JOURNAL OF MY LIFE by Jacques-Louis Menetra; translated by Arthur Goldhammer; introduction and commentary by Daniel Roche; foreword by Robert Darnton; (Columbia University: $27.50; 351 pp.)
Jacques-Louis Menetra was born in Paris in 1738, the son of a master glazier. He was schooled as a choirboy in the parish church, took up his father’s trade in his teens, then tramped around provincial shops for seven years on a journeyman’s tour de France and finally settled down as master of his own shop and family in Paris.
Menetra wrote songs and poems, played tennis with the great, drank and played checkers with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (people stood on tables to get a look), enjoyed 10 bouts with the pox, made friends with the public hangman who healed him of impotence, and seems to have had a hand in introducing Italian pasta into Paris cooking to the advantage of neither cuisine.
Putting in windows and making lanterns, he had his share in the quiet 18th-Century revolution that brought more light to dwellings and to streets. He also played a modest part in the better known Revolution of 1789, which he first welcomed, but whose years of terror he remembered with dread as a time when “the French breathed blood. They were like cannibals . . . real man-eaters.”
Menetra’s gift of gab got him elected to office in his local section in times when it would have been better to lie low. Neighbor, he tells us, denounced neighbor. Blood ties were forgotten. People watched one another. Nobody dared say what he thought. And, when the time of killing was over, purge still followed counter-purge, the years of fear went on, but Menetra survived. So has the “Journal” of his life.
Daniel Roche, author of well-known works on 18th-Century France, discovered it about 10 years ago; now here it is in an excellent translation by Arthur Goldhammer, complete with Roche’s long and meaty comments and a pithy foreword by Robert Darnton.
Both Roche and Darnton have grown to like this man who grew up under Louis XV and took his retirement under Bonaparte. Darnton compares him with Walter Mitty because so many of his alleged feats seem like make-believe. But Mitty is a gentle dreamer. Menetra is an aggressive prankster. The personality he reveals is more like that of Till Eulenspiegel whose mischief, just like his own, leaves a bitter taste. He catches a couple making love in the woods and rapes the girl while a pal keeps the boy at bay; just comradely fun. Gang rapes, we are informed, are an occasion for male bonding. He watches naked prostitutes caged and dumped into a river (hilarious); the hunchbacks of Lyon serenaded by other hunchbacks (charming conceit); his boss in excruciating pain, his head in a pane of broken glass (merry laughter). He and his fellows torment a caged cat: “We laughed ourselves silly.” They rob a Jew in the fields of Carpentras; local authorities find the Jew in the wrong because he was not wearing his yellow hat.
Boastful, rowdy, generous, thriftless, brave, Menetra is decent in his way. He saves a mother and child from the flames, a youth from drowning, friends from trouble. He is a good workman when not on the spree, cracking the bottle in some tavern, inn, cabaret or brothel. He does not bear grudges, especially in family skirmishes. And his prejudices are on the side of what we call Enlightenment: Religion is fanaticism and superstition, a lot of lies sustained by ignorance; priests are knaves and humbugs; discrimination against Jews and Protestants is bad, reason and tolerance are good. Roche finds him “a truly fraternal soul.”
Which goes to show how one man’s good fellow can be another’s nasty piece of work. Menetra’s exploits consist largely of brawls, seductions, and hoaxes--often cruel. Strangers are for spoiling, women for bedding, beasts to eat or tease. He works, drinks, shows off, torments animals, savors executions, gulls his companions, dupes silly yokels, and seldom manages reflections that are more than banal.
He takes his pleasure with partners willing or unwilling: “half by force and half with her consent,” as he describes his rapes. Most times there is no need for violence, marriage being an adversary relationship and entertainment scarce. But, even then, what Menetra describes as love is simply sex. “Never has woman touched my heart except for sensual pleasure.” As the score rises, what the text conveys is less sensuality than monotony.
We do not know much about human affections. My own view is that, in Menetra’s day, they were pretty stunted. Jacques-Louis was orphaned early, put out to nurse like most Parisian babies, taken in by his grandmother, but then reclaimed by a father “afraid that he would have to pay my board,” brought up with many cuffs and little tenderness. Nothing exceptional. No wonder, though, that his family relations are a tumult of squabbles, fights, mutual resentments, denunciations and distrust. Or that his idea of love, like that of his contemporaries, was limited, conventional and exploitative. The novelty, announcing a new age, is that this rough, self-indulgent man loved his son and daughter. Menetra believed in progress. Perhaps he was right.
“Life is hard, then you die,” says Dempsey to Makepeace. Many in those days died before they had a taste of life; and death was all about those who survived. Menetra stumbles across corpses all the time, even in the rooms he sleeps in. The Paris glazier lived longer than most. Exceptionally, he recorded the dangerous, cruel, credulous, harsh, exciting world about him; more exceptionally still, his record survived. The result is monotonous, repetitive, and finally beguiling.