Étienne Pivert de Senancour  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Étienne Pivert de Senancour (Paris, 16 November, 1770 - Saint-Cloud, 10 January, 1846), was a French writer, best-known for Obermann.


Senancour's childhood is thought to have been a sickly one. He began his education with a curé in the vicinity of Ermenonville before being sent to the Collège de la Marche. His father, Claude-Laurent Pivert, a Contrôleur des Rentes and Conseiller du Roi, wanted him to enter the seminary of Saint-Sulpice to become a priest. To avoid a profession for which he had no vocation, Senancour, with the help of his mother, fled to Switzerland in 1789. On 13 September 1790, he married Marie-Franoise Daguet with whom he had two children: a daughter Eulalie (1791) who would later follow in her father's footsteps and become a writer, and a son, Floran (1793) who went on to pursue a career in the military. The marriage was not a happy one; his wife refused to accompany him to the Alpine solitude he desired, and they settled in Fribourg.

His absence from France at the outbreak of the Revolution was interpreted as hostility to the new government, and his name was included in the list of émigrés. He visited France from time to time by stealth, but he only succeeded in saving the remnants of a considerable fortune. In 1799 he published in Paris his Rêveries sur la nature primitive de l'homme, a book containing impassioned descriptive passages which mark him out as a precursor of the romantic movement. His parents and his wife died before the close of the century, and Senancour was in Paris in 1801 when he began Obermann, which was finished in Switzerland two years later, and printed (Paris, 2 vols) in 1804. This singular book, which has never lost its popularity with a limited class of readers, was followed in the next year by a treatise De l'amour, in which he attacked the accepted social conventions. During this period, he worked at the magazine Mercure de France where he made the acquaintance of Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Charles Nodier.

Obermann, which is to a great extent inspired by Rousseau, was edited and praised successively by Sainte-Beuve and by George Sand, and had a considerable influence both in France and England. It is a series of letters supposed to be written by a solitary and melancholy person, whose headquarters are placed in a lonely valley of the Jura. The idiosyncrasy of the book in the large class of Wertherian-Byronic literature consists in the fact that the hero, instead of feeling the vanity of things, recognizes his own inability to be and do what he wishes. Professor Brandes has pointed out that while Chateaubriand's novella René was appreciated by some of the ruling spirits of the century, Obermann was understood only by the highly gifted, sensitive temperaments, usually strangers to success.

Senancour was tinged to some extent with the older philosophe form of free-thinking, and had no sympathy with the Catholic reaction. Having no resources but his pen, Senancour was driven to hack-work during the period which elapsed between his return to France (1803) and his death at Saint-Cloud; but some of the charm of Obermann is to be found in the Libres Méditations d'un solitaire inconnu. Thiers and Villemain successively obtained for Senancour from Louis Philippe pensions which enabled him to pass his last days in comfort. Senancour also authored the comedic drama Valombré (1807), and late in life wrote a second novel in letters entitled Isabelle (1833). He composed his own epitaph; "Eternité, sois mon asile".

Senancour is immortalized for English readers in two poems by Matthew Arnold: "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of Obermann" and "Obermann Once More." Obermann itself has been translated into English twice; by A.E. Waite (1903), with a biographical and critical introduction, and by J. Anthony Barnes (1910). See the preface by Sainte-Beuve to his edition (1833, 2 vols.) of Obermann, and two articles Portraits contemporains (vol. 1); Un Prourseur and Senancour (1867) by Jean Levallois, who received much information from Senancour's daughter, Eulalie de Senancour, herself a journalist and novelist; a biographical and critical study Senancour, by J Merlant (1907); and Senancour, dernier disciple de Rousseau by Zvi Lévy.


  • "It is sufficient to have a simple heart in order to escape the harshness of the age, in order not to fly from the unfortunate; but it is to have some understanding of the imperishable law, to seek them in the forgetfulness against which they dare not complain, to prefer them in their ruin, to admire them in their struggles."
  • "If two men are united, the wants of neither are any greater, in some respects, than they would be were they alone, and their strength is superior to the strength of two separate men."
  • "Union does everything when it is perfect. - It satisfies desires, simplifies needs, foresees the becomes a constant fortune."
  • "Man is perishable. That may be; but let us perish resisting and if it is nothingness that awaits us, do not let us so act that it shall be a just fate."
    • variant, made by Miguel de Unamuno in 'Tragic Sense of Life (1954): "Man is perishable. That may be; but let us perish resisting and if it is nothingness that awaits us, let us so act that it shall be an unjust fate."


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