Stendhal: Fiction and the Themes of Freedom
Stendhal: Notes on a Novelist
The Novel of Worldliness
Stendhal is one of those gambler writers who, making their throw at an unlucky time, scornfully stake on the future. What real reason has this great but uninventive last-minute novelist, who had passed his life as a doubtfully combatant soldier, traveling and loitering journalist, dilettante, plagiarist, petty consul, drawing-room sarcastic, and misfiring lover, for announcing that he would not be understood until one hundred years after his death? Only Balzac, among contemporaries, eulogized him. That was formidable support but it came too late, in fact just before Stendhal died. In his favor as self-prophet, there are his egotism and the vast pride of the timid. There is the force of obsession with a subject that scarcely alters: himself multiplied by disguise. To have left his important books unfinished might have been the result of a half-conscious cunning. And then he is a perpetual archivist of anecdote and ephemera. If one treats life as scandal—see Aubrey—one can be sure of being read forever. These things are a help to the prophetic self-esteem; and, anyway, the wheel of Fortune turns.
The important reasons are surely that he knew that the sting of a dry, clear, plain, and caustic prose style and a personal manner will last. He also understood the link of literature with life; that, caught out by a crisis in literary forms, he had to capitalize his incapacities and hammer out a method of his own. Very intelligently, he saw that stage comedy (which he wanted to write) was done for. It depended on a stable class system and fixed values, and these had gone with the Revolution and the post-Napoleonic world. Comedy relies upon fixed responses; but he also saw that the new form, the novel, would impose a crude and factitiously impersonal omniscience and would be about “other people” grouped in their obvious and acceptable categories: the novelist is drowned in other people, whereas he, secretive and addicted to masks and self-defense, was obsessed by his own belligerent private life. He lay awake at night, he said, tortured for life by a question that had no answer: who was he?
It is this that accounts for his revival. There have been two Stendhal revivals in this century: the second is reflected in the four academic books now under review. All have their points. In concentrating on Stendhal’s strong and picaresque character, Mr. Fowlie is genial and covers the ground, but is repetitious. He has some hateful sentences: “as early as 15, love was an all-important problem.” M. Brombert, having given up the pretentious mannerisms of his earlier book on Flaubert, is very searching, indeed excellent, especially in the interpretation of Stendhal’s metaphors of prison cell and convent. Mr. Adams is spirited and engaging to the extent of picking up some of Stendhal’s manner in a way that would be reckless if he were not so penetrating. Mr. Peter Brooks’s essay comes in a learned book with a good subject; worldliness in Crébillon, Marivaux, and Laclos; and since…
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