Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Musset, Alfred, Novel, Romanticism > I have a friend, but my pain has no friend. (Alfred de Musset)

I have a friend, but my pain has no friend. (Alfred de Musset)

I have much to say about The Confession of a Child of the Century by Alfred de Musset. I chose to read it after seeing Lorenzaccio in a theatre and loved the play. I knew it was a masterpiece and I hadn’t read it yet, so I bought it.

Musset was born in 1810 and died in 1857. The Confession of a Child of the Century was written in 1836. The main protagonist Octave is the fictional alter ego of Musset himself. He wrote this book as a therapy to recover from his break up with George Sand.

The story is a first-person narrative. Octave tells us about three years of his life during which he suffered from le mal du siècle, a sort of spleen. It starts with the end of a love relationship, after he witnessed his mistress’s betrayal. The book is split in five parts. In the first one, Octave mopes. In the second part, he tries to heal his heart by throwing himself in debauchery with his friend Desgenais. After his father’s death and a mourning period, he meets Brigitte Pierson and falls passionately in love with her. The last three parts of the book describe this new love.

This novel is in the tradition of romantic literature but does not entirely belong to it. Some chapters sound like romantic prose, with many “O!”, lamentations, self-pity, exclamation marks, weeping, fainting, references to Ancient Greece and Rome.

“Ah! faithless one! wretch!” I cried between my sobs, “you knew that it would kill me. Did the prospect please you? What have I done to you?”

But Musset sometimes puts in irony, which gave me fresh air from moping and pulling out hair by the roots. For example,

Is she your first mistress’? He asked – ‘No, said I’, she’s the last one

In Musset’s case, the chapters alternate between romantic style and more simple style. Some chapters of the second part, when Desgenais tries to convince Octave to live according to his physical needs without too much thinking, reminded me of The philosophy in the Bedroom, by Sade, not the pornographic chapters, the philosophical ones.   

Musset has also a gift for describing people with few words, like Mercanson, the priest:

He was large and at the same time pale, a thing which always displeases me and which is, in fact, unpleasant; it impresses me as a sort of diseased healthfulness. Moreover, he had the slow yet jerky way of speaking that characterizes the pedant. Even his manner of walking, which was not that of youth and health, repelled me; as for his glance, it might be said that he had none. I do not know what to think of a man whose eyes have nothing to say. These are the signs which led me to an unfavorable opinion of Mercanson, an opinion which was unfortunately correct.”

The Confession of a Child of the Century is definitely a masterpiece; there is no arguing upon that. It is wonderfully written, clever and full of an exceptional lucidity for a man of only 26. It is through this novel that Musset popularized the notion of “Mal du siècle” already described by Chateaubriand. I will write another post about that because that’s probably the only thing that rang a bell in me in this book.

Honestly, it was hard for me to finish reading it, I was constantly checking how many pages left I had to read, which is never a good sign. I wish Musset had said in 200 pages what he wrote in 350. I have to admit I was bored and I skipped some dramatic passages that were too much lyric for my taste.

Being myself more of a “shrug-it-off” and “suffer-in-silence” type, I’m not really fond of lyricism, it doesn’t reach my heart.  When I read The Suffering of the Young Werther, I don’t know who suffered most: Werther or me reading the book. These characters take things too seriously and lack a healthy dose of self-irony, which helps overcoming difficulties. Maybe it is also easy for me to say so because most of the acute pain we all have to take in life is ahead of me.

I truly regret I can’t like romantic authors because they have much to say and their language is like a thick smoke screen between their thoughts and me. They can’t touch me. I am a lot more moved by love scenes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall than I am reading Octave’s outbursts of joy, tears or sentiments. It sounds fake to me and in life, too much intimate details in confidences make me ill at ease. In addition, too many elements about an event or a state of mind don’t leave enough room for my imagination. And my imagination needs room when I read.

I can’t say I didn’t like The Confession of a Child of the Century, because there were really interesting chapters but I couldn’t sympathize with Octave. His relationship with Brigitte is of a toxic kind. It is spoiled by his uncontrolable and poisonous jalousy and I have little patience with that kind of tortuous passion. 

To conclude, I didn’t enjoy myself reading it but I guess that Goethe and Byron’s fans will like it better than me.

And now I want to read crime fiction to have fun.

  1. July 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I wondered if you’d mention Chateaubriand. I’m not sorry I read Rene and Atala, but I can’t say either filled me with joy either.

    And you’re spot on about the checking page numbers thing. It’s a terrible sign. Frankly, if one’s checking page numbers there’s a real question as to whether it’s worth reading on. Sometimes it is, but being boring is for me one of the great unforgiveable sins a novel can commit.

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  2. July 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I have René at home but I haven’t read it yet. I’m a little prejudiced against Chateaubriand. I tend to call him Chateaubri-chiant, “chiant” being a colloquial word for “boring” in French. What you say is not encouraging.
    About Musset, it’s like you with the Radiguet the other day. I want to like it, but I can’t. I wouldn’t say it is boring, I’d rather I was bored. But it is a great book.

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  1. March 20, 2012 at 12:37 am

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