On Visiting the Chateaux of the Rich and Aphoristic

On the same stressful car trip through France described here, my family and I visited the chateaux of two of the country’s greatest aphorists. First up was the ancestral home of Francois VI, Duke de La Rochefoucauld, near Cognac, and then came the childhood digs of Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, near Saint Malo.

The very first chateau- or castle-like building I ever saw in Europe was the Stadhuis in Delft. As you will see if you click on this picture, it doesn’t look anything like a chateau or a castle, apart from a few architectural flourishes that don’t quite qualify as spires. Still, what did I know? I had never been to Europe before and the building was deeply impressive, in that entirely down-to-earth, non-grandiose Dutch way. To my lasting shame, the first thought that crossed my mind was: “It looks just like Disneyland.” Sad but true, this was the only comparative experience I had had up until that point.

I am less ashamed to admit that “It looks just like Disneyland” was also the first thought that crossed my mind when I laid eyes on La Rochefoucauld’s lair. As you will see if you look at the pictures located here, this place really IS a fairy-tale castle. My daughter loved it, especially the room upstairs where the whole family could dress up in period costumes and flounce about the house. What a beautiful sight it was to see my five-year-old girl run squealing down an exquisitely paneled corridor in a 1,000-year-old chateau with the train of her ball gown twirling in the air behind her. She was being chased, of course, by my two boys, dressed in full medieval armor and brandishing alarmingly realistic swords. As long as they didn’t whack one of those chandeliers by accident… Meanwhile, my wife and I played lord and lady of the manor, swishing down the awesome marble staircase.

La Rochefoucauld aphorism of the day:

We all know how to despise money, but few of us know how to give it away.

In short, this was a marvelous place, even though they made absolutely no fuss whatsoever about being the home of one of the world’s greatest aphorists. They had a couple of nice original portraits hanging in the dining room, but no busts of the great man himself for sale. No calendars, notebooks or bookmarks printed with his cynical sayings. Not even a postcard. Disneyland would have done that, at least, much better…

In comparison, Chateaubriand’s place was, well, depressing. Not so much depressing, I guess, as oppressive. Built several hundred years before La Rochefoucauld’s pad, it is a squat, intimidating and vaguely malevolent structure. Chateaubriand spent about two years there, and hated it. He writes movingly about the gloom of the place, a sensation exacerbated by the fact that his mother was constantly falling into hypochondriacal swoons and his father paced the house in the darkest of moods, insisting on total silence. I can’t find a picture of the chateau—probably just as well—but here are some views of Chateaubriand’s birthplace and grave in nearby Saint Malo.

Chateaubriand aphorism of the day:

An original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.

The house was said to be haunted by the wooden leg of a former resident. Yes, that’s right, just the wooden leg would stomp around at night—accompanied by a black cat, but not accompanied by the rest of the former resident. In the 1800s, during restoration work, the mummified corpse of a cat was indeed found behind a wall (the unfortunate feline can now be viewed under glass in Chateaubriand’s old bedroom), but apparently it was common practice to bury a cat in the wall during the Middle Ages since it was supposed to bring good luck. Chateaubriand had a hideous ink stand made in the shape of the black cat, with big yellow eyes, and this is also still in the house—as is a lovely pen and ink drawing of the man on his deathbed. There was even a gift shop! But they were only selling replicas of that hideous black cat. Walt Disney is no doubt turning in his grave.