Herbert Lottman

The Committed Writer and his Ambivalences From Chateaubriand to Malraux Publication date : August 1, 2003

"To be Chateaubriand or nothing" — this was the young Victor Hugo’s avowed ambition. Later, Jean-Paul Sartre would say to Albert Camus: "You were the most complex and the richest of people, you were the latest and the most opportune of Chateaubriand’s heirs." Over the years, Chateaubriand has been regarded as the very model of the politically committed writer, that figure that has dominated the French political and cultural landscape. By definition, a committed writer is a well-known one who puts the respect and admiration his name has accrued in the service of a cause. His or her reputation precedes and gives weight to the act of commitment. But is it really that simple? Is political commitment only a matter of principles? Isn’t it also driven by a quest for celebrity? Aren’t committed writers generally moved by more or less dubious motives? In order to understand what it means to be a committed writer, Herbert Lottman traces the idea to the nineteenth century. Beginning with the Dreyfus affair and Zola’s fight, he goes on to examine Proust’s hesitations and the manoeuvres of both Maurice Barrès and Léon Daudet, whom he regards as precursors of the influence-seeking Charles Maurras. Lottman then analyses the ambiguities inherent in the career of Chateaubriand, a writer who used his literary reputation to further his political ideas — while simultaneously using his power as a public figure to further his literary career. Other writers included here are Lamartine, who was at first a rebel without a cause, and George Sand at the time of the Second Republic. This sweeping panorama of French intellectual life ends with comparative portraits of André Gide and André Malraux. The latter once told Lottman that in order to conquer the public, a writer must have "an astonishing biography, a prior notoriety". Described here are the stratagems adopted by some of the greatest figures in the French literary pantheon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as they faltered between a quest for purity and the desire for personal glory.

A renowned biographer, Herbert Lottman has written over 15 books, including The Purge, Colette, Flaubert, Albert Camus, Pétain, The Left Bank, The French Rothschilds and, most recently, Man Ray’s Montparnasse. He lives in Paris.