Pernickety

In her 2007 biography of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee describes Charles Du Bos (1882–1939), the French critic and diarist, as “pernickety, vain, snobbish, naive, pompous, and affectionate.” André Gide, with whom Du Bos was an early collaborator, later wrote that Du Bos couldn’t fill his own fountain pen, and that, stumped while translating one of Keats’s letters, Du Bos admitted he had never really looked at a snail, though “perhaps” he had seen one.

But Wharton, who did relief work in France with Du Bos during the First World War, admired him greatly, calling him one of her closest friends. And after the end of the Second World War, more than twenty prominent writers and thinkers, including François Mauriac, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean Daniélou, SJ, contributed to a volume of reflections and remembrances that painted a far different picture of the man known to his friends as Charlie. For besides having “a genius for friendship,” Du Bos took life and literature seriously. The story of his coming back to Catholicism in 1927 is as intense a conversion story as any in the twentieth century.

Du Bos wrote that the real date of his birth was October 1899, when he made his first real friendship and read Henri Bergson. “It is to my friendship with Joseph Baruzi and to the reading of Bergson,” he wrote, “that I truly owe the beginning of the real me in me.” His youth and his adolescence, he said, were all prenatal.

Du Bos studied philosophy and art criticism in England, Italy, and Germany, becoming an agnostic along the way. His first work of literature was a translation into French of Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Bilingual (his mother was English and he had an American grandmother), he became a representative for foreign writers at Plon, the French publishing house.

In the 1920s he began to publish a series of literary essays he called Approximations, which grew to seven volumes, as well as book-length studies of such diverse writers as Byron, Goethe, and Tolstoy. He was a critic with a difference; for him literature was nothing else than “the entire range of all human emotions.” Having little interest in literary schools, he believed that it was not so much the work of art that mattered as the person behind it. “Creation,” he wrote, “above all else means emotion.” Like the eighteenth-century French aphorist Vauvenargues, whom he greatly admired, he believed in the supremacy of the heart over reason.

Suffering most of his life from ill health, he wrote that meditating on his condition was almost a biological necessity. His return to Catholicism in 1927, his journals show, was the result of a long, self-judgmental spiritual evolution, the rediscovery of his “naturally Christian soul.” Daniélou noted that Du Bos’s writing had the remarkable characteristic of belonging at one and the same time to the intellect and to love.

In 1937 and 1938 Du Bos, his wife Zézette, their daughter Primerose, and Madge, his Canadian secretary, traveled twice to the United States, where he taught at the University of Notre Dame and at nearby St. Mary’s College. In 1938 he delivered four lectures at St. Mary’s. They were published by Sheed & Ward in 1940 as What Is Literature? One lecture was characteristically titled, “Literature and the Soul.” The book is short but challenging. “For a Catholic,” Du Bos wrote, “there does not exist the man who is not brother and never more so than when the other is quite unaware of such brotherhood.”

Du Bos appears to have enjoyed his days in South Bend, in spite of continuing ill health. But he remained his own man—perhaps “pernickety” is the right word—to the end. To a friend in France, he wrote: “Although they all keep encouraging us to see a football game, my well-known courteousness has allowed me up until now to avoid going.” Hermione Lee writes of Du Bos that he was “solemn to the point of absurdity.” Not always.

Published in the 2010-05-07 issue: 

Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.

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