The best thing on Stendhal in English is an essay by Lytton Strachey in which he remarks the way the author denovelises the novel while skilfully retaining all its traditional apparatus. Stendhal’s imagination is a kind of parody of Scott’s: his sensibility is itself its own journal and his own memoir. Reviewing Stendhal’s last book, The Charterhouse of Parma, when it appeared in 1839, Balzac noted admiringly that the novel ‘often contained a whole book in a single page’. But that book is not one which Stendhal would have bothered to write, and no audience would have been concerned to read it.
‘Comme il insiste peu,’ André Gide enthused. But his admiration, like Balzac’s, reminds us just how much great writing and great novels, not least those of Scott or Balzac, have depended on their own kind of insistence. Systematically, they devour and digest their own world, turning it comprehensively into words. Stendhal gives the impression of hardly bothering with words. They get in the way. Even his title is an impatient afterthought. The novel has to have one, he supposes, and ‘the Charterhouse of Parma’ appears in a few sentences on the last page of the novel, so he may as well call it that.
The Charterhouse of Parma begins with a brilliant and incisive encapsulation of the Napoleonic romance, and its effect on Europe and on society. Any orthodox novel reader, picking up this excellent new translation by Richard Howard, would be stimulated into a desire to read further:
On May 15, 1796, General Bonaparte entered Milan at the head of that young army which had lately crossed the Lodi bridge and taught the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor. The miracles of valour and genius Italy had witnessed in a few months wakened a slumbering nation ... Soon new and impassioned standards of behaviour were observed ... risking one’s life became fashionable; happiness depended, after centuries of insipidity, upon loving one’s country with a passion, upon seeking out heroic actions to perform.
Henri Beyle, a humble dragoon and not yet Stendhal, was a member of that army. What he recalls in rare detail is not only the heady splendour of its young morale but its deplorably ragamuffin condition, the soles of its shoes patched together with Austrian leather-peaked caps picked up on the Lodi battlefield, and held to the uppers by bits of string. Lieutenant Robert, the young conscript who is for the moment the author’s other self, and who will make a cursory appearance later in the novel as an Italian Count, is formally invited to dinner by the Marchese on whom he is billeted; and he is more preoccupied with making his appearance fit for High Society than with the delirious export of liberté and égalité. First things first. Between Napoleon’s campaigns, in which he usually served in the supply department, Henri Beyle was himself concerned to become a socialite, ideally in Paris, but failing that in whatever good society he found where he was stationed. Part of the Napoleonic romance lay in its transformation of old snobberies into new and dynamic forms of class behaviour and class vitality.
Stendhal’s hero, Fabrizio del Dongo, comes of an ancient and grand Piedmontese family, and is himself ecstatically converted to the values and promises of the new order, while at the same time unconsciously relying on his own status, its expectations and privileges. It is the kind of psychological situation which Stendhal understood to perfection, although he indicates it in his usual untidy series of negligent touches. Tolstoy learnt a great deal from Stendhal, creating in Pierre and Prince André totally assembled and computed characters in the same style. Tolstoy also, as authors habitually do, learnt how to describe battle, not from his own experience of it, which easily rivalled Stendhal’s own, but from the Stendhalian literary precedent.
Fabrizio’s faith in Napoleon remains unshaken throughout the years when he is growing up and leading the life of a Piedmontese young gentleman, hardly aware that his father, the crafty and hateful old Marchese who has banished Fabrizio from his presence, is secretly spying for the Austrian Government, the old tyranny that has been replaced by a popular new one. With Napoleon’s escape from Elba, and during the Hundred Days that follow, Fabrizio is determined to strike a blow for his idol, now giddily restored to power. He sets out for France and for a series of picaresque adventures, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo. But was he really at the Battle of Waterloo? He can never afterwards quite decide. Certainly there were deep trenches full of water, and he found himself on his horse among a lot of hussars who are with a general, riding, as it seems, endlessly to and fro in the countryside.
Suddenly everyone galloped off. A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead, a ploughed field that seemed strangely in motion; the furrows were filled with water, and the wet ground that formed their crests was exploding into tiny black fragments flung three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed this odd effect as he passed, then his mind returned to daydreams of glory. He heard a sharp cry beside him: two hussars had fallen ... When he turned to look at them they were already twenty paces behind. What seemed horrible to him was a blood-covered horse struggling in the furrows and trying to follow the others.
Anyone can do this sort of thing nowadays, but in Stendhal’s time such a way of describing a battle by ‘making it strange’, as the Russian formalist Shklovsky was to call the process, was an entirely novel one. Tolstoy was to do it and overdo it, in the context of a young hero at a battle or of Natasha at the ballet. Nikolai and Petya Rostov in War and Peace are very like Fabrizio, both in their idealism and in their realisation of the dreamlike oddity with which things actually happen, although with Tolstoy all is filled out and become methodical and systematic: there is none of Stendhal’s lack of emphasis and apparent indifference.
The Stendhalian hero – Fabrizio, Lucien Leuwen, even Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir – manages to combine passionate will, the wish to succeed in love or war, with an equal passivity which drives them like picaresque heroes from one predicament to another. Perhaps they are ultimately the children of Don Quixote and Cervantes? And yet there is a kind of dishevelled newness about them, as there is about La vie de Henry Brulard, Stendhal’s quasi-autobiography, which many consider his best work. But the great drawback of his technique, or lack of it, is precisely its unfinished and unfinishable quality. Nothing happens, nothing stops, nothing – artistically speaking – is achieved or resolved. I find I steadily lose interest in Fabrizio and in the story itself, when the Battle of Waterloo is over, and he is back among the intrigues and petty power manoeuvrings of the Italian establishment. Balzac would have taken a professional interest in these, and in what they signified in terms of the human comedy, but Stendhal had no wish to emulate Balzac in putting everything on the map. He was confident that readers would discover him ‘towards the end of the 19th century’, when he may have felt that the day of the big set-piece novel would be past. Perhaps he was not so wrong.
The novelist L.P. Hartley, a romantic soul in his own way, used to say how much he adored the Duchess of Sanseverina. This tediously ‘beautiful’ and animated woman, whom Stendhal, too, obviously adored (he was unsuccessfully amorous and susceptible to high-class female charm at every stage of his life) lays a dead hand on the life of the book as she demonstrates a ‘woman’s’ capacity for backstage politics and palace intrigue. She is of course adored by the characters, as Stendhal no doubt expected her to be adored by his readers. Fabrizio and Count Mosca – a personage usually taken to be based on Metternich – especially admire and adore her, and the effect of their idolatrous worship is to make them increasingly puppet-like as the tale winds vaguely on, but maybe this effect, like many things in the book, is something that the author intended.
Stendhal’s greatest strength is the manner in which he keeps us wondering about how to take him. With Dickens or George Eliot, say, even with Henry James or Jane Austen, we can be much more confident about their limitations and shortcomings. We can see what they can and cannot do. No such confidence is possible with Stendhal. He has the knack of keeping the reader guessing, partly by his modes of ironisation (he was a profound admirer of Voltaire, and during the Moscow retreat was found by his freezing messmates doubled up with laughter over Le Diatribe du Dr Akakia).
At least we think he’s being ironic but maybe he isn’t. He is just as likely to appear naively enthusiastic, or momentarily carried out of himself by a passion for English landscape or Italian architecture. While he always seems to feel strongly – without ever dwelling on any matter – the Duchess of Sanseverina prides herself on being his exact opposite. Perhaps this is why she is worshipped and admired.
There were two traits in the Duchess’s character: what she wanted once she wanted for ever; and she never gave further thought to a decision once she had made it. She used to quote a remark of her first husband’s ... ‘ “What insolence to myself,” he used to say. “Why should I suppose I have more sense today than when I made up my mind?” ’
It is this, no doubt, which enables her to succeed in undertaking the action that forms the set-piece in the last part of a generally untidy novel: the escape of Fabrizio from his prison in the tower of the palace castle. This feat is untidy in itself: indeed, it is the muddle with which it is planned, twice attempted, and finally carried out, that sees it through. The escape requires prodigious quantities of rope, and by the time it has been assembled, disassembled, wound round Fabrizio’s body and taken off again, the reader, too, is thoroughly muddled.
None the less the novel, in this new and thoroughly appropriate translation, has been having a remarkable success in America. Stendhal, who said that we should all be reading him towards the end of the century, may yet turn out to have been the novelist for the millennium.
Like the millennium, the book ends with more of a whimper than a bang. In the Charterhouse, which appears on the last page, Fabrizio fades away, like the novel itself. (We only know he is dead because the Duchess who loved him, and who has now become Countess Mosca, died a year later.) As Richard Howard remarks in his afterword, Fabrizio dies at 27 – ‘the age of the oldest French general in Napoleon’s army entering Milan in Chapter One’. But even this point Stendhal forbears to emphasise, just as he resisted his inclination to call the novel The Black Charterhouse – a reference to the Black Chapel in the Farnese Tower from which Fabrizio escapes, and in which he was imprisoned for nine months, the period of gestation or of monkish probation at a Charterhouse itself. But Stendhal was impatient of such clues – Valéry attributed the fact that he never developed anything to ‘the restlessness of a superior mind’.
Superior maybe, but not exactly an artistic mind. Of all 19th-century novels The Charterhouse of Parma is the one which has been most admired and copied by other novelists – by novelists more oppressed than Stendhal was by their duty to art. Proust adored him, Gide envied him, calling him ‘the cuttlefish bone on which I sharpen my beak’. Whatever Flaubert thought, he kept quiet: life for Stendhal emphatically did not exist to end up as a book. The Charterhouse of Parma seems to exist most validly as a storehouse for other writers. And Stendhal did it so quickly! In 52 days. But what was so rapidly written can also be slow and laborious to read. Indeed, as he trudges along through so many seemingly insouciant pages, trying to remember How and Who, When and Where, the reader might be forgiven for wondering why it took the author so long.