A writer’s journal is a half-made, imperfect thing written to no one—or
perhaps it is a meticulously crafted letter addressed to all the
faceless readers of the future. Though it might include writerly
passages resembling an author’s public work, it’s functionally different
from proper literature. A writer’s journal interests me especially when
it lacks the consistency of the “legitimate” work, or when it is a bit
too dense or too slack. It is in those varied or uncharacteristic
passages that the author becomes human, and the imagined distance
between the writing and its author seems to shrink. As the celebrated
late-nineteenth-century French author Jules Renard wrote in his
inimitable journal, which exemplifies all of these traits and
contradictions, “This Journal empties me. It is not a work of writing.
Just as making love every day is not love.”

Renard, who grew up in the village of Chitry, in rural Burgundy, started
keeping his journal at twenty-three, married and moved to Paris at
twenty-four, and maintained the journal until he died in Chitry at
forty-six, from arteriosclerosis. His best-known work, an
autobiographical novel titled “Poil de Carotte” (“Carrot Top”), was
published in 1894, when he was thirty, and later became an
overwhelmingly successful play. By 1890, the red-headed Renard had
published a number of short prose pieces in various outlets. He met
the famous Alphonse Daudet that year, and the older writer “got to his feet,
looked at me in the light, and said: ‘I recognize Poil de Carotte.’ ”
Renard frequently deploys the Carrot Top character in his journal as an
alternative persona. “Every time the wind blows down the chimney, Poil de
Carotte remembers his childhood,” he writes in 1892. In the journal,
he also refers to his parents as M. and Mme. Lepic, the parents’ names
in the novel; his anomie toward them emerges from time to time, as when,
in 1906, he broods, “Still and all, I did not dare write everything. I
did not tell this: M. Lepic sending Poil de Carotte to ask Mme. Lepic if
she wanted a divorce, and Mme. Lepic’s reception. What a scene!”

If one is to read “Poil de Carotte” as unambiguously autobiographical,
Renard was hideously neglected as a child. And yet, if we’re to go by
the journal, he was a rather cheerful adult. It’s easy to idealize, say,
Kafka’s diary as the artifact of a great writer, miserable and
under-recognized and tubercular and so on. Renard, who outlived Kafka by
only a few years, also met with his share of adult misfortune. His
father shot himself dead in his bed. Twelve years later, Renard’s mother
either threw herself into a well or had a seizure and fell in; in 1909,
Renard recounts descending into the well and trying unsuccessfully to
remove the fresh corpse. Notwithstanding these lurid deaths and his
nightmarish childhood, the Renard of the journal is a happy, funny
fellow. He loves his children and enjoys a long, devoted marriage.
Almost at the end of his life, he writes, “It is no secret that, for
twenty years, I have had the best of wives.” He seems refreshingly
uninterested in cultivating the personal mythology of an archetypal
Great Artist.

In his diary, Renard, always funny and frank, translates his daily
adventures into plot and dialogue, aphorisms and jokes. He writes
fretful notes to himself about the way he wishes the journal would read,
career remonstrations, artes poeticae, and self-confession and
self-forgiveness of what he perceives as his own laziness. He says
stupid things and regrets them and records pages of dialogue that drift
toward fiction. He sometimes sounds as if he were talking to himself—or
perhaps trying to psychoanalyze himself on the page. (“The secret Poil
de Carotte,” he writes, in 1896. “I wish I were a great writer so that I
could tell it in words so exact that they would not seem too natural.
Mme. Lepic was given to changing her chemise in front of me.”) In
another scene, several poets and writers, including Renard, argue
about what to call the magazine they plan to publish and what color to make
the cover. Should it be the color of a horse Vallette saw? Vallette
can’t quite remember what the horse looked like. Or should it be the
color of tobacco with milk poured over it? “A bowl of milk was brought,
but no one offered his tobacco to be wasted,” Renard writes.

Despite becoming a member of the Académie Goncourt in 1907, itself a
reason to stay in Paris and be a respected writer-about-town, Renard
left the city two years later, with his wife and children, to take the
place of his recently deceased father as the mayor of Chitry. “I am not
one of those who need to go to Venice in order to experience an
emotion,” he wrote in 1908, perhaps while considering whether to stay in
town or leave for the provinces. He stayed in Chitry until his death
in 1910. And yet the journal brims with dialogue between other writers
and artists of his time: intrigue, competition, envy, gossip, alliances
for and against. He describes the ancient Verlaine as a “dismal Socrates
and a soiled Diogenes; part dog, part hyena,” and notes his wife’s
observation that Pierre Loti has come to the house wearing makeup.
Anatole France is “very pleasant, like a man whose face is always caught
in the door, and who doesn’t want you to squeeze.”

Renard is a one-man one-liner generator: “He walked noiselessly, like a
fish,” he writes, of no one in particular. “Many people talk to me about
my novel, about to appear, in order not to have to say anything after it
will have appeared,” he notes, in 1891. Or: “It is rather odd that I
can’t read two pages of Thackeray without yawning, when my humour is
supposed to resemble his.” Or, perhaps my favorite: “The truly free man
is the one who will turn down an invitation to dinner without giving an

More than the sum of its individual lines, though, Renard’s journal is
the story of a young writer who becomes an old writer. This ineluctable
narrative is what most moves me about the book. At first, he doesn’t
know anyone; later, he knows everyone and is himself someone to know. At
age thirty-one, he frets, “I have put too much of my life into my work.
I am no longer anything but a gnawed bone.” Ten years later, close to
death, he writes, “Today, at last, I look at Paris. / Twenty years ago I
did not see it. I had only my ambition. I only read books. / Now I stop
in front of the Louvre, in front of a church, at a street corner, and I
say: ‘What wonders!’ ”

This essay is adapted from the introduction to “The Journal of Jules Renard,” which will be published in November by Tin House Books.