“Authors are everywhere,” wrote Horace Walpole from Paris in 1765, and they “are worse than their own writings, which I don’t mean as a compliment to either.”34 Certainly the age could not compare, in literature, with the age of Molière and Racine, nor with that of Hugo, Flaubert, and Balzac; in this brief period between 1757 and 1774 we have, as memorable authors, only Rousseau and Marmontel, and the living embers of Voltaire’s fire, and the secret, unpublished ebullience of Diderot. Men and women gave themselves so intensely to conversation that their wits were spent before they took to ink. Aristocratic polish was out of print; philosophy, economics, and politics held the stage; content now dominated form. Even poetry tended to propaganda; Saint-Lambert’sLes Saisons (1769) imitated James Thomson, but denounced fanaticism and luxury unseasonably, and, like Lear, thought of winter in terms of icy blasts whistling about the hovels of the poor.
Jean-François Marmontel owed his rise to his shrewdness, to women, and to Voltaire. Born in 1723, he wrote in his old age amiable Mémoires d’unpère (1804), which offer us a tender picture of his childhood and youth. Though he became a skeptic, and almost an idolator of Voltaire, he had nothing but good to say of the pious people who had brought him up, and of the kindly and devoted Jesuits who had educated him. He loved these so much that he took the tonsure, aspired to join their order, and taught in their colleges at Clermont and Toulouse. But like many another fledgling of the Jesuits, he flew off on the winds of enlightenment, and lost at least his intellectual virginity. In 1743 he submitted verses to Voltaire, who so relished them that he sent Marmontel a set of his works corrected in his own hand. The young poet kept these as a sacred heirloom, and gave up all notions of a priestly career. Two years later Voltaire secured a place for him in Paris, and free admission to the Théâtre-Français; indeed, in the hidden goodness of his parental-childless heart, Voltaire sold Marmontel’s poems, and sent him the proceeds. In 1747 Marmontel’s play Denys le Tyran (Dionysius)— dedicated to Voltaire—was accepted and produced; it succeeded beyond his hopes; “in one day I became famous and rich.”35 Soon he was a minor lion in the salons; he feasted on dinners and paid with wit, and found a route to Clairon’s bed.
His second play, Aristomène, brought him more money, friends, and mistresses. At Mme. de Tencin’s gatherings he met Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Helvétius, Marivaux; at the table of Baron d’Holbach he heard Diderot, Rousseau, and Grimm. Guided by women, he made his way up in the world. Having praised Louis XV in clever verses, he was admitted to the court. Pompadour was charmed by his handsome face and blooming youth; she persuaded her brother to employ him as secretary, and in 1758 she made him editor of the official journal, Mercure de France. He wrote a libretto for Rameau, and articles for the Encyclopédie. Mme. Geoffrin liked him so well that she offered him a cozy apartment in her home, where he remained for ten years as a paying guest.
To the Mercure he contributed (1753-60) a series of Contes moraux (Moral Tales), which lifted that periodical into literature. Ex uno judice omnes. Soliman II, tiring of Turkish delights, asks for three European beauties. The first one resists for a month, yields for a week, and is then put aside. Another sings beautifully, but her conversation is soporific. Roxalana does not merely resist, she berates the Sultan as a lecher and a criminal. “Do you forget who I am and who you are?” he cries. Roxalana: “You are powerful, I am beautiful; so we are even.” She is not surpassingly beautiful, but she has a retroussé nose, and this overwhelms Soliman. He tries every device to break down her resistance, but fails. He threatens to kill her; she proposes to spare him the trouble by killing herself. He insults her; she insults him more cuttingly. But also she tells him that he is handsome, and that he needs only her guidance to be as fine as a Frenchman. He is offended and pleased. Finally he marries her and makes her his queen. During the ceremony he asks himself, “Is it possible that a little turned-up nose should overthrow the laws of an empire?”36 Marmontel’s moral: It is little things that cause great events, and if we knew those secret trivia we should completely revise history.
Nearly everything prospered with Marmontel until he published (1767) a novel, Bélisaire. It was excellent, but it advocated religious toleration, and questioned “the right of the sword to exterminate heresy, irreligion, and impiety, and to bring the whole world under the yoke of the true faith.”37 The Sorbonne condemned the book as containing reprehensible doctrine. Marmontel appeared before the Syndic of the Sorbonne and protested, “Come, sir, is it not the spirit of the age, not mine, that you are condemning?”38The spirit of the age showed in his boldness, and in the mildness of his punishment. Ten years earlier he would have been sent to the Bastille, and his book would have been suppressed; actually the sale of his novel proceeded famously, still bearing the “permission and privilege of the King”; and the government contented itself with recommending that he should keep silence on the matter.39 However, Mme. Geoffrin was much disturbed when the Sorbonne’s decree banning Bélisaire was not only read in the churches but posted on her door. She gently suggested that Marmontel should find other lodgings.
He landed on his feet as usual. In 1771 he was appointed royal historiographer, with a good salary; in 1783 he became “perpetual secretary” of the French Academy; in 1786 he was professor of history at the Lycée. In 1792, aged sixty-nine and sickened by the excesses of the Revolution, he retired to Évreux, then to Abloville; there he composed his Mémoires, in which even the Sorbonne was forgiven. He spent his final years in uncomplaining poverty, grateful for having lived a full and zestful life. He died on the last day of 1799.