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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Man of Letters

By Catulle Mendès (1841–1909)

From ‘The Humor of France’: Translation of Elizabeth Lee

LAST evening, a poet, as yet unknown, was correcting the last sheets of his first book. A famous man of letters, who happened to be there, quickly caught hold of the young man’s hand, and said in a rough voice, “Don’t send the press proofs! Don’t publish those poems!”

“You consider them bad?”

“I haven’t read them, and I don’t want to read them. They are possibly excellent. But beware of publishing them.”


“Because, the book once out, you would henceforth be irremediably an author, an artist—that is to say, a monster!”

“A monster?”


“Are you a monster, dear master?”

“Certainly! and one of the worst kind; for I have been writing poems, novels, and plays longer than many others.”

The young man opened his eyes wide. The other, walking up and down the room, violently gesticulating, continued:—

“True, we are honest, upright, and loyal! Twenty or thirty years ago it was the fashion for literary men to borrow a hundred sous and forget to return them; to leave their lodgings without giving the landlord notice; and never to pay, even in a dream, their bootmaker or their tailor. To owe was a sort of duty. Follies of one’s youth! The Bohemians have disappeared; literature has become respectable. We have cut our hair and put our affairs in order. We no longer wear red waistcoats; and our concierge bows to us because we give him tips, just as politely as he does to the banker on the ground floor or the lawyer on the second. Good citizens, good husbands, good fathers, we prepare ourselves epitaphs full of honor. I fought in the last war side by side with Henri Regnault; I have a wife to whom I have never given the slightest cause for sorrow; and I myself teach my three children geography and history, and bring them up to have a horror of literature. Better still: it happened to me—a remarkable turning of the tables—to lend six thousand francs to one of my uncles, an ironmonger at Angoulême, who had foolishly got into difficulties, and not without reading him a severe lecture. In a word, we are orderly, correct persons. But I say we are monsters. For isn’t it indeed a monstrous thing, being a man, not to be—not to be able to be—a man like other men? to be unable to love or to hate, to rejoice or to suffer, as others love or hate, rejoice or suffer? And we cannot,—no, no, never,—not under any circumstances! Obliged to consider or observe, obliged to study, analyze, in ourselves and outside ourselves, all feelings, all passions; to be ever on the watch for the result, to follow its development and fall, to consign to our memory the attitudes they bring forth, the language they inspire,—we have definitely killed in ourselves the faculty of real emotion, the power of being happy or unhappy with simplicity. We have lost all the holy unctuousness of the soul! It has become impossible for us, when we experience, to confine ourselves to experiencing. We verify, we appraise our hopes, our agonies, our anguish of heart, our joys; we take note of the jealous torments that devour us when she whom we expect does not come to the tryst; our abominable critical sense judges kisses and caresses, compares them, approves of them or not, makes reservations; we discover faults of taste in our transports of joy or grief; we mingle grammar with love, and at the supreme moment of passion, when we say to our terrified mistress, ‘Oh, I want you to love me till death!’ are victims of the relative pronoun, of the particle. Literature! literature! you have become our heart, our senses, our flesh, our voice. It is not a life that we live—it is a poem, or a novel, or a play. Ah! I would give up all the fame that thirty years of work have brought me, in order to weep for one single moment without perceiving that I am weeping!”