There are so many Stendhals – art historian, music critic, travel writer, novelist, political pundit, opera buff, soldier, bureaucrat, diplomat, sparkling conversationalist and incorrigible womaniser – that the reader may despair of conceiving any overall project undertaken by the man baptised Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783. Aside from ‘Stendhal’ there were scores of pseudonyms, any number of unfinished writings and thousands of letters and journal pages in which Beyle often signs himself or even refers to himself using a variety of other names. Codes and red herrings abound. Major life plans appear and disappear at the drop of a hat. Ambitious novels or biographies are researched, half-written and abandoned. Stories and even essays never go where you expect. Digressions are the norm and, when not actually misleading, titles rarely say much about content. Of the book On Love the critic and Stendhal admirer Etienne-Jean Delécluze wondered whether the pages might have been bound in the wrong order.
So what is going on? And how to approach, in all this disorienting, fragmentary, always dazzling abundance, a new translation of the little read Italian Chronicles, 340 pages of stories and novellas, some presenting themselves as faithful translations from old archival material, others as based on historical events, others entirely invented, two unfinished, one offering two quite different versions of the same story?
Perhaps the word ‘independence’ will help. Beyle had to be free. Free from his father and family, free from his own name, free from his birthplace, Grenoble, and from France and the French, free from responsibilities, money worries, people and places that bored him, free above all from the anxieties that have us seeking the approval of our peers, which is to say, from vanity, the great scourge, as Beyle saw it, of modern society. ‘The more I advance,’ he writes in 1812, ‘the more ambition disgusts me. It is simply putting one’s happiness in the hands of others.’
Beyle liked to oppose freedom and slavery. ‘Popery and the lack of liberty [are] the source of all crimes.’ Bowing to the conventions of ‘an effeminate court’, Racine is ‘a slave who adorns his chains’. Treated as ‘inferior beings’, the ‘great virtue’ of English women ‘is devotion. The virtue of slaves.’ To his recently married sister, who was nearing the end of an extended honeymoon, he wrote: ‘I must congratulate you on your non-pregnancy … Your chains will come soon enough.’
But free to do what exactly? Free to travel; Beyle was forever on the move. Aside from France, he lived in Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia and never missed an opportunity for an excursion. Free to support outlawed ideas, liberalism first and foremost. Free to be loyal, to the defeated Napoleon, for example, whom he admired all the more ardently once he was imprisoned. Free to plagiarise: Stendhal had no qualms about stealing whatever was useful to build a book. Free to lie, when it was convenient or made a good story. Free to be candid: few writers have been franker about their friends’ shortcomings, or their own transgressions. ‘I don’t think he was bad at heart,’ George Sand remarked of Beyle’s habitual cynicism and constant obscenities, ‘he made too much effort to seem so.’
Above all, Beyle wished to be free to feel, to give himself up to ‘agreeable passions’. Free to love and to make love. To other men’s wives often enough. To women whose suffocating attentions he might soon be eager to escape and others, more highly prized, who never dreamed of succumbing to him. Free perhaps to slip a hand up a skirt to ‘where the ebony starts to shade the lily’. There were so many women in his life, so many incidents with women – the time he hid for days in a cellar to enjoy his beloved, the time he sprang from a cupboard to catch an unfaithful mistress in flagrante – that any Stendhal biography risks becoming a procession of them. From his mother, whose embraces Beyle returned ‘with such ardour that she was often obliged to leave the room’ and with whom he ‘was as criminal as possible, frenzied in my adoration of her’ (all this before she died when he was seven), to Contessa Giulia Cini, 28 years his junior, for whom, two years before his death in 1842, aged 59, he began a diary entitled The Last Romance. Because the freedom to record everything, to analyse everything, was also important. Including all one’s foolish desires: a penis that would grow erect at will, a magic ring he could use to make women fall in love with him, good teeth, good skin, money in his pocket.
But is romantic passion compatible with freedom? Beyle knew it wasn’t. To fall in love was to be ‘overwhelmed by some superior force’. Nor did it guarantee the happiness he was seeking. It brought moments of supreme transport, but nothing would make you more unhappy than love turned sour, or unrequited. ‘The sight of happiness has made me unhappy,’ one young lover says in Italian Chronicles. Various characters in his masterpiece The Red and the Black (1830) share his experience. Literary composition, a resource one turned to precisely to savour passion, or revive it, or exorcise it, had similar drawbacks. Writing was ‘a silk prison’, Stendhal remarks in Memoirs of an Egoist, like the cocoon a silkworm spins for itself. A refuge and a trap. No sooner do you begin a piece of writing than it becomes a job, something you’ll soon be chafing to leave for some other idea, or woman. ‘The imagination flies elsewhere, this book is thus interrupted.’
No doubt this is why the marvellous 500-page Charterhouse of Parma (1839) had to be written in just 52 days, during which time the author shut himself up, as if in a prison, accepting no visits, working non-stop. At the centre of that novel is a prison and a hero in love, so in love that he is happy to remain in the prison from whose window he can see his beloved. Such are the paradoxes of a vision that attributes the highest value to both freedom and passion. Stendhal embraces them without regret. Every story in Italian Chronicles is a story of love and imprisonment, of one kind or another. And in every case the experience of the one is made more intense by the presence of the other.
There is a marked difference, however, between the constrictions of passion or artistic composition and the slavery of courtiers, civil servants and conventional folk the world over. The former involve a willing assent to instinctive movements of the heart; the latter is the consequence of fear and vanity. ‘Correctness,’ the translator Raymond MacKenzie points out in his excellent introduction to Italian Chronicles, ‘is simply another form of confinement.’
Stendhal loved to say dangerous things in polite conversation and watch the faces of the faint-hearted pale. He went towards danger to discover his independence. Remembering the effect of cannon fire during ‘our unhappy retreat from Russia’ – he remarked that ‘noble souls are self-sufficient, while others are frightened and run mad.’ Jonathan Keates, in his insightful biography, frequently refers to this ‘Moscow-courage’ that Stendhal showed at key moments in his life. There were two duels. There was a commendation for courage at the Battle of Castelfranco in 1801. Essentially, Stendhal was gutsy in confrontation, in hurrying to meet and oppose the world. The act of seduction, for example, is invariably described in military terms, and many of his romances had the quality of a suicidal charge. How mad was it, in 1805, aged 22, to fall in love with and seek to seduce the wife of his older cousin, Pierre Daru, who had enabled him to become part of Napoleon’s administration?
But this wild daring did not mean Beyle was never fearful. He was afraid of boredom, of being alone, of being trapped, of not having the price of an opera ticket or a pair of yellow gloves, afraid, in short, of living without joy or intensity. And afraid of sea journeys. His Jesuit tutor had prevented him from learning to swim, assuring him he would drown. The Jesuits inculcated fear, of God and of life. That was the way they curbed your liberty. It seems superfluous to observe that Beyle was an atheist.
A look at his early life shows clearly enough how this mindset came about. Following his mother’s death, Beyle’s royalist father, an unimaginative lawyer for whom education meant repression, brought in a harridan aunt and a Jesuit tutor to bring up the boy. Beyle loathed them. Condemned to hiding his feelings and scheming behind their backs in ‘impotent hatred’, he began a habit of secrecy that would last a lifetime. One of his two sisters was a telltale and never forgiven for her betrayals, the other a loyal confidante. Such figures recur throughout his life and writing. Italian Chronicles is full of them. In contrast to his conventional father, there was a cheerfully promiscuous uncle with his pretty wife, and a heroically independent great-aunt, in whom the boy identified the best of the family’s qualities. It was she who paid, secretly, for the lessons in mathematics that would eventually enable the 16-year-old Beyle to win a school prize and set off for Paris to study. Mathematics might not be a subject of feeling, but it was unimpeachable and gave one a cool calculating attitude from which the world’s chaos could be assessed without the fear-inducing moral frameworks popery imposed. What would later distinguish Stendhal from the mainstream Romantic movement was the analytical voice he brought to his cult of passion. He does not gush.
No sooner was he in Paris, however, than Beyle dropped mathematics for chaos and, recommended by his cousin Daru, joined Napoleon’s army and set off for Italy, where, in June 1800, after just one night at the opera in the small town of Novara, he decided, aged 17, that Italy was the country for him, a place where the human heart expressed itself freely, fully, directly, nakedly, the exact opposite of stuffy, hypocritical France. Overnight, the polarities that structured his life were made geographical and cultural. From this point on he would consistently seek to live in Italy, Milan for preference, even to become Italian, as he imagined the Italians to be. It was arguably the one enduring attachment of his life.
Written many years and mistresses later, its author now overweight and syphilitic (‘a chubby Mephistopheles’, as one observer described him), Italian Chronicles is an assortment of stories, all set in Italy, but never published together in Stendhal’s lifetime. This new edition opens with what is supposedly an account of the madly eventful relationship between a rich princess and a penniless revolutionary, but it’s one for which there is no historical basis and hence can hardly be called a chronicle. The book’s core, however, is a group of gruesome tales gathered from 17th-century documents found in the library of the Caetani, a noble family in Rome whom Stendhal befriended while working as French consul in the nearby port town of Civitavecchia. It was March 1833, three years after he had established himself as a novelist with The Red and the Black. ‘I see with great pleasure i Tragici raconti,’ he wrote in his diary in a macaronic tangle of English, Italian and French. ‘One day I will publish them. It is a distraction, and I am in search of distraction, being perhaps deeply in love and disturbed by [a particular lady’s] silence.’
As always the distraction meant focusing on the very emotions that disturbed him. These are all love stories that go horribly wrong. What was exciting for Stendhal was the extravagance of the passions described and the extremity of the actions they gave rise to. Such accounts immediately offered themselves as the perfect stick with which to beat a modern French bourgeoisie hiding from life in a chloroformed world of complacent ‘sophistication’. ‘The men of those times,’ Stendhal observes in one of the four possible prefaces he drafted for an eventual publication of these stories, ‘were by no means members of the Academy with their eyes on a Monthion Prize.’ Rather, they ‘were filled with a fierce energy, and they knew what it was to live in a small town under the watchful eye of a tyrant’ – hence they could cast ‘a unique light into the depths of the human heart’.
Rather than hiding the tasks of translation, editing and interpretation as he mediates between past and present, Italian and French, to transform dusty chronicle into readable novella, Stendhal draws our attention to them, becoming a presence in his own stories. And the central obstacle, as he describes it, is always the squeamish nature of modern times. ‘Translation ends where the shock would be too great,’ he warns. Or again: ‘The portrait I am about to paint is hideous,’ but he will do his best to offer ‘a translation that can be read out loud in front of ladies in 1823’. This particular story, ‘The Cenci’, concerns a 16th-century Don Juan, a collector of women and of barbarities, a figure who can only exist, Stendhal reasons, in a suffocating world of Christian hypocrisy which, by inviting everyone to repress their passions, inevitably breeds a monster determined to misbehave, not because he enjoys his transgressions, but for the perverse pleasure of shocking others. Beyle must have been aware that this was exactly the kind of accusation levelled against himself.
‘The Cenci’ is an intricately tangled tale in the best Italian tradition but, in brief, as we are told in the opening paragraphs, ‘the excesses of [Francesco Cenci’s] crimes forced two women to have him killed before their eyes; one of these women was his spouse and the other his daughter, and the reader will find it difficult to decide upon their guilt. Their contemporaries felt they should not have been executed.’ The idea that the purpose of reading might be to arrive at some kind of moral conclusion is a red herring. Packed with wayward, contradictory behaviour of the most admirable and disgraceful kind, the narrative defies any confident moral response and Stendhal does all he can to disorient us in this regard. When Cenci is briefly imprisoned, three of his much mistreated sons petition the pope to have their father executed. ‘Clement VIII was strongly inclined to do it, but he had second thoughts and decided not to placate these unnatural children, and he had them chased shamefully out of his presence.’ Who exactly is shameful or unnatural here? And how easily, in so many of Stendhal’s characters, strong inclination becomes violent revulsion in a space of minutes. Raped, abused and imprisoned in their own home, Cenci’s wife and daughter piously postpone the murder they have planned so that it won’t fall on ‘the day of the Nativity of the Virgin’. When the killers they have hired have qualms, because it is ‘shameful … to kill a poor old man in his sleep’, the desperate daughter threatens to do the deed herself and the men, ‘fearing some diminution in the price that had been agreed upon’, hurry back to their work. The ensuing trial, largely political and conducted with the help of extended torture for both accused and witnesses, turns on the question of whether the blood found on the daughter’s dress could or could not have been menstrual. Months later, a platform built for spectators of the executions collapses and ‘a great number of people were killed’, so that ‘the shades of the Cenci went into the afterlife well accompanied.’
Stendhal, you feel, must be smiling here as he translates, or perhaps writes, or maybe edits. One of the curiosities of these stories is that the reader is constantly looking for the sly transitions from the chronicler’s voice to Stendhal’s own, something made more tricky by MacKenzie’s efficient, highly readable, but nevertheless French-hugging translation, the kind that gives ‘It’s stronger than I am’ rather than ‘I just can’t help it’ for the entirely ordinary ‘C’est plus fort que moi.’
Publishing the tales anonymously or pseudonymously in French magazines during the 1830s, Stendhal never missed an opportunity to ponder how such ‘harsh’, ‘shocking’ events could be presented in an age and culture determined ‘never to appear moved by anything’. They will risk seeming merely grotesque. One can criticise the customs of the 16th century, he remarks at the opening of ‘The Duchess of Palliano’, ‘but did they not arise out of the infinite respect that any man worthy of the name ought to have for the movements of his soul?’ ‘My literary vanity,’ he goes on,
whispers to me that perhaps I might augment the interest of certain situations … by inferring and then reporting to the reader the details of what the characters thought and felt. But I, being a young Frenchman born in the north, in Paris – can I really be sure I can correctly infer what Italian minds thought and felt in 1559? The best I can hope for is to divine what might appear elegant and piquant to French readers in 1838.
Stendhal wasn’t born in Paris and was no longer young in 1838, but it is hard to think of a more pertinent criticism of what generally passes for historical fiction and ‘cultural mediation’ today.
Refusing, then, to adapt an ‘all too true tale’ to current tastes, insisting that emotions really are inscrutably unlike in different times and places, inviting us not to identify with the characters but to marvel at them, Stendhal tells a story that turns on a cardinal’s insistence that his rakish but not unattractive brother, the Duke of Palliano, ‘a man with a certain degree of simplicity of heart’, ‘wash the family honour clean in the blood of the guilty ones’ – meaning he must kill his wife, the duchess, and her young lover, who is also the duke’s close friend. The cardinal, we hear, ‘felt tortured’ by his brother’s inexplicable delay in restoring the family’s reputation. Later, when both duke and cardinal are executed for these honour killings, the one ‘bore this terrible moment in the manner … befitting a Christian ready to endure anything for the love of God’ while the cardinal ‘showed a grandeur of soul’ that was even ‘superior to that of his brother’. Later still, another pope had the trial reopened and the sentences quashed. Confusion is complete.
The three longest stories in the book, two from the 16th century, one from the 18th, focus on convent life, a perfect setting for the Stendhalian conflict between passion and repressive authority. Within the Italian tradition that invariably places clan interests before those of the individual, young women, whose dowries would have seriously diminished a family fortune, were sacrificed to the cloister. The life of an independent woman, or even a dependent spinster, wasn’t contemplated; what could such a person do but bring dishonour to the family through unsuitable liaisons? The Church’s willingness to connive with this soft form of imprisonment, since, despite their parents’ meanness, richer girls brought with them a certain amount of wealth and prestige, is typical, Stendhal feels, of that long unholy alliance between church and bourgeoisie that denies women the freedom to marry or not marry, or divorce, as they choose. He was always outspoken on the question of female emancipation. That said, this unhappy custom of incarcerating young women in a ‘fashionable tomb’ was an infallible engine of drama and action, as lovers sought to get into the convents to enjoy their beloveds and the unhappy nuns sought to get out.
Running to more than a hundred pages and written after ‘The Cenci’ and ‘The Duchess of Palliano’, ‘The Abbess of Castro’ has no known documentary source, but proceeds as if it did; apparently the painstaking work of adapting the Caetani archives allowed Stendhal to develop a form congenial to him. The novella recounts the impossible love between a brigand, Giulio, and a young noblewoman, Elena, in Albano, just south of Rome, at a time when civilisation was in such a state as ‘makes morality howl’, yet nevertheless was ‘marvellously adept at creating men who were worthy of the name’. Elena is dispatched to the convent precisely to keep her away from Giulio. Confidants and collaborators are quickly recruited by both lovers and every kind of secret device and code developed to allow them to exchange long letters that mix the most exalted feelings with some surprisingly practical, even brutal considerations. But messages start to go astray and enemies forge letters insinuating betrayal and abandonment. The effect is always to heighten passion. ‘I see tragic people,’ Stendhal tells us, ‘but I cannot find any guilty ones.’
Written immediately before and after the extraordinary two months in which he wrote The Charterhouse of Parma, ‘The Abbess of Castro’ shares with the novel an idea of human nature as at once perversely stubborn and bewilderingly unstable. At the climax of an intricate and bloody sequence of events is a desperate attempt by Giulio and eight brigands to penetrate the nuns’ quarters and carry off the beautiful Elena. Romance as military assault: the building is ‘more like a fortress than a convent’, and defended by twenty bravi. Endless obstacles and complications arise, provoking extraordinary acts of folly and valour. Stendhal never disdains sustained descriptions of action, since ‘passionate feeling … requires action not words.’ As in all the stories in this collection, the willingness of loyal friends and servants to die in a lover’s cause inspires in the writer a sort of dazzled admiration. Romantic passion may distort reality by imagining perfection where there is only another man or woman, but it inevitably draws others into its dangerous vortex.
When Giulio’s rescue attempt fails and years later, Elena, now abbess of the convent, takes a bishop as a lover simply to experiment with sex and torture the man’s feelings, the gamut of emotions might seem to be complete. Yet the real torture and the final twist are still a long way off. As with The Charterhouse of Parma, the extension of all these stories far beyond what might seem necessary is part of their power, confirming as it does the reckless persistence of human passion. When we arrive at the last two stories in the collection, again featuring nuns and convents, the fact that they remain unfinished seems almost natural. So long as liberty is denied, and it always is, there can be no end to the ferment.
Overall, a surprising cheerfulness drives these gloomy tales. It would not have concerned Stendhal that none of the loves described settles into anything like domesticity. He himself never married and the few proposals he made were more or less guaranteed to be turned down. Fizzing with purpose and energy, his short sentences convey throughout a delight at coming across true stories that offer such extreme manifestations of the emotions that interested him. ‘This manuscript furnished me with some genuine details concerning insane jealousy,’ he rejoices in the preface to a second attempt at the last story, ‘Suora Scolastica’. Or again: ‘One might say that these Roman souls have enormous treasuries of energy, unknown to other women, which they spend on suffering.’ Certainly none of his characters is afflicted by boredom.
Above all, there is an awareness of experience as a precarious collective creation to be savoured aesthetically, and a Nietzschean determination to turn the reader’s hierarchy of values upside down and sweep away any unwarranted confidence that we know how life should be lived. Though some readers may struggle with Stendhal’s enthusiasm for the kind of hero who pursues his or her passion with sublime indifference to all collateral damage, Italian Chronicles nevertheless throws down a timely challenge to our plague of political correctness, that grimly self-inflicted version of what he called ‘popery’.