Octave Mirbeau (February 16, 1848 in Trévières - February 16, 1917) was a French journalist, art critic, pamphleteer, novelist, and playwright, who achieved celebrity in Europe and great success among the public, while still appealing to the literary and artistic avant-garde. His work has been translated into thirty languages.
Aesthetic and political struggles
After his debut in journalism in the service of the Bonapartists
, and his debut in literature when he worked as a ghostwriter
, Mirbeau began to publish under his own name. Thereafter, he wrote in order to express his own ethical
principles and aesthetic
values. A supporter of the anarchist
cause and fervent supporter of Alfred Dreyfus
, Mirbeau embodied the intellectual who involved himself in civic issues. Independent of all parties, Mirbeau believed that one’s primary duty was to remain lucid.
As an art critic, he campaigned on behalf of the “great gods nearest to his heart”: he sang the praises of Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Auguste Renoir, Félix Vallotton, and Pierre Bonnard, and was an early advocate of Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Claudel, Aristide Maillol, and Maurice Utrillo (cf. Combats esthétiques).
As a literary critic and early member of Académie Goncourt, he 'discovered' Maurice Maeterlinck and Marguerite Audoux and admired Remy de Gourmont, Marcel Schwob, Léon Bloy, Georges Rodenbach, Alfred Jarry, Charles-Louis Philippe, Émile Guillaumin, Valery Larbaud and Léon Werth (cf. his Combats littéraires).
After authoring ten ghostwritten novels, he made his own literary debut with Le Calvaire (Calvary, 1886), in which writing allowed him to overcome the traumatic effects of his devastating liaison with the ill-reputed Judith Vimmer, renamed Juliette Roux in the novel. In 1888, Mirbeau published L'Abbé Jules (Abbé Jules), the first pre-Freudian novel written under the influence of Dostoyevsky to appear in French literature; the text featured two main interesting characters: l’abbé Jules and Father Pamphile. In Sébastien Roch, roman d'Octave Mirbeau (1890) (English translation : Sébastien Roch, 2000), Mirbeau purged the traumatic effects of his experience as a student during his sojourn among the Jesuits of Vannes. The violence he suffered there probably included rape by priests.
Crisis of the novel
Mirbeau then underwent a grave existential and literary crisis, yet during this time, he still published in serial form a pre-existentialist novel about the artist’s fate, Dans le ciel (In the Sky), introducing the figure of a painter directly modeled on Van Gogh. In the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair - which exacerbated Mirbeau’s pessimism - he published two novels judged to be scandalous by self-styled paragons of virtue : Le Jardin des supplices (Torture Garden (1899) and Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid) (1900), then Les Vingt et un Jours d'un neurasthénique (1901). In these works, Mirbeau unsettled traditional novelistic conventions, practicing the technique of collage, transgressing the code of verisimilitude and fictional credibility, and defying the hypocritical rules of propriety.
Death of the novel
In his last two novels - La 628-E8
(1907) and Dingo
(1913) (Dingo (novel)
), he strayed ever further from realism
, giving free rein to fantasy
elements and casting his car and his own dog as heroes. Because of the indeterminacy of their genre affiliation, these last Mirbeau stories show how completely he had broken with the conventions of realist fiction.
In the theatre, Mirbeau experienced world-wide acclaim with Les affaires sont les affaires
(Business is business
1903) - his classical comedy of manners
and characters in the tradition of Molière
. Here Mirbeau featured the character of Isidore Lechat, predecessor of the modern master of business intrigue, a product of the new world, a figure who makes money from everything and spreads his tentacles out over the world.
In 1908 - at the end of a long legal and media battle - Mirbeau saw his play Le Foyer (Home) performed by the Comédie-Française. In this work, he broached a new taboo subject, the economic and sexual exploitation of adolescents in a home that pretended to be a charitable one.
Six small one act plays, published under the title of Farces et moralités (1904), were considered extremely innovative. Among them, L'Épidémie (Epidemics). Here Mirbeau can be seen as anticipating the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Aymé, Harold Pinter, and Eugène Ionesco. He calls language itself into question, demystifying law, ridiculing the discourse of politicians, and making fun of the language of love.
Mirbeau has never been forgotten, and there has been no interruption in the publication of his works. Yet his immense literary production has largely been known through only three works, and he was considered as literarily and politically incorrect.
But, more recently, Mirbeau has been rediscovered and presented in a new light. A fuller appreciation of the role he played in the political, literary, and artistic world of la Belle Epoque is emerging.
Mirbeau lies buried in Passy Cemetery, in the XVIe arrondissement of Paris.
- Le Calvaire (1886) (Calvary, New York, 1922).
- L'Abbé Jules (1888) (Abbé Jules, Sawtry, Dedalus, 1996).
- Sébastien Roch (1890) (Sébastien Roch, Sawtry, Dedalus, 2000).
- Dans le ciel (1893-1989) (In the sky, translation to be published).
- Le Jardin des supplices (1899) (Torture Garden, New York, 1931; The Garden of Tortures, London, 1938) .
- Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (1900) (A Chambermaid's diary, New York, 1900 ; The Diary of a Lady's Maid, London, 1903 ; Célestine, being the diary of a chambermaid, New York, 1930 ; Diary of a chambermaid, New York, 1945).
- Les Vingt et un Jours d'un neurasthénique (1901).
- La 628-E8 (1907) (Sketches of a journey, London, 1989).
- Dingo (novel) (1913).
- Un gentilhomme (1919)
- Œuvre romanesque, 3 volumes, Buchet/Chastel – Société Octave Mirbeau, 2000-2001, 4 000 pages. Website of Éditions du Boucher, 2003-2004.
- Les Mauvais bergers (The Bad Spheperds) (1897).
- Les affaires sont les affaires (1903) (Business is business, New York, 1904).
- Farces et moralités, six morality plays (1904) (Scruples, New York, 1923 ; The Epidemic, Bloomington, 1949 ; The Lovers, translation coming soon).
- Le Foyer (1908) (Charity).
- Dialogues tristes, Eurédit, 2005.
- Dans l'antichambre (Histoire d'une Minute) (1905).
- Contes cruels, 2 volumes (1990 and 2000).
- Contes drôles (1995).
- Mémoire pour un avocat (2007).
Political and social chronicles
- La Grève des électeurs (1902).
- Combats politiques (1990).
- L'Affaire Dreyfus (1991).
- Lettres de l'Inde (1991).
- L'Amour de la femme vénale (1994).
- Chroniques du Diable (1995).
- Lettres à Alfred Bansard des Bois (1989)
- Correspondance avec Rodin (1988), avec Monet (1990), avec Pissarro (1990), avec Jean Grave (1994).
- Correspondance générale, 2 volumes already published (2003-2005).
- “During Humankind’s long centuries societies have risen and fallen, all alike in this one fact which rules all history: the great are protected, the small are crushed.”
- “To take something from one person and then turn it over to another in exchange for as much money as you can get: that is business.”
- “Sheep run to the slaughterhouse, silent and hopeless, but at least sheep never vote for the butcher who kills them or the people who devour them. More beastly than any beast, more sheepish than any sheep, the voter names his own executioner and chooses his own devourer, and for this precious “right” a revolution was fought.”
- “The greatest danger of bombs is in the explosion of stupidity that they provoke.”
- “When one tears away the veils and shows them naked, people’s souls give off such a pungent smell of decay.”
- “Each footstep taken in this society bristles with privileges, and is marked with a bloodstain; each turn of the government machinery grinds the tumbling, gasping flesh of the poor; and tears are running from everywhere in the impenetrable night of suffering. Facing these endless murders and continuous tortures, what's the meaning of society, this crumbling wall, this collapsing staircase?”
- “Children, by nature, are keen, passionate and curious. What was referred to as laziness is often merely an awakening of sensitivity, a psychological inability to submit to certain absurd duties, and a natural result of the distorted, unbalanced education given to them. This laziness, which leads to an insuperable reluctance to learn, is, contrary to appearances, sometimes proof of intellectual superiority and a condemnation of the teacher.”
- “Dead trees enclosed the bodies of men and women, violently distorted and subjected to hideous and shameful tortures.”
- “Desire can attain the darkest human terror and give an actual ideal of hell and its horror.”
- “Every intellectual effort is bent towards committing the most diversified violations upon the human being.”
- “Honesty is negative and sterile; it is ignorant of the correct evaluation of appetite and ambition – the only powers through which you can found anything durable.”
- “I feel something like a powerful oppression, like an immense fatigue after marching across fever-laden jungles, or by the shores of deadly lakes…And I am flooded by discouragement, so that it seems I shall never be able to escape from myself again.”
- “I had, at that moment, another soul – an almost divine soul, a creative and sacrificial soul.”
- “It is no exaggeration to say that the main aim of upper-class existence is to enjoy the filthiest of amusements.”
- “It isn’t dying that’s sad. It’s living when you’re not happy.”
- “Murder is born in love, and love attains the greatest intensity in murder.”
- “Nature’s constantly screaming with all its shapes and scents: love each other! Love each other! Do as the flowers. There’s only love.”
- “Schools are miniature universes. They encompass, on a child’s scale, the same kind of domination and repression as the most despotically organised societies. A similar sort of injustice and comparable baseness preside over their choice of idols to elevate and martyrs to torment.”
- “There is a diabolical streak in me, a troublesome and inexplicable perversity.”
- “There is something more mysteriously attractive than beauty: it is corruption.”
- “The universe appears to me like an immense, inexorable torture-garden…Passions, greed, hatred, and lies; social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism, and religion: these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering.”
- “The worship of money is the lowest of all human emotions, but it is shared not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the great majority of us…Little people, humble people, even those who are practically penniless. And I, with all my indignation, all my passion for destruction, I, too, am not free of it. I who am oppressed by wealth, who realise it to be the source of all misery, all my vices and hatred, all the bitterest humiliations that I have to suffer, all my impossible dreams and all the endless torment of my existence, still, all the time, as soon as I find myself in the presence of a rich person, I cannot help looking up to him, as some exceptional and splendid being, a kind of marvelous divinity, and in spite of myself, stronger than either my will of my reason, I feel rising from the very depths of my being, a sort of incense of admiration for this wealthy creature, who is all too often as stupid as he is pitiless. Isn’t it crazy? And why... why?”
- “To take something from a person and keep it for oneself: that is robbery. To take something from one person and then turn it over to another in exchange for as much money as you can get: that is business. Robbery is so much more stupid, since it is satisfied with a single, frequently dangerous profit; whereas in business it can be doubled without danger.”
- “You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”
References, further reading
- Reginald Carr, Anarchism in France - The Case Octave Mirbeau, Manchester, 1977.
- Pierre Michel and J.-F Nivet, Octave Mirbeau, l'imprécateur au cœur fidèle, Séguier, 1990, 1020 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Les Combats d'Octave Mirbeau, Annales littéraires de l'université de Besançon, 1995, 386 pages.
- Christopher Lloyd, Mirbeau's fictions, Durham, 1996.
- Enda McCaffrey, Octave Mirbeau’s literary intellectual evolution as a french writer (1880-1914), Edwin Mellen Press, 2000, 246 pages.
- Samuel Lair, Mirbeau et le mythe de la nature, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004, 361 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Octave Mirbeau et le roman, Société Octave Mirbeau, 2005, 276 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Bibliographie d'Octave Mirbeau, Société Octave Mirbeau, 2006, 441 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Albert Camus et Octave Mirbeau, Société Octave Mirbeau, Angers, 2005, 68 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Jean-Paul Sartre et Octave Mirbeau, Société Octave Mirbeau, Angers, 2005, 67 pages.
- Pierre Michel, Octave Mirbeau, Henri Barbusse et l’enfer, 51 pages.
- Robert Ziegler, The Nothing Machine : The Fiction of Octave Mirbeau, Rodopi, Amsterdam – Kenilworth, September 2007.
- Samuel Lair, Octave Mirbeau l'iconoclaste, L'Harmattan, 2008.
- Cahiers Octave Mirbeau, n° 1 to n° 15 1994-2008, 5 400 pages.