on The Journal of Jules Renard, edited/translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books)

For thirty years Louise Bogan worked intermittently on a “long prose piece,” a series of memoirs turned out into stories that “she hoped to publish one day as fiction,” as Elizabeth Frank writes in her biography of Bogan. “For a temperament like Louise Bogan’s, autobiography would have been more than an embarrassment: it would have been a self-perpetrated violation of the heart.” Bogan told William Maxwell, “The hatred of confessing has been one thing that has held me up all these years,” since she equated autobiography with confession. It was Auden who had extolled her poems for proving the notion “that Self-development is a process of Self-surrender, for it is the Self that demands the exclusive attention of all experiences, but offers none in return.” In 1961 Bogan said, “It is too late either to pour it out or to reconstruct it, bit by bit. What mattered got into the poems. Except for one or two stories, which I may be able to tell, it is all there. With the self-pity left out.”

bogan_0.jpgAs conflicted as she was about self-disclosure, Bogan appreciated the autobiographical work of Jules Renard (1864-1910) when his journals were published in France in 1935. Bogan read a review of the Journal in The New Statesman “and knew it was mine. It’s really wonderful, the full and rewarding cahier such as we all should keep, such as I have tried so hard to keep, year after year, with varying results.” She must have hoped to emulate Renard, because that year she said, “Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remarks (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry or the cahier.” Bogan sometimes kept a journal, portions of which were published as A Final Antidote (Cummington Press, 1991). Her admiration for Renard's memoirs was steadfast, even as she vacillated about her own memoir-based prose. Twenty years after first encountering the Journal in French, Bogan was busy editing sections of it. The Journal of Jules Renard, co-translated with Elizabeth Roget, was published by George Braziller in 1964.

renard2.jpgRenard’s reputation as a novelist rests on Poil de Carotte (1894 -- or Carrot Top), a story based on his miserable childhood, later produced as a popular movie. He wrote twenty novels in all, seven plays, and a book of indifferent poetry. His work is rooted in the rural life of his native Nièvre region, though he married and lived in Paris until 1904 when he was elected mayor of his boyhood town of Chitry, a position his father had once held. (The son was elected as the socialist candidate.) His portraits of self-deceived people and situations were unsentimental, often bitingly descriptive and naturalistic. Although quite active in literary circles, he never experimented with emerging modernist styles and his work is largely forgotten outside of France. The Journal offers a more enduring interest, but copies have been hard to find. Now, Tin House Books has reissued Bogan’s translation.

In the early 1950s, Bogan and May Sarton collaborated on translations of Valéry. Elizabeth Frank says, “Like the novelist Elizabeth Roget … Sarton found Bogan’s French dismayingly inadequate to the task of translation, most of which she was forced to do herself, with Bogan ‘scrutinizing,’ as she called it, the results.” It seems that Bogan’s fascination with the journal was the guiding force, but perhaps not the means, of the project. In any event, Renard’s aperçus about writing, selfhood, and humanity are terse, candid, and often unsparing of himself, and they register as long-held opinions and habits of thought. Bogan would have nodded knowingly at lines like these below:

“Your sole preoccupation is to be sincere. But don’t you find this constant search for sincerity a little false, untruthful?”

“It is at the cost of all my anguish that I give to others an impression of perfect security.”

“Let us always keep, even in the midst of our greatest joys, a corner of sadness at the bottom of our soul; to serve as refuge in case of sudden alarm.”

“The best in us is incommunicable.”

“One does not provoke. One waits.”

“The poet. Like the cicada: a single note indefinitely repeated.”

“There is also a sort of deliberate originality, which one expects, which becomes commonplace, and which leaves one cold.”

“Style. Thick, heavy syllables that deafen the reader and prevent the sentence from being heard.”

renard3.jpgRenard commented on the topics of a whole life, but he was especially sharp when making observations about his acquaintances – and about himself: “As mayor, I am supposed to look after the maintenance of the rural roads; as a poet, I like them better neglected.” About a pig: “All that filth on a pink background.” About self-regard: “To spend one’s life judging oneself is very entertaining, and, on the whole, not very difficult.” There are also extended anecdotes, such as his encounters with Sarah Bernhardt and Rodin, and opinions about literary contemporaries. But the Journal is especially rich when speaking on the vagaries of human virtues.

In her preface to the translation, Bogan writes, “The keeping of a journal may become a futile and time-wasting occupation for a writer. Temptations toward the inconsequential detail, the vaporous idea and the self-regarding emotion are always present and can become overwhelming,” as she knew so well. But in Renard she found not only a kindred temperament (who, like her, “never attached himself in any manner to that avant-garde … the most striking talents of the new century”), but also “a passion for factual truth and stylistic exactitude … delicacy backed up by power – power of character and power of intellect.” The Journal of Jules Renard is likely to refresh, inspire and amuse anyone, especially any writer, receptive to the exquisitely voiced discriminations of a tough mind.

[Published September 2008, 304 pp., $16.95 paperback]