These remarks are follow-on to my essay about Chatterers. The responses on Pat’s site were so intelligent and pointed that they inspired me to think about minds I had learned the most from growing up. French writers had often acted as ideals for achieving mental integrity, and one writer I treasured was Jean Bruyer who died in the 17 century.
I loved the masterpieces of the French literature because they were lucid, piercing, ingenious, clever and straightforward. The French never resorted to using awkward or ostentatious phases unlike their English contemporaries. Bruyer’s book was called, “Characters,” and in reading it, I discovered that Bruyer was a wonderful philosopher and aphorist. I read his book so often in the Penguin paperback that it finally fell to pieces. But the radiant light of Bruyere never dimmed, never faded, and never became usual.
His essays are free on the web.
Bruyer is unique because he sees the personalities that he studies steadily, accurately, and in detail. Many annoy him, some outrage him, but all were of interest to him. He can be scornful, but not venomous. He dislikes, but he doesn’t hate. He disdains, but he doesn’t damage. He has none of the vitriolic bitterness of Swift, for example.
My love of French literature carried ne to unusual places. In 1967, I read a history of the French novel beginning with the Princess of Cleves and ending with six volumes of Proust, and it took more than a year to do and it led me to an interesting character. I once got an interview with a French man, Paul Mus who was in exile and teaching at Yale. It was only my third day at LIFE Magazine, and I had to take a tour in the Text Department, and a writer from, the Text Department kept grumbling about being forced to do an interview with “some god dam Frenchman.” He had to take train on a Friday night to interview him, and he was out of sorts, and he grumbled so much that I finally volunteered. I had just been hired as the Entertainment Reporter, even though I had applied to be a war correspondent.
Paul Mus was “the goddam Frenchman and he was the first man of genius I had ever met. He was squat, block faced silver haired, and with a presence that smote you like a physical force. He boasted that during World War II, while riding on the Metro, he had razored off the gold buttons of the German officers, an offense punishable by death.
It was clear to me that no one had stood up to him for a number of years; by habit, he was used intimidating and being obeyed and admired. But I was there to get a story, and when he told me he wouldn’t talk to me because he hated Life Magazine’s publisher, Henry Luce, I worked up my courage and told him that Henry Luce had been death 18 months, and while I didn’t mean to be rude, but I thought his remark obtuse.
Silence fell. He eyed me coldly. He asked me what I knew about France, and I briefly told him. He then said, out of all the French literature you’ve read what did you like best? I replied, Baudelaire’s notebooks. That was not entirely true, but we were in duel of wits, and he said “What about them?” and I said that Baudelaire hated the Belgians because he thought they were a people born to think in unison. I said I feared that the Americans would end up very much like the Belgians. He stared at me as I had been an elephant who had just sung a soprano aria in an opera.