Though best knovyn for the novels of psychological analysis that gained him a wide reputation in his lifetime, Paul Bourget also made frequent use of the opportunities provided by the French periodical press of his day to present in essays his thoughts about pressing contemporary issues.
His travel writings reveal a good deal about his approach. Crossing over to the United Kingdom for a succession of short visits in the 1880s and 1890s, he came not only well prepared by his wide reading of English classics and what were then the most modern authors, but also with his intellectual agenda already drawn up. Whether on the Isle of Wight in the holiday season, in an Ireland simmering with political discontent, or at Oxford in high summer, the same questions concern him: in what ways does Britain differ from France? And what can discontented Frenchmen learn from the island on the other side of the Channel? In this he is not unlike Voltaire, author of the 18th-century Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733; Lettres philosophiques), with his urge to observe and his restless intellectual curiosity; like Voltaire, Bourget uses to good effect the dodge of sometimes posing as the innocent abroad while in fact pursuing his own theories and analysis. Though he offers alert and entertaining descriptions of the manners of Victorian England and presents Ireland as a country with a different set of acute problems of its own, he is not primarily concerned with evoking the places he visits. By the same token, despite a few personal details to give an initial narrative impetus to his accounts, lend them an air of authenticity, or else provide variety in authorial stance, his travel writings are not really concerned with what he did and felt, where he went and what he saw. Instead, he uses his experience of Britain for an analysis of a country which he realizes is different from his own yet which, despite the problems, prejudices, and incongruities of the Victorian age, he feels is also in many respects more successful than France. To some degree the difference is material; influenced by Hippolyte Taine, Bourget is not predisposed to underestimate economic factors, but in them he sees the consequences of decades of peace under stable monarchical government, especially for a middle class that establishes and maintains its ever more crucial position between an aristocracy whose importance is fading and a proletariat that threatens established values.
The implication throughout Bourget’s travel writing is that France is in a comparatively parlous state and would be well advised to consider carefully, if not to follow closely, the example of Britain.
A similar spirit informs Bourget’s literary essays. In 1883 he set out his program in the preface to his first set of Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Essays in contemporary psychology). His concern, he declares, is not to analyze the literary means by which authors have sought to express themselves, and he also abjures the Sainte-Beuvean temptation to present or explain this or that trait in a writer by reference to a supposedly revealing anecdote. He has, he says, no desire to assess the talents of authors or to depict their personalities. Instead, his ambition is to provide observations that will be of value when historians turn to writing an intellectual history of France in the second half of the 19th century. While conceding that many factors contribute to the intellectual climate of any age, Bourget argues for granting a more significant part to literature in the 19th century for two reasons in particular: other, traditional formative influences are steadily forfeiting their importance, and the reading of printed material is playing an ever greater role in contemporary culture. In the preface to the second volume (1885) of Essais de psychologie contemporaine, Bourget is more explicit. What he seeks to portray in his studies of 19th-century authors are, he explains, the social tendencies in French literature during the Second Empire. In an aside ostensibly providing a clarification that none of his original readers can in fact have needed, he adds the ominous reminder that the period stretched from Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état to the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the 1871 Commune. One could perhaps have supposed that the imperial debacle itself was explanation enough for the malaise endemic among young people in France during the Third Republic. For Bourget, however, it is the literature of the preceding generation that has left them imbued with deep-rooted pessimism, fatal mental lassitude, and the gloomy conviction that all effort is futile. His answer to the problem, when critics asked him, is that he has none. It seems, however, that his diagnosis points at least to a change of literary role models, just as his travel writing and his novels suggest that the Third Republic was not the ideal response to ills inherited from the discredited Third Empire. Though Bourget avers that other French authors might well have been considered, those on whom he concentrates make an impressive list: Baudelaire, Renan, Flaubert, Taine, Stendhal, Alexandre Dumas fils, Leconte de Lisle, the Goncourt brothers, the Russian novelist Turgenev, and the Genevan diarist Amiel. Notwithstanding his intention of putting forward his thesis, Bourget discusses these writers sympathetically and in measured tones. He does justice to Dumas as a successful and serious-minded dramatist before drawing our attention to the vein of pessimism about human nature that he sees as fundamental to the plays. He is at pains to be fair to Amiel too, before going on to argue that the diarist stands at the convergence of two traditions, which he calls Germanic and Latin respectively, using the former term to designate a pattern of negative attitudes and response that might be summed up in the convenient shorthand of the adjective “Hamletic.” Before turning to an analysis of Flaubert’s nihilism, Bourget pauses for a penetrating account of the role Romanticism played in the development of the novelist’s outlook.
Well informed and informative, couched in lucid French with crisp formulations, Bourget’s literary essays offer insights that retain their validity even for readers who may prefer not to adhere to the general thesis that he draws from his serious study of the writers of his day.
Paul Charles Joseph Bourget. Born 2 September 1852. in Amiens. Abandoned Catholicism, 1867. Studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1867–71, baccalauréat, 1871, licence in philosophy, 1872. Contributor to various periodicals, including the Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds), from 1873, and Journal des Débats (Journal of debates); drama critic, Le Globe, 1879, and Le Parlement, 1880–82. Married Minnie David (died, 1932), 1890. Visited Palestine, 1893; lived in New York, 1893–94, writing for the New York Herald and Le Figaro. Elected to the French Academy, 1895.
Reverted to Catholicism, 1901.
Died (of pneumonia) in Paris, 25 December 1935.
Essays and Related Prose
Essais de psychologie contemporaine, 2 vols., 1883–85; revised and enlarged edition, 2 vols., 1901
Études et portraits, 2 vols., 1888; revised edition, 3 vols., 1906; part as Some Impressions of Oxford, translated by M.C. Warrilow, 1901
Pastels: Dix portraits de femmes, 1889
Nouveaux pastels: Dix portraits d’hommes, 1891; as Pastels of Men, translated by Katharine Wormeley, 2 vols., 1891–92
Pages de critique et de doctrine, 2 vols., 1912
Nouvelles pages de critique et de doctrine, 2 vols., 1922
Quelques témoignages, 2 vols., 1928–33
Sur la Toscane, 1929
Au service de l’ordre, 2 vols., 1929–33
Other writings: 28 novels (including Le Disciple [The Disciple], 1889), many collections of short stories, seven plays, travel writing, and poetry.
Collected works edition: OEuvres complétes, 9 vols., 1899–1911 (incomplete).
Austin, Lloyd J., Paul Bourget: Sa vie et son oeuvre jusqu’en 1889, Paris: Droz, 1940
Crouzet, Michel, “La Mode, le moderne, le contemporain chez Paul Bourget: Une lecture des Essais de psychologie contemporaine,” Saggi e Ricerce de Letteratura Francese 26 (1987):27–63
Feuillerat, Albert, Paul Bourget: Histoire d’un esprit sous la Troisième République, Paris: Plon, 1937
Garrett, Crister, Paul Bourget and the Politics of Traditionalism (dissertation), Los Angeles: University of California, 1993
Giraud, Victor, Paul Bourget, Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1934
Klerkx, Henri, Paul Bourget et ses idées littéraires, Nimègue-Utrecht: Dekker en van de Vegt, 1946
Mansuy, Michel, Un moderne: Paul Bourget: De l’enfance au disciple, Paris: Les Belles- Lettres, 1960
Singer, Armand E., Paul Bourget, Boston: Twayne, 1976
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