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...
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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
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[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....
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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 Roch, dedicated to Edmond de Goncourt, he extolled "the sublime beauty of the ugly." Le Jardin dès supplices, inspired by this thought, that "Love and Death are identical," pretends to imitate, in a garden borrowed from the Paradon, the art of the Chinese executioner who "extracts from the human flesh all its prodigies of suffering." Le Journal d'une femme de chambre expresses "the sadness and the comedy of being a man—a sadness which makes noble souls laugh, comedy which makes them weep." Les 21 Jours d'un neurausthinique proves that "men are everywhere the same" and Dingo sings the praises of a dog which, in spite of some vices borrowed from man, has kept its precious canine superiority. Everything in...
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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 mentioned Octave Mirbeau's name. "Why, Mirbeau," she said, "let me see—that's the son of the doctor at Remalard, the place where we have our estate. I remember that two or three times I lashed him over the head with my whip. He was an impudent little thing as a child—his great idea was to show his bravado by throwing himself under the feet of our horses when we or the Andlaus were out driving."
Edmond de Goncourt: Diary,
August 26, 1889
I should like to take the occasion of the reprint of a very respectable translation by Alvah C. Bessie of Octave Mirbeau's novel Le Jardin dès Supplices to look back at a remarkable French writer whose reputation, after his...
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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 to marry, had literary pretensions of her own and was very keen that Mirbeau should make a success of writing as a career. The Leffres de ma chaumiere had passed unnoticed by critics and public alike, and Mirbeau was faced with the hard fact that if he did not attempt some new form of expression he would pass into middle age as a competent journalist and nothing more.
The advice of his friends, the promptings of his mistress, and his own awareness of the need to branch out into something new, were not however sufficient in themselves to transform Mirbeau into the hotly-discussed, best-selling novelist he became with the publication of Le Calvuire in December 1886. The all-important stimulus was...
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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 litterature ce qu'ily avait dans ces pages d'emotion et de vie." The other is Mirbeau's dedicatory letter to the journalist Jules Huret: "C'est un livre sans hypocrisie, parce que c'est de la vie, et de la vie comme nous la comprenons, vous et moi."
Both texts insist on the authentic life of the diary to follow. The editor's humble concerns "bring to life" a timehonored convention; in this instance, not only is the author real, but also desirable (fort jolie). She brings her charms with her into the literary marketplace and what follows should seem all the more real for it. Mirbeau inherited the subject of lower-class sexuality and its economics, treated as a slice of life, from the Goncourts, Huysmans and Zola, and the...
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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 structure, and its seeming lack of unity raise many questions. Our attempt is to answer these questions by pointing out the complex relationship between structure and subject matter and by showing how the Frontispiece affects this relationship.
Among the first to point to the novel's loose construction was Marcel Revon, according to whom the book announces other novels by the author, "faits de pieces et de morceaux." His remark suggests indirectly that with Le Jardin dès supplices, Mirbeau departs from a solidly constructed novel in order to adopt a different format. Yet, Revon fails to see that the "bits" and "pieces" which enter into its composition, in spite of their heteroclitic nature, ultimately mold the...
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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 kind of legal, doubly profitable theft, involving the misappropriation of goods from one party and their resale to another at inflated prices. Education is reduced to being a system which rewards young people for their sententiousness and fatuity, promoting the advancement of those bureaucrats most gifted at organizing others for the purpose of exploiting them. Those who rise the furthest in this system are like the peacocks described later in the novel: the ornamental parasites whose showiness enables them to live off social institutions already verging on collapse. Unscrupulous and glib, these men and women articulate the ideology that both justifies the way they abuse others and condemns society to decay. Their language is the language of...
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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 seem to have nothing else to bind them together other than the author and his car. An occasional cameo-appearance by Mirbeau's friends and acquaintances may be intended to give the impression that the stories are true. What is more, the testimonies of such artists as Jean Gigoux and Auguste Rodin make it more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. The situation becomes particularly sensitive when Mme Hanska, who is a historical figure, also becomes a protagonist in "La Mort de Balzac." In this episode of La 628-E-8, Mirbeau attributes to Rodin certain statements concerning Mme Hanska, which may receive today great attention because of his glory. They may not have seemed as impressive during Rodin's own life when he was less...
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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 French Studies 25, No. 2 (October 1986): 42-59.
Scrutinizes the often stormy personal and professional relationship between Mirbeau and Zola.
Redfern, W. D. "The Pyromaniac Fireman." The Times Literary Supplement No. 3942 (14 October 1977): 1197.
Review of Reg Carr's Anarchism in France: The Case of Octave Mirbeau and four reprint editions of works by Mirbeau.
Additional coverage of Mirbeau's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 123.
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