Summary of the Preface to Le Notaire du Havre – supposedly written by the character, Laurent

Before the first book of his “La Chronique des Pasquier”, Duhamel wrote this quite lengthy preface, which is omitted in some editions of “Le Notaire du Havre”.

Laurent, the supposed narrator of these books gave the date of this preface as the 14th March 1931, a week before his 50th birthday.

In the first five pages, he describes an experience he has just had while dining out with a few friends in an excellent restaurant in Paris.  The room where they were seated had a number of mirrors situated at different places.  At one point he looked at one mirror and saw the back view of his group among which there was a somewhat elderly, whom he did not recognise.  He realised that that he was this man, showing the effect of his years.  He gives his reactions to this discovery.

From this he begins to give the background to his life story.  He tells us that he was born at Honfleur, by sheer chance, as his father moved their home so frequently that the birthplaces of the children were scattered like seed blown haphazardly by the wind.  He lists the different places where his brothers and sisters were born:
Mon frère Joseph est né a Nesles, pendant la grande maladie de mon père. Ferdinand a vu le jour à Paris. Ma sœur Cécile est de Rouen et Suzanne, comme Ferdinand, de Paris. Ainsi les graines vagabondes se dispersent au gré du vent.

He says that what he is now going on to give is some dry historical detail.

Laurent’s  father 
Eugene-Etienne-Raymond Pas­quier. 
Born in 1846 and died in 1922. 
The son of Charles-Bruno Pasquier who died the year before Laurent was born. He had been a simple gardener – not a horticulturist as his elder brother, Joseph, who liked to embellish his family background, used to like to say.  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 it was from him that the Pasquier family began to take off.

Laurent says 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.

He was aware that this class was the favourite target for defamation by political demagogues
A plai­sir, les démagogues diffament cette élite ….. and he goes on to talk of how he dealt with his personal disquiet that he was enjoying the fruits of the hard labour of others  earlier in his family.

Laurent spends 2-3 pages showing how his father tried to give connotations to his family name higher than his peasant background.

His mother - Lucie-Eléonore, née Delahaie
Born in 1847, she was one year younger than her husband
The daughter of  Mathurin Delahaie, whom she never knew
She had two sisters,  Aurélie and Mathide, also whom she had never known. 
She died in 1930 - the year prior to Laurent writing this preface.
She was brought up by her uncle Prosper Delahaie and his wife, Alphonsine.  Her Uncle Prosper made a small fortune and had lived in the rich Marais district of Paris in the rue des Francs-Bourgeois.  
(It would seem that they retired to Le Havre, as Alphonsine died and was buried there and Prosper’s legal dealings in the later years were through a law firm in Le Havre)
Laurent never knew his Uncle Prosper.
Lucie had another Delahaie aunt, Prosper’s sister: Coralie.


How Lucie-Eléonore (later Pasquier) came to be brought up by her Uncle Prosper and her Aunt Alphonsine

Lucie Delahaie’s father and her uncle had worked together in their haberdashery business until 1848 when they had a disagreement and split up. This was a year of revolution in Paris and her father, then just turned thirty, had decided to leave the country and seek his fortune in the New World- as did a lot of French people at that time. He signed up for a big business venture in Peru. Mathurin, an obstinate man, was determined to go ahead even though his wife was in poor health and they had three young daughters to look after. He left Lucie, his youngest, a baby only a few months old in the care of his brother, Prosper, and he and his wife and daughters of three and four, set sail from Le Havre in late summer. Almost immediately, the wife was struck by a severe infection that left her paralysed.  When they called in at Bordeaux, Mathurin had his wife taken off, arranged temporary care for her, wrote to Prosper, asking him to collect and take care of her, as he and his daughters were sailing on. 

The conscientious Prosper did just that looking after Lucie’s mother, until her death ten months later.  He wrote to notify his brother of the death of his wife, but the post between France and Peru took a very long time. Mathurin wrote to his family in Paris only three times in ten years.  In the first letter, he said that he was having to get married again.  In the second he sent about F5, 000 for Lucie, which Prosper invested to provide her with a dowry.  His third said he was going to make a fortune and had taken on a partner.  He said there were problems with the upbringing of his children of both marriages.  Shortly afterwards, a letter came from his partner saying that Mathurin was seriously ill and his two eldest daughters were dead. Prosper put Lucie into mourning for her sisters.

However, the following year (1867), Mathurin himself wrote to announce the marriage of Aurelie and Mathilde.  In view of the contradiction, the Delahaie wrote to Lima asking for clarification.  It remained unanswered until 1870, when a letter came again from the partner in bad French, assuring them that the daughters of the first marriage were dead, Mathurin was very ill and his business affairs were in a mess.

These were years of great turmoil in Paris with the Prussian siege and the revolutionary violence of the Paris Commune.  It was some time after the end of this that he learnt of the death of Mathurin, with indirect evidence from various witnesses confirming the death of Lucie’s sisters. There was no news of his second wife.

Prosper, weary of it all, let things run until the time came for him to draw up his own will.  He then asked his lawyer to get correctly drawn up papers from Lima to confirm the death of the daughters and of the second wife of his late brother.

It is the wait for reply from Lima with the inheritance details involved that overshadows the story of “Le Notaire du Havre” from start to finish.

The situation in the family of Raymond Pasquier at the start of the book.

M.and Mme Pasquier had seven children, four boys and three girls. Two of these children had died within the period of a week, in 1884, from scarlet fever.  Marthe had been five 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 had to his voice changed and his face saddened dramatically.  Whatever success the others 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. »

This emotional devotion to and admiration of his two lost children seemed out of character to Laurent, who found his father ordinarily: ironic, jocular, withdrawn, difficult to understand.
Mon père était, à son ordinaire, ironique, badin, fuyant, insaisissable..

There were now five children.
Laurent was 7 at the start of the book

Joseph was 7 years older than Laurent –thus about to turn 14 at the start of the book
Ferdinand was four years older–thus about 11 at the start of the book
Cécile was just 2 years younger than him–thus about 5 at the start of the book
Little Suzanne was still in her mother’s womb at the end of the first book.

Laurent goes on to describe his later career- his success and fame as a biologist.  He talks of his active service in the medical corps during the 1914- 1918 war. From his notebook from this was, he quotes a phrase he wrote, which he feels is the key of his spiritual life:  «  Miracle n'est pas oeuvre. »

He says a feature of his life is his rejection against things in his personal background.

He makes it clear that he has no intention of writing an introspective work, which become totally imaginary and contrived.  If he is not going to write an intimate journal, what is he going to write?  His answer is : his mémoires.

Point de journal intime, et donc des mémoires.

But not memoires of the important figures he has met or political events he has been involved in.

Les mémoires que je me propose d'écrire n'auront donc aucun caractère historique et même aucun intérêt historique si les pensées, travaux et aventures d'un simple citoyen perdu dans la foule se trouvent vraiment dépourvus d'intérêt historique.

The truth he is seeking is the human, poetic truth and his technique will be to set aside all documents and gather his thoughts alone with the creatures of the shadows.
There are many writers of memoires who give as a subtitle to their work: « pour servir a l'étude des moeurs ». However he does not believe that his present work would qualify as such.

He is amazed that for four centuries, so many people have created works with the fanciful idea of improving public morals.  Every depiction of manners, when it is vigorous and burning has some chance of confirming the way of life and of exasperating the characters.  He admires and venerates Honoré de Balzac, while at the same time making him responsible for the way that his own father came to live his life.
There is no blame or criticism in this. He is merely seeking to define his aims.  He writes thes memoires not edify or chastise anyone but to accomplish an act of getting to know.
J'écris ces mémoires non pour édifier ou châtier qui que ce soit, mais pour accomplir un acte de connaissance.

He disagrees with critics that he is too concerned with ordinary people who have nothing to teach us.

He says he has a real failing which is the gaps sometimes huge in his otherwise very good memory.  He accepts that it is a disjointed memory that he is seeking to restore.  It would be futile to go back to far.  There are no more than chinks of memory of the arrival of Cécile, when he was nearly three. On the other hand, Laurent’s memories from the age of seven to twelve are precious stuff that has undergone a lot of work over time. 

La plupart de ces souvenirs ont été repris, remis, polis, enchâssés, mis en ordre et en valeur par presque un demi-siècle de méditations, de confidences, de conversations, de querelles familiales et de radotages intimes.

There is a strong note of pessimism in his final paragraph, when he says that, although people in the future will  probably have no interest in such things, certain people drive themselves hard in order to build for the future monuments and doctrines to leave pathetic testimony of our grandeur and our misery.

Les gens de ma sorte ………… n'en inventent pas moins chaque jour de nouvelles façons et de nouvelles raisons de se priver de tout, de se sacrifier pour des principes et des lois, de construire des monuments et des doctrines, de laisser, à l’avenir sans issue, des témoignages pathétiques de notre grandeur et de notre misère.