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.