Stendhal [Henri Beyle], 1837

Stendhal's Mémoires d'un Touriste were first published in 1838, in two volumes, as the author attempted to capitalize on the contemporary taste for travel narratives. His account of his visit to Ferney features a heroic portrait of Voltaire as intellectual rebel.

The English translation, with minor cuts from the French, is taken from Stendhal, Memoirs of a Tourist, trans. Allan Seager (Northwestern University Press, 1961

Lyons . . . 1837

The way here from Geneva by the Fort l'Ecluse and along the Rhone might be called sublime if it were compared to those great flat bare lines of the country surrounding Paris. But it is not enough for a landscape to be interesting in itself. The Mozart of this kind of harmony is Livy in the country from Rome to Pozzolo on the Lake of Albano, for example.

Two leagues from Geneva I saw Ferney again. It is astonishing today how poor a house a man lived in who had an income of a hundred thousand livres in 1760, which would mean two hundred and fifty thousand in 1837, considering the increase of necessary luxury and the exigencies of a growing vanity. For it is not to the point to estimate the difference in sums of money mentioned in history only by the value of silver in the two periods. One must also calculate what would have been spent on luxury which was deemed unimportant in 1760 but the absence of which disgraces a man in 1837.

We judge very foolishly of Voltaire's position in the midst of the nearly legal regime his witticisms have obtained for us. During the first twenty years of his stay at Ferney he may have watched with anxiety every courier who galloped up the main road from France. Voltaire was certain he was hated by two of the great institutions of the state, the clergy and the Parlements whose cruel ignorance he had put on display. The Court would have been very happy to see this insolent poetaster who was too much talked about abused and degraded. Long before, the Keeper of the Seals had told him, "Be informed, sir, that if Joan of Arc ever appears in print, I'll see that you rot in the deepest dungeon." But Joan of Arc was soon printed.

If he were going to resist so much well-grounded hostility, Voltaire would have had to give up writing and make himself forgotten, but such restraint was beyond his powers. He was more horrified of being forgotten than he was of an eternity in the Bastille, and he launched a pamphlet every six months.

No one in France showed as much bravery as Voltaire. In vain he seized every occasion to pay a servile court to Marshal Richelieu and the Duc de Choiseul. His safety was lost if he were attacked. The day after he had been sent to prison, Messrs. Richelieu and Choiseul would have said, "But why didn't we do this ten years ago?" If he had seen him in prison, Richelieu would have made fun of him six months on end. Then he would have forgotten him. The clergy would have given benefices worth a hundred thousand livres to the sons and nephews of the magistrate who kept him in prison. The favorite would have been offered the nomination of two or three abbeys worth forty thousand livres income.

All these dangers were real. Even the coolest man could see them, and Voltaire had a childish imagination that magnified them a hundred times. His safety lay only in the foolishness and lack of accord among the all-powerful whom he was attacking. Worse, it was essentially the king he was offending. Once he had been thrown into the fortified castles of the Isles Ste Marguerite, he would have been there twenty years.

At Ferney they repeated the story they told me ten years ago. Voltaire, as a man of intelligence who was never understood by dense people, wanted to do everything himself. He drew with a pen the plan of the chateau he was having built. He had indicated the walls by a single stroke, but when the builders got to the second floor, all the rooms seemed small, and they saw that in the plan Voltaire had forgotten the thickness of the walls. My grandfather who went to see Voltaire at Ferney five times told me about the cache-Pictet poplars, and he believed the thickness of the walls was forgotten. Voltaire with his hundred thousand livres of quite real income thought two or three times that he was ruined, and he despaired like a child. His books were filled with little pieces of paper three lines wide and six inches long. On each was a word. When he wanted a fact, he climbed up to the top of the ladder in his library and quickly read the words on all the pieces in the volume.

Before you reach his chateau, you see a church in the avenue on the left and on the pediment the famous inscription Deo erexit Voltaire ("Voltaire erected this to God"). The great man's room is still in the state he left it in when he went to Paris, hangings of embroidered blue taffeta, portraits of the King of Prussia, Mme du Châtelet, Lekain. Today they sell Englishmen the pen Voltaire used.

(engraving of Voltaire's bedroom from c.1840)

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