Literary history presents occasional examples of writers known more for their celebrated friendships and reports of their sparkling conversational skills than for their actual writings. This is very much the case with Sébastien Roch Nicolas de Chamfort (1740?-1794), a complex and contradictory man of letters who was both blessed and cursed to live during the most turbulent period of French history. A would-be member of the nobility (as seen in his affected use of “de” Chamfort) who never forgot his merchant foster parents and who eagerly embraced the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, Chamfort was born in Clermont-Ferrand, the principal city of the Auvergne region of France. He was the illegitimate son of Jacqueline de Vinzelles, a member of a noble family of Clermont-Ferrand who farmed Nicolas out to a grocer whose infant son had just died, thus concealing her indiscretion.
A brilliant student once destined for the priesthood, Chamfort, to use the name he adopted, developed early into a freethinker of legendary caustic wit. Aborting, at the last minute, an impulsive scheme to emigrate to North America, he made his way to Paris in 1760 and wasted little time in launching his literary career. He authored a verse comedy called La jeune indiennethat so impressed the critic Jean François La Harpe that the latter showed it to no less a personage than Voltaire, who approved emphatically. Chamfort showed particular talent in forging alliances with prominent literary figures and philosophes, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. In later years, this circle would expand to include writers as ideologically diverse as the Marquis de Condorcet and François René de Chateaubriand.
Chamfort’s successes as a playwright eventually attracted the attention of the royal couple themselves, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The latter invited Chamfort to the royal box at Fontainebleau during the performance of his Mustapha et Zéangir on November 1, 1776. Marie Antoinette praised his talent and announced that the king had granted him a royal stipend for his work. Strictly observing the expectations of the theater-going public, Chamfort had openly modeled his tragedy on Racine. These last years of the ancien régime did not encourage dramaturgical innovation, and the aged Voltaire praised Chamfort for his skill at imitation, to the consternation of La Harpe, who by now had turned against Chamfort. Chamfort’s willingness to flatter conventional literary taste had also earned him a place, at the tender age of twenty-nine, in the exalted Académie française. This was a result of his stunning triumph in a competition held for the purpose of penning a eulogy to the genius of Molière.
However great his literary fame, Chamfort was most widely known for his semi- scandalous role in society. As a young man, his amorous activities were legendary, and this aspect of the man is what clearly most interests his gossipy biographer, Claude Arnaud. A mysterious disfiguring disease (possibly syphilis) put a stop to his career as a lover when he was still in his twenties. Thereafter, Chamfort would be known best for his scathing wit and outrageous conversation. Like other biographers before him, Arnaud speculates that Chamfort sought revenge or compensation for his reduced physical circumstances through verbal bloodletting. All who knew him testified that his conversation was incessantly misanthropic, though nevertheless entertaining. Of all of his writings, the handful of maxims he left unpublished at his death provide the clearest indication of the impact he must have had on his friends and acquaintances, as in this characteristic epigram: “Living is an ailment which is relieved every sixteen hours by sleep. A palliative. Death is the cure.”
Paradoxically, this fiercely iconoclastic man could skewer everyone in sight and still form strong friendships. For most of his life, he also had a keen ability to judge the direction of the prevailing political winds. As the revolution approached, he systematically distanced himself from all aristocratic associations, attaching himself to Mirabeau, the great orator of the revolution’s opening phase, and the Abbé Siéyès, on whose famous manifesto Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?(What is the third estate?) he reportedly consulted. Having campaigned so determinedly to attain membership in the Académie française, Chamfort drafted a proposal, which death prevented Mirabeau from presenting in the National Assembly, that would dismantle that and other French academies. In 1791, Chamfort assumed direction of the newly “republican” Bibliothèque Nationale. At least until the September Massacres of 1792, Chamfort demonstrated great skill at weathering the changing storms of the revolution.
Chamfort’s ally Siéyès, at the end of a long life, responded to the query “What did you do during the Revolution?” with the terse “I survived.” Chamfort would not survive. He was openly contemptuous of Jean-Paul Marat whose denunciations and accusations published in his L’ami du peuple sent many to the guillotine. Chamfort was denounced to the Committee of Public Safety by a colleague at the Bibliothèque Nationale after he expressed his admiration for Charlotte...
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