
Dear me, how far from infinite the world is! Talking to my cousin today, I...
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[In the following excerpt Carr discusses the anarchist themes of Mirbeau's three novels of revenge—Le Calvaire, L'Abbé Jules, and Sebastien Roch.]
Political campaigner, administrator, financial speculator, journalist, editor, critic and short-story writer—Mirbeau had tried his hand at all of these, and still he had not found his niche; no area of activity had satisfied him for long, and nothing that he had so far written was of any lasting literary worth. His old friend Maupassant had often expressed his regret, as he did in a letter written early in 1886, that Mirbeau had not yet put his 'talent tres ardent et tres reel' to more worthwhile use. Mirbeau's mistress, whom he was soon...
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[In the following essay, Halpern discusses the themes of desire and the masking of reality in Le journal d'une femme de chambre.]
Two liminal texts place Octave Mirbeau's Journal d'une femme de chambre under the sign of a particular kind of realism. One is a traditional "editor's" notice claiming authority for the book: "Ce livre a et veritablement ecrit par Mlle Celestine R … femme de chambre. Une premiere fois, je fus prie de revoir le manuscrit, de le corriger, d'en recrire quelques parties. Je refusai d'abord.… Mais Mlle Celestine R… etaitfortjolie… Elle insista. Je finis par ceder, car je suis homme, apres tout … j'ai bien peur … d'avoir remplace par de la simple...
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[In the following essay, Gruziniska discusses the relationship between structure and subject matter in Le jardin dès supplices.]
Representative in style and in subject matter of the Literature of Decadence of the French fin-de-siecle, Le Jardin dès supplices (1898) remains among Mirbeau's enduring novels. In spite of the suggestive title, its history appears less stormy and free of the notoriety that surrounded the publication of such works as Le Calvaire (1887), La 628- E-8 (1907), or Le Foyer (1909). The book leaves the reader with a lasting impression. For many however, this impression may be negative, because the novel's subject and...
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[In the following essay on Le jardin dès supplices, Ziegler discusses the theme of the pursuit of non-reflective experience, or experience that is "not contaminated by thought or processed by interpretation." ]
Like an indictment containing a list of counts against an accused, Mirbeau's Le Jardin dès supplices opens with a prosecutorial cataloging of every fault of the "fin-desiecle" era in France. Targeted for criticism is each institution, each activity, which has the effect of stunting the blossoming of art and of thwarting the expression of intellectual energy. Commerce, having degenerated to the level of the corrupt trafficking of Huysmans' hated green grocers, becomes a...
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[In the following essay, Gruzinska discusses Mirbeau's portrayal ofHonore de Balzac's wife in La 628-E-8 and compares her portrayal with those of other women in Le Calvaire, Le jardin dès supplices, and Le journal d'une femme de chambre.]
The bizarre title of La 628-E-8 suggests a mystery novel for which the work itself was once mistaken. Actually it is probably the first book ever written on the automobile, and it describes Mirbeau's tour through France, the Rhineland and, as he puts it in Montaigne-like fashion, "a travers un peu de moi-meme."
The various episodes of La 628-E-8 are a blend of fiction, reality and literary criticism, and...
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Apter, Emily. "The Garden of Scopic Perversion from Monet to Mirbeau." October (Winter 1988): 91-115.
Examines the theme of "the perverse curiosity of the gaze" in Mirbeau's Le jardin dès supplices.
Carr, Reg. Anarchism in France: The Case of Octave Mirbeau. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1977, 190 p.
Studies the relationship between the anarchist movement in France and the works of Mirbeau. An appendix includes reprints in French of Mirbeau's major essays on anarchism.
Newton, Joy. "Emile Zola and Octave Mirbeau, with Extracts from Their Unpublished Letters." Nottingham...
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