The Journal of Jules Renard. Tin House Books. 264pp, 16.95.
The Journal of Jules Renard is a bound collection of the insights and observations of the titular French playwright and novelist. Renard kept his journal from 1887, when he was twenty-three years old, to just a month before his death in 1910, and in the journal he claims that he kept it because “This Journal empties me. It is not a work of writing. Just as making love every day is not love.”
Renard’s diary is something of a cult classic among writers, including Somerset Maugham, Susan Sontag, and Donald Barthelme, and one can see why just from that simple, three-sentence entry recorded in January 1901. Not only does Renard describe his purpose in keeping the journal in a way that most writers would understand (the idea of needing to write, to empty out some intangible substance); he also compares writing to love, succinctly and viscerally articulating the difference between love and lovemaking. With that line and so many others in this book of beautifully turned phrase after beautifully turned phrase, it’s not hard to imagine why Renard’s journal is a favorite among the literati.
Despite the abundance of riches on display here, it is at times difficult to read Renard’s journal with full attention: due to its meandering nature the diary isn’t necessarily best consumed in one gulp. But even if a reader’s attention does flag at times, it is just as often jolted back by a line that demands all of the senses: “Unsightly as a piece of paper in a meadow,” or “To take notes is to play the scales of literature,” or “Work thinks; laziness muses.” (To writers of fewer powers, it’s disconcerting that Renard simply cast off such lines as these into his journal.) One entry from 1887, a year before Renard’s marriage in 1888, reads “She has a very mean way of being kind.” That is the full entry, and though the “she” is not named, this woman is brought fully to life simply by that odd and paradoxical description. At another point, in 1897, Renard writes, “It is in the gentle climate of this woman that I should like to live and die.” What a beautifully understated way to express love.
There is a story being told in and through this journal, as Renard gets married, has children, sees his father die, and approaches his own death. His ruminations on each of these periods in his life are interesting, especially as he grows ill and faces his inevitable demise. He also has success as a writer along the way, seeing his stories published and his plays taken to the stage, and he writes of his joy in seeing his work consumed by the public, but still he displays his insecurities as well, his jealousies and his suspicions of his friends, suspicions that they aren’t happy for him when his books and plays achieve some level of notoriety. He opines that maybe nobody is capable of being genuinely happy for another’s success. It is when Renard records thoughts like these that he is seems least heroic with his pen, not at all titanic but in fact small, almost pitiable.
The Journal is most enjoyable when Renard is playing with the language and searching for truth and purpose and even God, and when his simple phrases reveal far more truth than his philosophical ponderings can: “Your page on autumn must give as much pleasure as a walk through fallen leaves.” Renard is most knowable in this journal when he is less than generous with his impressions of the people around him and with himself, as when he writes: “I am not sincere, not even when I say that I am not.” And there is a longer entry, when he is forty-two years old, in which he considers what he has done with his life and more what he has not; he hints at regrets and laments some personal shortcomings. It cuts the man down to size, but in a good way, by making the other lines, the ones about truth, purpose, and God, and all the wit and playfulness in his writing, seem even more outstanding. They have come from a fallible human.
Renard did not work, not in the traditional sense of the word. He didn’t go to an office or answer to a boss, and he speaks little of hands-on child-rearing or of work on his home. His vocation was writing, and he was able to dedicate his life to it. Renard felt it was necessary “To write neither for the people nor for the elite: for myself.” And the reason he wrote at all? Because “We spend our lives talking about this mystery: our life.” Because, in the end, none of it is mere melodrama, too mundane to be captured and put on paper. That’s what this book proves ultimately to be about, the little things that, one on top of the other, build the bigness of it all. Renard’s journal entries are attempts at reducing the incomprehensible to its smaller components, to try to draw life to a more manageable scale, to not miss anything. But even in this exercise, he notes, “I cannot look at the leaf of a tree without being crushed by the universe.”
In Renard’s hands, the immense, impossible beauty of the world and this life it affords us somehow becomes bigger when reduced to these constitutive bits. The mystery is opaque in those places, elemental. But then, so why keep journals, our little recordings of our little lives, our perhaps laughable attempts at understanding the point of it all? Of his own, in his own, Renard said, “These notes are my daily prayer.” Well, what better reason is there than that? And what else to say but: Amen.
Billy Thompson is a writer living in Media, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Confluence and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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