An Introduction to “Le Notaire du Havre” with reference to the 
biography of George Duhamel (1884 – 1966)

Georges Duhamel belongs to the generation of French novelists who began to make their name towards the end of the First World War and produced their work during the inter-war years, 1918- 1939.  Duhamel wrote his story of the Pasquier family in ten volumes and he gave to the complete collection the title “Chronique des Pasquier”.  The first volume: “Le Notaire du Havre” was published in 1933, but he had begun preparing this cycle of novels 10 years previously. The last book in the series appeared in 1945.

Previously, novels in multi-volume series had provided some of the outstanding masterpieces of French literature with, for example: Balzac’s “Comédie Humaine” and Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart”.  During the decade of the 1920s, this genre flourished, with other eminent French writers as well as Duhamel, publishing series novels –Roger Martin Du Gard wrote the series: “Les Thibaults” and Jules Romain  the series “Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté”.  Jules Romain and Georges Duhamel had been personal friends since the early 1900s at a time when both of them were making their first moves into a literary career.

In the introduction to their study of these three 20th Century writers, the critics Lagarde and Michard list three main features which these novelists shared:

Lagarde and Michard tell us:  ........  les années 1920-1940, particulièrement fécondes, ont vu paraître des œuvres qui…………, présentent certains traits communs : tout d'abord une forme, celle du roman cyclique ; ensuite une signification, englobant, dans les méandres du «fleuve»*, l'analyse psychologique des caractères, la grande fresque historique et sociale, et le symbolisme moral ou philosophique. 
*N.B. Series novels sometimes called “sagas” in English are also known as also known as “roman-fleuve” 

Lagarde and Michard elaborate further the third element that they identify in these books - the moral or philosophic symbolism.  They explain that these authors can be seen to go beyond realism of character, action and background to achieve an epic dimension by the cumulative scale of their work or by developing a philosophical interpretation of the individual and collective history told in the saga.  The two critics tell us:
Le roman reste donc réaliste dans la mesure où il se fonde sur une documentation détaillée et se préoccupe de faire vivre la réalité sociale d'une époque, mais il déborde aussi ce réalisme, soit en s'élevant jusqu'à l'amplification épique, soit en suggérant une véritable interprétation philosophique de l'histoire individuelle et collective.

            Moving back to the 19th century, we would recognise that Balzac’s “Comédie Humaine” achieved an epic dimension by the immensity of his scope.  Duhamel’s ten volume saga cannot be compared with the promethean hundred book output of Balzac.  However, moving to the second criterion of philosophical significance, we note that Duhamel was concerned with deeper general historical issues beneath the personal story that he was relating and also in identifying moral significance. We will discuss these aspects in the following Section Three, with the title: “The ideas”. 

            Using a structure, suggested by the definitions of Lagarde and Michard, quoted above, the following notes will be divided into three sections:


A) THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE PEOPLE PORTRAYED - l'analyse psychologique des caractères


C) THE MORAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL SIGNIFICANCE - le symbolisme moral ou philosophique


The human picture of the Pasquier family and its relation to the biography of the Duhamel Family
Writing in « Chronique des Saisons Amères »(1944),  Duhamel described his Pasquier series as, above all, a warm human story :" histoire non pas naturelle et sociale .. . mais histoire avant tout humaine, histoire ou j'ai peint de mon mieux les douceurs et les misères d'une chaude tribu vivante."  By this statement, he would seem to make his prime objective as a writer what Lagarde and Michard described as  “l'analyse psychologique des caractères”. 

Our later studies will show that the people whom Duhamel depicts and their life experiences that he describes closely resemble those of his own family. It is understandable, therefore, that characterisation should assume the greatest importance to Duhamel as he had a profound need to re-examine his own life and to come to terms with some sensitive issues from the past. The close link between fiction and biography sharpens the sensitivity of his portrayal and adds to the authenticity of his account.

A dominant preoccupation of Georges Duhamel was to reconcile himself to the memory of his complex, problematic father and in the book we see Laurent similarly struggling to come to terms with the recollected image of his father, Raymond Pasquier.  In Chapter 13, Laurent tells us that he'd never loved his father. He says that he began the story, tortured with reproach against his father in spite of his death and the passage of time. Yet memory appears to flatter him. He asks whether this incomprehensible father is going to deceive him again and make him forget that he was never able to love him; (p. 155)
"O père, comme la lumière du souvenir te va bien! Comme elle t'éclaire avec indulgence Je suis parti dans mon récit le cœur torturé de reproches, malgré la mort et les années ... vas-tu donc me faire oublier que je n'ai pas pu te chérir?"
Georges Duhamel was at pains to explain on many occasions that the story was by no means a direct transcription of the facts of his own life. " J'ecris les mémoires d'un autre et, tout naturellement, je collabore avec moi-même, je collabore avec ma vie". In spite of this qualification, the parallels are very apparent and there is little doubt that the “Le Notaire du Havre” is the reflection of Duhamel's own family experience during his childhood years.   This conclusion is based on the following factors:

The action of Le Notaire du Havre” begins in the early months of 1888 (the final dramatic event in this book takes place in the summer of 1891). Laurent tells us in the preface that he was seven years old at the commencement of this story, which puts his date of birth at 1881, making him only slightly older than Georges Duhamel, who was born on the 30th June 1884. It is self-evident, therefore that the period of the life history of the Pasquier that he relates coincides with that of his own life.

Duhamel admitted that his own parents were models for M. and Mme. Pasquier- but with one reservation: Je déclare sans détour que j'ai, en composant les figures du père et de la mère, emprunté beaucoup d'éléments à  mes modèles familiers. J'ajoute que, par la suite et le récit prenant de l'ampleur, mes peintures se sont, en bien des façons, éloignées des modèles.

Duhamel’s reservation would seem to refer to the later volumes, but the picture of M. Pasquier and Mme Pasquier given in our book, “Le Notaire du Havre”, strongly suggests a close resemblance with Duhamel’s own parents.

Pierre-Émile Duhamel’s character

Details from the biography of Pierre-Émile Duhamel show how closely his character and life resembles that of Raymond Pasquier as we see him in this book:


(In a later section of these notes, there is a discussion whether the personality of this father of the family undergoes further analysis through the character of M. Manuel Wasselin.)

Mme. Lucie Pasquier’s character
A biographer of Georges Duhamel describes his mother, Emma Pionnier Duhamel as an exemplary lady. Duhamel has acknowledged that she is the model for his portrayal of Mme Pasquier. Therefore, on reviewing the features of the character of Mme Lucie Pasquier in “Le Notaire du Havre”, we are also aware that the list also sketches the portrait of the admirable Mme Emma Duhamel.


Duhamel specifically stated that his own brothers and sisters were in no way models for the Pasquier children: “ les enfants Pasquier n'ont absolument aucun rapport avec mes frères et mes sœurs.”  He goes on to say that four of the children were creatures of his imagination: Cécile, Suzanne, Joseph et Ferdinand sont les créatures de mes songes."  We note that the name of one child, Laurent, is absent from this list.

It is understandable that Georges Duhamel would not wish to offend the privacy of his brothers and sisters by publicly detailing their characters and their lives in his books.  In their middle age when the books were published, it would have been difficult, for example, for Georges to meet the brother he had characterised as mercenary, tactless and self-centred like Joseph, or the brother slow, lacking confidence and one of life’s failures like Ferdinand.

However, Laurent, whom, as we saw above, Duhamel had excluded from his list of purely fictitious family members, has a definite link.  From the start, Laurent is presented as the voice of the author and reflects his temperament and ideas.  They share the same experiences. From his own personal experience Duhamel knew the miseries of poverty. His early years, like Laurent’s were overshadowed by ill-health.  Duhamel was a frail, short-sighted child, diagnosed with a spinal condition.

Most notably Georges had had the same turbulent and insecure childhood as Laurent, which, in both cases was caused by a quixotic father.  Georges Duhamel described how the upheaval of constant change of home, instigated by his father, forced him, in his early years, to sacrifice private ambitions and tore him from friendships he had formed. As a result he, like Laurent, built up an overwhelming desire for order and stability which he described as:
" ce désir, ce besoin qui ne m'ont jamais plus lâché de m'enraciner quelque part, d'y assurer un foyer stable, d'y nouer des habitudes, d'y maintenir des traditions. »

For Duhamel, peace, order, har­mony and balance were the secret of happiness. He wrote in1936:
 " Toute vie est une conquête constante de l’ordre, une bataille, un travail incessant pour trouver un équilibre difficile »

Duhamel gave Laurent very much the very much the same career as his own.  Laurent becomes a leading biologist and Georges Duhamel, after completing his training as a doctor, went into biological research.  Laurent gets to know the theatrical world through his actress sister Suzanne, Georges Duhamel knew this world intimately through his marriage to the famous actress, Blanche Albane and also from writing for the stage.

There is no doubt therefore that in the portrayal of M. Pasquier, Mme. Pasquier and Laurent, the Chronique des Pasquier is largely autobiographical. And in spite of Duhamel’s insistence on the fictional basis of Laurent’s siblings, it is apparent that the general view of the two family units shows a close resemblance:-

By the start of the narrative, Mme. Pasquier had already given birth to six children, but two had died in their early years.  Mme Pasquier is very close to giving birth for a seventh time as the first volume ends. 
In the prologue to this book, Laurent tells of the death of his elder brother and sister.  They had died within the period of a week, in 1884, from scarlet fever.  Marthe was five years old at her death and Michel the eldest in the family had just turned ten.  Although he was only five, at the time, Laurent has memories of the dreadful loss.  The deep despair and mourning of his mother was clear to see.  His father’s reaction was more complex.  He would not talk of them, but, when he did mention them, his voice changed and his face saddened dramatically.  Whatever success the other children had, the two that he lost remained to him the stars of the family.
 Deux fois, j'ai surpris les propos de mon père qui disait à des amis en nous désignant d'un coup de menton : « Ces petits-là ne sont pas mal, bien sûr, et même ils ne sont pas sots. Mais les deux que j'ai perdus! Oh! des êtres exceptionnels dont on pouvait tout attendre. »

The Duhamel family was of similar composition.  Georges Duhamel was the seventh of eight children, of whom only four survived. We are safe to assume that Laurent’s description of the trauma of death of the two Pasquier children is a poignant account from the Duhamel’s personal experience.


The family circumstances of the Pasquier
The dominant theme of the book is the desperate financial situation in which they live, with money only enough to provide the simplest meals –constantly lentils.  It causes Laurent horrific nightmares.  It is mainly the father who is responsible for the privations of the family, through decisions he made.  He gave up his employment to study for a new career as a doctor to improve his and his family’s prospects.  He also wasted a large sum of money on a rash investment. In this book they move house twice, but the story of the mercury barometer tells of twenty further, forced house removals. Laurent finds it difficult to understand his father and admits that he had never really loved him.  .

The family circumstances of the Duhamel
 Georges Duhamel also passed his childhood under the threat of the financial difficulties of his parents. We have mentioned above how the capricious decisions of his father, Pierre-Émile Duhamel, forced the family constantly to move home – 43 times during George’s childhood. and youth. The father who was responsible for this instability made a profound impression on his mind. Like Raymond Pasquier, Pierre-Émile Duhamel decided on a career change in midlife. Previously he had had a variety of jobs, including a spell as the Le Havre correspondent of “Le Figaro”.  He retired to the country for health reasons and tried to live off the land.  On his return to Paris, he formed the ambition to become a doctor. He sold sweets by day to make money to keep his family and with impressive will-power forced himself to complete the necessary studies, by working through the night, sacrificing sleep.  He finally qualified when he was 51 years of age, when Georges was 14 years old. He became a successful and sympathetic doctor.


The “Chronique Pasquier” depicts the family’s dramatic social rise to the elite of French society, in the scope of two generations and Duhamel’s own family achieved the same social climb

The social climb of the Pasquier family
The introduction tells us that Laurent’s grandfather, Charles-Bruno Pasquier, who died the year before Laurent was born, had been a simple gardener..  He had come from a very poor peasant family, but through hard work and marriage to a richer wife, had bought a number of acres of land to work.  He was rough but inventive with an enquiring mind and the rise of the Pasquier family began with him.
At the start of “Le Notaire du Havre”, his son, Raymond, is living with his young family in sub-standard accommodation, too small for their needs, struggling to survive on the brink of poverty.  On the rare occasions when they venture outside their home, their neighbourhood offers them the society of people similar to themselves. As head of the family, Raymond Pasquier, sets himself the daunting task of studying to qualify as a doctor in order to raise his and his family’s status in the world. When he achieved success in this hugely ambitious endeavour, he made a further step on their upward climb. The next generation continues this dramatic progress. The children grow up and leave home and four of the five win success each in a different career.  Only the second son Ferdinand failed to achieve significant success. It  is in a paragraph of “Le Notaire du Havre” where Laurent tells, with some envy, the boundless love and attention which Mme Pasquier reserved for her least brilliant child that we are given a glimpse of the glittering prizes, won in the future by Joseph’s siblings Page 176:
Les années peuvent venir, et même le siècle nou­veau tout chargé de destinées. On dit que Joseph est riche, que la petite Cécile est devenue une artiste incomparable, que la nouvelle, la Suzanne, est d'une beauté radieuse, que Laurent connaît la gloire. Tout cela, c'est très beau, et c'est peut-être même vrai; mais le coeur maternel, jusqu'à la dernière minute, ne battra que pour la justice, que pour l'équilibre vengeur. Il y aura du moins quelqu'un pour exalter les mérites de Ferdinand, pour citer ses mots, publier son goût, louer ses ouvrages.
The story of the children, told in the successive volumes, takes us into different social milieu and, as the family success grows, the reader is introduced to the highest levels of French society.  
Laurent becomes one of the leading biologists of his time, and moves among scientists and in uni­versity circles. 
Cécile, the elder daughter, exception­ally gifted from an early age as we see in “Le Notaire du Havre”, becomes a great concert pianist and her achievements afford glimpses of the world of music. 
Suzanne, with whom Mme Pasquier is pregnant at the end of this book, makes a reputation on the stage.  
Joseph, the eldest son, gains distinction and great wealth in the world of business and high finance.

The social climb of the Duhamel family
The Duhamel family biography tells the same story of rapid social climb from humble beginnings.  Georges Duhamel’s father, Pierre-Émile Duhamel, had been born into a peasant family in Normandy.  Although an unstable, quixotic character, he had started the social rise of the family. He had achieved the profession of pharmacist but late in life conceived the wild ambition to study to become a doctor.  His son, Georges, was able to continue the social ascent of the family by virtue of his hard work and talent as a student and although dogged by ill-health, in 1903 he gained entry to the University of Paris to study medicine.  He enrolled simultaneously in classes at the Institute of Biology. His father had completed his medical studies only two years earlier. 
While studying medicine and the sciences, Georges Duhamel was strongly attracted to Literature, Music and the Arts and along with his sister’s husband formed a commune of writers, artists and musicians, called “ l’Abbaye de Créteil”.  On completion of his studies, he went into the pharmaceutical industry, but also published poetry and plays and was engaged as literary critic by the “Mercure de France”.
During the First World War he volunteered as a military surgeon and afterwards he described his traumatic experiences in two volumes which won him the Prix Goncourt in 1918 and made him famous.  After this, Duhamel devoted himself entirely to literature and the arts.  He published his cyclic novels “Vie et Aventures des Salavin 1920- 1932 and  « Chronique des Pasquier (1933- 1945) ».  Married to the famous actress, Blanche Albane, he was drawn into the theatrical world.
Georges Duhamel brought great distinction to the family name. He was elected to the French Academy, being described in his old age by Marcel Druon as the “High Priest of the French language.” He was also elected to the French Academy of Medicine.  Among other achievements, he was president of the Alliance Française and a columnist on “Le Figaro”.   During the 20th century, the Duhamel family, like the Pasquier family, rose to the pinnacle of French society.
In these notes on the characters the focus has been on showing how similar they are to people in Duhamel’s life. We have said that this was important to Duhamel for personal reasons in his quest for the true significance of his life.  However another principle was involved.  This principle Duhamel articulated when he was asked why he was concerned to place his characters in environments where he had actually lived.  He explained that the justification was: closeness to reality. This will be a major theme of section 2


In their study of Duhamel and the other roman fleuve writers of the early 20th century, Lagarde and Michard had stressed the importance of the authentic social history as the basis in the works of these three writers. The two critics pointed to the detailed documentation, by which the authors brought alive the social reality of France in the late 19th and early 20th century.   In view of this, it is surprising to find that, in some comments, Duhamel seemed to be playing down the idea that he was writing a social history.  For example, in the long introductory chapter that he wrote for “Le Notaire du Havre”,   Laurent Pasquier, the narrator, specifically dissociates himself from the subtitle " pour servir a l'étude des moeurs."  Similarly Duhamel, in a comment (quoted earlier)  in « Chronique des Saisons Amères » (1944),  described the story of the Pasquier family as " histoire non pas naturelle et sociale .. . mais histoire avant tout humaine ».  

However, by these remarks, Duhamel certainly did not intend to dismiss the importance of the social picture. While setting the depiction of people as his top priority, he recognised the vital importance of an authentic depiction of the places and the social background. We have previously noted Duhamel’s stated concern to achieve “closeness to reality” When he was asked why he had chosen, as the settings for his story, places where he had actually lived, Duhamel explained that the task, which he had set himself, was to give an eye-witness account of a certain time and a certain society:" de porter témoignage pour un temps et pour une société."



Duhamel carefully paints the district of Paris where Laurent lives. This is an area not far away from the fine buildings of central Paris but is very different from the gracious new boulevards. At the opening of the story, the Pasquier were living in a very cramped, insalubrious home.  The living conditions were impossible for a family of six. The two eldest boys slept in a tiny room, without a window - probably a former pantry- off the kitchen. Page 48
Joseph et Ferdinand couchaient ensemble dans un réduit qui prenait  jour sur la cuisine. Comme c'étaient de grands garçons, on leur allumait une lampe et ils avaient le droit de lire ou de travailler une heure avant de s'endormir. 
The two youngest children sleep in turn, one with mother — one with papa and they quarrelled a bit because each preferred to sleep with mother. Page 48
Nous couchions, Cécile et moi, dans la chambre de nos parents. Il y avait là deux grands lits de bois disposés presque a angle droit. Maman dormait dans l'un, papa dans l'autre. Nous, les petits, nous couchions alternativement dans l'un et dans l'autre et nous nous querellions un peu pour coucher toujours avec maman, parce qu'une mère, c'est plus doux, plus chaud et parce que papa, craignant les coups de pied, nous refoulait dans la ruelle.
On the night that they were given hopes of a large inheritance, his father was already making plans — they would leave “this little hovel” and find an apartment with 4 rooms at least — to accommodate the furniture of their late Aunt Delahaie.  Mme. Pasquier does not like him calling their present home a hovel  Page 49 :
Mais n'appelle pas ce petit logement une cambuse. Il a ses commodités. Nous le regretterons peut-être un jour.

For all but these early moments of the book, the Pasquier family live in an apartment block in an area, through which the last stretches of railtrack ran before entering the Gare Montparnasse. This railway station is situated in the 15th arrondissement.  Georges Duhamel was born near the Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement, so that, when Laurent describes his environment as a child, he is describing the author’s actual environment in the same years.

Their new apartment in the rue Vandamme is not in a fashionable area. is almost the only tall building in a district of small buildings and rustic hovels. Page 65
Carrée, massive et presque seule encore de son espèce dans ce quartier fait de petites bâtisses provinciales et de masures villageoises.
When they looked from their vantage point at the top of the apartment,their view was not of the grandeur of Hausmann’s Paris but of an undistinguished clutter of buildings.  Page 66: 
À peine la fenêtre ouverte, l’âme s'envolait sur Paris. Ce n'était pas le Paris clair et bien dessiné qu'on découvre du haut des collines illustres. C'était une immensité confuse de toits, de murs, de hangars, de réservoirs, de cheminées, de bâtiments difformes. 
The apartment itself packed together, in grim intimacy, many lives of equally modest means.  Laurent’s childhood memories have remained engraved on his mind and are composed, perhaps more powerfully, of sounds and smells as well as sights.  In detail he recalls the different noises of the house, as you go up from the ground floor to the top- a mandolin, a yapping dog, the panting for breath of an asthmatic man, the fat lady singing love songs, the hammering of the man with some mysterious job and everywhere children scampering, sewing machines rattling and men and women talking and quarrelling.  
Children could create their own remarkable sound phenomenon.  By striking hard on the metal banister with their fists, they could send the sound of its vibration to the top of the house.  All these noises were so vivid to a little boy, and yet sometimes were recorded almost unconsciously P. 63
Tout cela si clair a l'oreille fine et distraite du petit garçon. Tout cela très étouffé, très amorti par des murailles, des portes, des vêtements humides pendus à des clous, des épaisseurs d'air domestique dix et dix fois respiré.  
Just as vivid were the smells from each apartment.  You knew what people were eating on every floor - onion, fried herring, and these attacked in force and stuck to you until the next morning.

The most dramatic effect of all came with the shaking of the whole building when a train passed, entering or leaving the narby station, arousing a chorus of sounds and noises from inside the building. With it came the smell of the smoke of the locomotives, which all the other boarders had got used to and didn’t notice, but the little boy was very much aware of this familiar smell –Page 64/65
L'odeur de la houille ardente est entrée par une imposte avec une grosse boule de vent. L'odeur des trains, comme elle est familière! Nul, ici, ne la salue plus d'une pensée, sauf le petit garçon à tablier noir qui monte l'escalier en suçant une bille.
Moving outside the apartment, we find In chapter VII,Laurent’s detailed description of the district of Paris around the rue Vandamme.  His mother constantly warned her children of the dangers on the streets of the big city. She told them that children were run over every day by carts and carriages.  They must beware of dogs, of drunks and strangers who come talking.
However her warnings were in vain because of the many enchantments of its bustling life. Once again as the childhood memories come back to him, it is the recollection of the many many different smells that he encountered on his way home that bring them to life.  These smells had mapped out his route for him.  Page 97
….. si je ressuscite un jour, fantôme aveugle, c'est au nez que je reconnaîtrai la patrie de mon enfance. Sen­teurs d'une fruiterie, fraîches, acides et qui, vers le soir, s'attendrissent, virent doucement au relent de marécage, de verdure fanée, d'aliment mort. Fumet de la blanchisserie qui sent le linge roussi, le réchaud, la fille en nage. Remugle de la boucherie qui tient le « bouillon et bœuf……………. Haleine de la boulangerie, noble, tiède, mater­nelle. J'allais, les narines en éveil, le souffle vite lâché, vite repris.
When he got towards the end of the rue du Château, it was the smell of the trains that again met him.  In those days, there was a level crossing there, where carriages and carts had to wait impatiently when the gates were closed.  Pedestrians, however, could still cross using the footbridge where they were sometimes engulfed in the smoke from the funnel of a train passing underneath.
As they neared home, there was a string of hotels with their cooking smells and then the blast of smells from the stables – for in 1889, all road transport including the buses was horse drawn.  On Page 147, we are told that Mme Pasquier carried her sick child to the bus stop. The omnibus to hospital that she climbed onto would have been pulled by horses. 
These places are the living background to the action of the story.  The railway and Montparnasse station have a direct impact on their lives when there are rumours of the impending expansion of the train station Chapter XIII. The laundry was where he found his exhausted mother when he ran with a letter from the lawyer in Le Havre.  

The memories of a child have such a force and colour that they become magical- sometimes sinister and sometimes uplifting like the spacious, clean and light landing of their apartment: page 65 
C’est au faîte de l’escalier, comme la fleur au bout de la tige.  O sommet !  O lieu de rêve et de poésie


The French Third Republic (1870 – 1949) was not twenty years old at the start of our book in 1888.  The Republic had brought parliamentary democracy to France and was to last 70 years until the invasion by Nazi Germany in 1949. This duration might suggest a stable democracy but in fact its survival was constantly under threat.  A clear description of its destabilising tensions is given by  Maurice Larkin (2002) quoted in Wikipedia.:
 Political France of the Third Republic was sharply polarised. On the left marched democratic France, heir to the French Revolutionand fully assured of the power of reason and knowledge to create a better future for all Frenchmen and all mankind. On the right stood conservative France, which was rooted in the peasantry, the Church and the army and was sceptical about "progress" unless guided by traditional elites.


 (i) The living standards of ordinary Parisians at the end of the 19th century

Duhamel was painting a society that did not know the affluence that we know today. Some of the children at Laurent's school are hungry and badly clothed.  The children sing in their ranks before to going into school and this music makes them forget their needs and sufferings Page 83.
"La Musique accomplissait son prodige naïf et l'on oubliait qui son mal de dents, qui la colère matinale d'un papa, qui l'embuscade et la bataille au coin de la rue de l'Ouest, qui son ventre creux qui ses galoches percées."
The poor people found relief from the miseries of poverty in alcohol, but when this led to alcoholism, this merely compounded the social problems.  Duhamel tells us that Laurent’s classmates were well acquainted with wine (page 86):—
C'étaient des enfants de manouvriers. Ami, ennemi, nourriture et poison, le vin était mêlé sans cesse aux pensées, aux effusions et aux chamailles de leurs familles.
We have mentioned earlier the grim lodgings of the Pasquier before they moved to the rue Vandamme. Throughout the subsequent years described in “Le Notaire du Havre”, they were better housed, but the family’s financial circumstances remained desperate.  By the 19th of each month, Mrs Pasquier had already run out of money. Laurent would hear her agonising over her accounts, wondering how they could possibly reach the end of the month.

They had barely enough to buy the food they needed and they lived off lentil soup. Later when things got worse, the already overworked Mme Pasquier was forced to take in sewing to earn some extra money. Also, they had to pawn more and more of the furniture that they had inherited from Aunt Delahaie.

Finally they were forced to negotiate a loan from the Courtois, one of the families living on the same landing. It was a move which subjected them to the greatest indignities. At the peak of her humiliation, Mme. Pasquier, cried out in despair Page 206
"C'est intolérable! Qu'avons-nous fait pour mériter une punition pareille."

The children reflected these tensions of the adult world, which they felt with great force and intensity. When the teacher asked in class for the definition of "un havre", Laurent replied that it was a place where there was a lawyer.  The teacher did not try to seek an explanation of this, because he was aware of the private anxieties of his pupils. Page 111
The fears of poverty were felt acutely by at least one child in the Pasquier family.  They caused Laurent to have horrific nightmares.  He sees a skeleton, wearing the clothes of a debt collector Page 146:
….. un squelette.  Il sourit de toutes ses dents.  Il porte un chapeau bicorne et un portefeuille à chaîne de cuivre comme les messieurs qui viennent présenter les traites. Il sourit encore et tend la main pour demander de l'argent. Tous les fantômes, rassemblés, tendent la main et demandent en chœur de l'argent, de l'argent, de l'argent, de l'argent. 

The children are asleep - the house is peaceful, but fear stalks the house (p. 144) 
'Pourtant, la peur est là. C'est une créature de l'ombre ....

(ii) The social mobility evident at this time.

For a long time before Duhamel wrote La Chronique des Pasquiers, his mind had been engaged by the question of how an elite comes to be formed in a modern society. 
In his introduction Laurent tells us he was just two generations from the peasantry and in this is like so many of his friends now distinguishing themselves in French society:
Ainsi se formait en France, jusqu'au seuil du présent siècle, une classe de citoyens que je me refuse à nommer classe moyenne, car si moyenne elle demeure dans l'ordre de l'argent, elle brille par l'esprit, le savoir, le désintéressement et les œuvres au premier rang d'une société à laquelle elle prodigue sans compter des maîtres, des chefs, des principes, des méthodes, des clartés, des exemples, des excuses. 
When, at a later date, Duhamel was asked to state the significance of the “Chronique Pasquier”, his answer confirmed this intention.  He described these books as:l'histoire de l'élévation et de l'accession à l'élite d'une famille française à la fin du XIXe et au début du XXe siècle."

We have seen in a previous section (a-6) the how the real-life biography of the Duhamel family gave a striking example of this social mobility, which Duhamel represented in his book with the social ascent of the Pasquier family over two or three generations.

The late years of the 19th century had seen a new optimism in the country. There was now a strongly held belief that the new sciences would open the way to an era of enlightenment, peace and prosperity. Mr Pasquier shares this faith.  When the Delahaie legacy promises him some financial security, Mr Pasquier's reaction is to give up full time employment and to study for exams which give him professional qualifications.  Later in the book Laurent explains his father's ambition. 
"Mon père était semblable `a ces enragés solitaires, non par calcul égoïste, mais par logique et raison, parce que tout ce qu'il voulait dépendait d'abord de  lui-même et que, s'il fallait s'instruire, s'élever, comme il disait, le mieux était encore de commencer tout de suite et de commencer par soi."
Mr Pasquier expresses his faith in the enlightenment which the new educational opportunities herald, when he witnesses the mindless brutality of M. Wasselin against his son Désiré
Page 113         
Encore qu'il fût aussi peu moraliste que possible, il tâchait parfois à tirer une leçon de ces algarades Wasselin : " De telles vulgarités disparaitront quand les hommes seront plus instruits. La cause de toute cette bassesse, croyez-moi, c'est l'ignorance. Donc, travaillez, tra­vaillez. Les hommes se disputeront moins quand ils sauront tout ce qu'il faut savoir."

Inspired by this faith, Mr Pasquier shows remarkable industry and discipline in pursuing his education. Laurent was impressed that his father knew every word in the dictionary and finds out that he had learnt the whole book systematically. page 76
"J'ai compris, par la suite, qu'il avait fait un effort immense et naïf pour apprendre les mots et leur sens et que, dans ses calculs, c'était bien la le commencement de tout, l'échelon initial, le premier grade nécessaire â l'ascension d'une tribu."
Mr Pasquier used to work at his studies late into the night and when he was too tired to go on, he used to inflict pain on himself To keep himself awake.  Laurent tells us (Page 77) that, 
after the bedtime of the others, his father would go to work in his study, where Cécile slept on the couch. Sometimes when Cécile seemed disturbed by the light, he would carry her into Mme Pasquier's bed, putting Laurent on the couch. From there, on occasion, Laurent would see his father's head start to droop in slumber. Then he would put his wrist over the paraffin lamp or stab himself on the back of the left hand with his knife to ward off sleep. In the morning, seeing his swollen hand, Mme Pasquier would shake her head in reproach.
Mr Pasquier felt a great anger and disappointment when one of his children did not follow his example in pursuing his education. His eldest son, Joseph, had told the family that he had decided to leave school to go into commerce. He thinks what he learns is useless - and they can’t afford the books. His father felt betrayed.  At a time when he was giving the greatest effort of his life for the ascent of the tribe, the relief forces were showing signs of fatigue: Page 134
Mon père tirait sur sa moustache. Il avait l’air profondément déçu.  Alors qu'il se préparait  à donner lui-même pour l’ascension de la tribu, le plus grand effort de sa vie, voilà que, déjà, l'équipe de relève manifestait des signes de fatigue."
M. Pasquier was doing his son an injustice however.  His eldest son was not turning his back on self-improvement, but looking to achieve the same goal by another means.  The later volumes show the outcome with Joseph becoming a successful and wealthy businessman.
In this first book we see M. Pasquier taking his first important step forward, by passing the first exams for which he had prepared so assiduously.  In the earlier section on the careers of the characters of the book, we have seen how successful he was eventually in leading his tribe to the heights he had envisaged for them.


(i) The newly transformed Paris City Centre.

In Chapter xiii, Mr. Pasquier expresses delight at the prospect of the family being expropriated. Contemporary Paris had been massively rebuilt during the second Empire (1852 – 1870). Parisians, therefore, still had enthusiastic memories of the huge compensation paid out during the expropriations under Louis Napoleon. Duhamel tells us that people still told stories in cafes, on buses, in doorways, of legendary adventures of those times. There was the story of a cobbler or a chip-shop owner who had only given up their premises when they had been offered a fortune in compensation (Page 153)
Être chasse de chez soi par l’armée de démolisseurs, c’était pour une foule de gens le comble du succès
Below . L’avenue de l’Opéra  painted byPissarro

Up to to the middle of the 19th century, Paris had changed little since the Middle Ages.  Its streets were narrow, dark and unhygienic. Louis Napoleon gave to his Paris Prefect Baron Haussmann the task of a huge transformation of two thirds of the capital.  He built the famous tree-lined boulevards lined with elegant multi-storeyed buildings.  This involved expropriating those who had previously lived there.  To complete the works, Haussmann had to borrow vast sums of money.


(ii) - The Political and Financial Scandals of the 3rd Republic

The new democratic constitution of France was discredited by a series of scandals, which cast doubt on the more extensive freedoms granted to the people.  The first scandal had broken in October of the previous year to the start of our story.  It had came to light that Daniel Wilson, the son in law of the French President, Jules Grévy, and a parliamentary deputy, had been making money by selling nominations for the state honour of the Légion d’honneur.  Two months later in December 1887, the president was forced to resign in disgrace.
In February of 1889, the country was rocked by another financial scandal.  The French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, whose company was building the Panama Canal encountered unforeseen problems of construction and was forced to ask for public investment in the project.  Later, the company went bankrupt and hundreds of thousands of French investors lost their savings.  The press compounded the national outrage with tales of financial corruption.
Such events are reflected in M. Pasquier’s disastrous attempts at investment seen in chapter seventeen of our book. It is significant that Duhamel links the family experience with the national in one of the titles he gives to the chapter: “L'épargne française en péril.”

After they had negotiated a loan from their neighbours, the Courtois, M. Pasquier began to take over sole control of the family finances.  One day, he returned home to announce triumphantly that he had found an investment that would give them 12% interest   Mme Pasquier was immediately suspicious and alarmed.  Mme Pasquier pointed out to her husband his illogicality:  They are paying 8% for their loan and he regarded it as usury and yet he had no concern at investing at 12%.  She was too late however, as M. Pasquier had already bought 690 francs worth of shares in the gas lighting company, Incanda Finsta, without consulting her.  A few weeks later, M. Pasquier had to announce the shares were falling. Mme Pasquier pleaded with him to sell them all. He refused. Five days later on a terrible Thursday morning that Laurent would never forget Mme. Wasselin brought news of a terrible scandal in the city. It was the collapse of the gas company Incanda Finsta. Mme Pasquier fainted.  They had lost a large amount of money they could not afford.  Such was the experience of many French people hit by the financial scandals of the time.

(iii)  The Terrorism in France at the end of the 19th Century.
The political scandals were a factor in the rise of anti-parliamentary feeling at this period. At this time, anarchists sought to advance their cause by terror attacks. 
In  March 1892, an extremist anarchist called Ravachol caused explosions at the Paris homes of two jurists and at a barracks.  He was guillotined in July 1892.
In December 1893, Auguste Vaillant threw a nail bomb at parliamentary deputies.  Only one man was injured. Vaillant was guillotined February 1894
In April1894, Émile Henry caused explosions at a cafe and a police station and was guillotined in May 1894.
In June 1994, an Italian anarchist, Sante Geronimo Caserio, stabbed the President of the Republic, Sadi Carnot inflicting fatal injuries. He was guillotined in August 1994. 
Chapter fourteen of our book tells us that the second lodger taken in by the Pasquier family was an Italian who used to hold meetings with some fellow countrymen in the rented bedroom of their apartment.  The Italians used to talk very excitedly, but no one in the Pasquier family understood their language. The day after he left, at the end of his three-week stay, an important looking man, accompanied by two police officers called, too late, to arrest him saying he was a well known anarchist.  History tells us how sinister perhaps were the characters that they had welcomed into their home, in their desperate quest to relieve their poverty.

(iv) The changing status of the Catholic Church in Republican France.

Religion was brought into the Pasquier family by their neighbour, Mlle Bailleul.  She was a lonely spinster and Laurent liked her nice dark eyes.  She was a great help to the family, looking after the children, when necessary, and also giving them school lessons, including instruction in the Catholic religion.  It was Mme. Bailleul who arranged for Joseph and Désiré to have lessons for their first communion.

The lives of the Pasquier were too hectic for religion to find any important place there.  Mme Pasquier had been brought up as a Catholic and was married in a Catholic church.  In his early childhood, Laurent saw her pray under the pressure of the trials of her life. Subsequently, however,  she had stopped praying and had given up going to church, except for weddings and funerals, and one of her favourite expressions was the somewhat disrespectful: : « Pour l’amour de dieu ! ». It was mainly under the pressure of her life that she neglected her previous religious habits but it was also because of the attitude of her husband.

M. Pasquier wasn’t passionately anti-clerical.  Had he been so, this would have caused problems with Lucie at the start of their relationship.  He simply had a polite indifference to religion, while, on the outside, appearing to go along with it. He got married in church, had his children baptised and confirmed and on his death had a funeral service.  But all this was purely social convention.  He lived a life without god and Laurent has done the same.  Laurent believes this phenomenon is a particularly alarming omen for the future of religion: 
….. mon père marquait, pour les choses de la foi, cette indifférence polie, cet assentiment extérieur que l'on doit considérer, bien plus que les fureurs anticléricales, comme un présage alarmant dans l'histoire d'une religion.

Duhamel lived through times when the religious ideology that been dominant over most of the Western world for nearly two thousand years was challenged by the secular, autocratic ideologies of Communism and Fascism.  Laurent/ Duhamel turned away from all ideologies for the masses and concerned himself as a humanist with the individual. In “Combat contre les Ombres”, Laurent Pasquier, now engaged in biological research, makes this statement:
" . . . A l'egard des problêmes que la vie me soumet, j'entends n'avoir qu'une position humaine."

The change in attitude to religion within the Pasquier family is symptomatic of an historic change then taking place in France.  When the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the sole imperial religion, he had joined Church and State in an absolute control of all subjects under his rule.  This constitutional order had been challenged but had never been in serious  danger in France until the Revolution of 1789. This had attacked the Church as one of the pillars of the previous authority and had attempted to install a new religion. However the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church had been restored with the return of the monarchy in 1815. After 1870, when parliamentary democracy was established, the French National Assembly sought to grant new freedoms in areas where the Church had sole authority.  The 1880s, which is the period of “Le Notaire du Havre”, saw the introduction of laws permitting divorce in 1884 and freedom of burials in 1887.  There was strong opposition from a large section of the population who hankered for a return to the authoritarian rule of the monarchy or a form of more military, Napoleonic rule.    The strong passions involved, on one side at least, are mentioned by Duhamel above when he talks of the fury of some who attacked the Church.  We note that M. Pasquier was contemptuous of those who involved themselves in Politics (see page 155). 

Duhamel suggests, in the lines quoted above, that the most significant development was the quiet acquiescence to change found in ordinary people. Perhaps it was this mood that decided the outcome of this national debate with the law to separate Church and State (1905), which a Roman Emperor had put together.

In his early youth, Georges Duhamel had found that Catholicism offered him no consolation for the problems of his life.  He abandoned the religion at the age of thirteen. In the later volumes of the Chronique Pasquier, a major theme is the attempt to reconcile the often conflicting demands of individual freedom and the forces and agencies of social order. He was writing in the 1930s, when the new secular religions of Communism and Fascism were enthusing the masses into united action fired by a common vision. In contrast, Duhamel, for example in the views of Laurent, stressed the importance of the individual and the protection of individual freedom:
Tout ce qu’il ya de grand dans le monde humain est œuvre de l’individu, ou tout au moins conception de l’individu. L’histoire des groupes est désespérante, inhumaine.
In “Le Notaire du Havre” there is a parable of the new gentle order that democracy could introduce into French life.  It is symbolised by M. Joliclerc, a majestic personage who was Laurent’s first teacher, when he started school.  Laurent has warm memories of him (Page 84):—              
Il m'a dès mes premiers pas dans la bataille donné, de l'autorité, une image à la fois forte et supportable. Merveille !  Supportable et faible.  Mettons plaisante et mettons chère. 
He attributes to this teacher the fact that in later life when he was called upon to choose between force and persuasion — it was reason which he chose.  Duhamel would have hoped that this would become the choice of all the French people.

(v)  Single historical events glimpsed in the book

(a) The building of the Eiffel Tower. 


When the Pasquier family first moved to the rue Vandamme, they could see, to the left of the apartment block, the Eiffel Tower which was then not quite finished. Page 69

A gauche, en se penchant, on apercevait la tour Eiffel enfouie mi-corps dans ce chaos rocheux, et qui, lors de notre emménagement, était à peine achevée.

Below- the Eiffel tower under construction in time for the Grand Exhibition of 1889


(b) The Great Paris Exhibition.

In the summer of 1889, when the Pasquier family was still confident of soon receiving the money left to the dead aunts of Lima, they afforded themselves the pleasure of going to the Great Paris Exhibition (page 110).



Lagarde and Michard  had said in the comment quoted at the start of this introduction that the famous French serial novels of the interwar years went beyond the realism of people and places to suggest a real philosophical interpretation of the individual and collective history.

In these notes we have previously talked of such deeper significance by identifying as a a phenomenon of history the accession of the peasant Pasquier family to the social elite.  In the previous section we saw Laurent’s fight for personal freedom in the face of the mass pressures of society linked with the advance of democratisation.

Duhamel expressly stated that books should have a deeper moralistic significance. He spoke of the need for the book to have a message, which, he insisted, should be positive, so that writers are able to give to their readers a reason for living and for hoping. Otherwise, he believed, readers would feel that the writers had nothing to say to them and would turn away from them.  In « Chronique des Saisons Amères »  Duhamel writes :

" Qu'un écrivain ait du talent, c'est, dirai-je, la moindre des choses ; mais qu'il ait d'abord un message, voila ce qui me semble nécessaire. Si l'écrivain n'est pas capable de donner à ceux qui l'écoutent une raison de vivre et d'espérer, nous dirons qu'il est sans message, et nous ne l'écouterons pas."

A strong moralistic message is conveyed in “Le Notaire du Havre”,  through the events of the narrative.  It is Mme Pasquier who spells out the lesson they have learnt. She tells the family that from then on they had to stop building their lives on dreams about what other people might do for them and instead  they had to count on themselves alone. It would be easy for them to continue with the mistakes of the last three years.  The previous temptation remained with the possibility of a financial windfall from the money that had been set aside for the other deceased Aunt in Lima. Yet they must refuse to think about it. Those days were over and they must live with what they actually had (p. 221)
Quelque chose, en vérité, quelque chose était fini. Un long rêve s'achevait, ce rêve qui, pendant plus de deux ans, nous avait dupés, perdus, rassasiés de nos faims, désaltérés de nos soifs, repus de toutes nos disettes.
Their dreaming had begun back in early 1889 on the day of the news of the death of rich Aunt Delahaie.  That very night both parents had begun to form big plans for their future.  Mme Pasquier had had some early qualms, warning her husband not to dream as she is not so certain about who will be the beneficiaries of the will. She tells him not to start dreaming. M. Pasquier in irritated reaction tells her that she is the one who dreams (p. 50):-
« Rêver! » grondait mon père avec irritation. « Je me demande un peu lequel de nous deux s'amuse â rêver. »
In spite of this exchange both carry on discussing their plans aa they lie in bed talking until late into the night. Then it is the turn of M. Pasquier to warn his wife not to get carried away (p. 51):-
Non, mais ne te monte pas la tête Lucie. On verra tout ça plus tard .... 
This was the eternal game between them. Although Mme Pasquier was prudent and fearful one word from that extraordinary husband of hers in whom in she had such faith set her dreaming. Then papa whose dreams were more furtive would reproach her for too many plans (p. 68) -
"Elle était pétrie de prudence et de crainte, mais us mot de papa la faisait rêver. Qui croire, grand Dieu: Si l’on ne croit pas cet homme extraordinaire?  Et mère, un mot de papa dans le cœur, s'envolait."
In the mid-summer of 1889, the whole family learned how to dream in unison.  Mme Pasquier plans new winter clothes and extra furnishings. M. Pasquier thought they could rent the empty apartment next door. Mme. Pasquier suggests knocking a door through. Then she thinks of having a maid. Then it’s two maids. Then they would turn about and start saving their money in their dreams. - Finally came the sacking of the imagined maid.  M. Pasquier was the first to weary of dreams: - (P. 110) 
"Il regardait maman avec une ironie d'abord souriante, puis glacée, puis rancuneuse. -Oh: comme les rêves d'autrui le trouvaient méprisant, même quand il les avait fait naître, surtout, surtout, quand il les avait fait naître."
The letter from the lawyer in Le Havre was frustratingly long in arriving, but there were other dreams to feed on.  Mr Pasquier seized on another idea offering the prospect of wealth.  It was M. Wasselin who gave them the idea that their apartment block would have to be demolished with the imminent expansion of the Gare Montparnasse. This meant that their apartment block would be expropriated, making them eligible for a large payment in compensation.  After much enthusiasm, this dream died its death.

The money borrowed from their neighbours gives M. Pasquier further scope.  He hears that a gas company, Incanda Finska, is selling shares at a supposedly bargain price.  Yet again M. Pasquier begins to build illusory castles in the air, believing that he can make a fortune. Without consultation, Mr Pasquier invests some of the borrowed money, which his wife still agonised over. Within weeks the shares are worthless and that block of the money is lost.

That fateful day, the fourteenth of July 1891, brought them crashing back to reality.  The great tragedy of that day gave them a true sense of proportion and the letter that they had waited for so long, went unnoticed for a time and its contents were overshadowed by powerful human events. A moral was learned. A great change was forced upon them, but with it came a sense of relief (Page 221).

Nous repartions, brisés, déçus, saouls de fatigue et de souffrance, mais allégés, allégés quand même.

The positive message for living from Georges Duhamel

The lesson against building their lives on dreams had been a negative one, but in the events of this tragic eve of the Fourteenth of July, there is also the warmer, more positive picture of humanity that Duhamel wishes to be stated.

When Joseph returns at lunchtime on that day with the news that M.Wasselin has been arrested for fraud, the life in the Pasquier apartment becomes suspended out of concern for the plight of their two neighbours left alone in the next flat - Mme Wasselin and Désiré.

 Joseph can’t eat his meal and does not go back to work. M. Pasquier stays home as well and the children don’t go back to school.  They wait in their apartment for the opportunity to help and Mme Pasquier goes next door as soon as the police have left.  M. Pasquier hovers by the door and intervenes when the bullying landlord arrives and cruelly demands that the Wasselin vacate their flat immediately. In a histrionic tirade of abuse, M. Pasquier intimidates the bully, drives him from his own building and pursues him in a public display down the street. His family look on, embarrassed, from their balcony.  In a faltering voice Mme. Pasquier whispers to Laurent not to say anything to his father when he comes back.  What he had done was goodhearted but a terrible thing: — (p. 215)
Maman me souffla, d'une voix défaillante : — Ne dis rien à ton père. Ce qu'il a fait est d'un bon cœur; mais c'est épouvantable. 
Love was the strength and consolation of the Pasquier family in these difficult years.  Laurent tells us Page 202;
Nous allions à la dérive, souvent dépourvus et désemparés; mais nous avions toujours de grands projets, nous cultivions de beaux espoirs et nos parents nous aimaient."
Mme Pasquier’s life was devoted exclusively to her family and she spent her time working for them alone.  Her particular concern was for Ferdinand, the only one of the children who did not eventually find success in life. Laurent feels unworthy twinges of jealousy that his mother will sing the praises of Ferdinand all her life, saying that he has simply been unlucky.

When her children were suffering, she could show great determination. Once when Laurent had a painful ear abscess which burst, his resourceful mother carried him to the bus stop in order to get him to the hospital.

Mme loved her husband totally and shocked Mlle Bailleul, a devout Catholic, by saying that if he went to hell, she would want to go with the husband, who, sad to say took her for granted. 

 In contrast, Laurent’s love for his mother is very powerful.  When a letter arrived from Le Havre, which she believed was the all-important news, she was shattered to find that it was just another form to fill in. She sat silent looking straight ahead in her despair and Laurent pleaded with her not to be like that in his distress for her.

There is love in the relationship of Laurent and Désiré.  We are told that the latter is is a giant, with big feet, big hands:- a big, round swollen head, dark sunken eyes and a hangdog look (page 80):-
"Il devait être laid pour les étrangers et pourtant il me plut, tout de suite, il me toucha le cœur."

In “Le Notaire du Havre”, there are many setbackS, disappointments and one very deep tragedy but it is not a depressing book because positive values often prevail. Georges Duhamel had spoken of the warmth of the tribe that he was portraying. The major plea of his writings is that we should live our lives with reason, humanity and love



I very much admire the way in which the following paragraph encapsulates the life and work of Georges Duhamel.  It is taken from THE DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY:

"Georges Duhamel characterized the major portion of his extraordinarily varied and prolific production as "littérature de témoignage": his mission was to bear witness to a world in crisis, to understand and explain it to his contemporaries and, in so doing, to impose order where there was seemingly nothing but chaos. The writer's ultimate goal was to provide his readers with some calm, some hope during a difficult time--the first half of the twentieth century. These efforts to transform the irrational into the rational began first in the author's immediate experience, and because Duhamel never hesitated to enhance his writing with the autobiographical, there is an indisputable interrelatedness between his life and his work".