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 Laclos particularly was Stendhal’s master, this is a study of great importance. The balance of scholarship and discernment is admirable. Mr. Brooks is very subtle and exact about the double attitude to social absolutism and “le monde“:
Stendhal then both regrets the loss of le monde, a public system of values and rules, gestures and codes, and sees a liberation in the demise of an enclosed, monolithic, ethically conformist order.
This is obvious, but then comes the finer point:
It follows that “worldliness” from a natural and inevitable stance in life and literature, becomes one among many view points, one conceivable attitude in the world, one possible style in what Stendhal, in a very eighteenth-century definition, liked to call the pursuit of happiness, la chasse du bonheur. Worldliness…is no longer the style of life, it becomes a problem in Style. In his own existence, Stendhal tended to respond with the pose of the dandy, the stylized social being who insists that life meet him on his own terms, who creates his own history and his own milieu by his personal style—a figure that was to have importance throughout the 19th century [Baudelaire, I suppose] as more and more writers sought to set the imaginative creation against life and history, and to affirm the autonomy and superiority of the artifact.
In his life Stendhal’s preoccupation with style as a form of tactics was a stumbling block; but in his novels he achieved an eccentric blend of humeur à l’Anglaise, comedy, and High Romance which has never been equalled. His interest in Fielding is not so astonishing as it seems at first.
The second Stendhal revival in this century is heavier going but more cogent than the earlier one. In the Twenties it was led, abroad, by francophiles who used it as a modish attack on the nineteenth century for its denigration of the eighteenth, and Stendhal’s Romantic energy helped. He was useful, too, as a distant founder of the parricides’ club which thrived after the 1914 war. He was also an immoralist and one who was furiously expatriate. His feeling for Italy—eccentrically called espagnolisme: one sees the born journalist at work here—was a parallel to the post-1914 drift to cosmopolitan Paris. The hardness of his ego and his impudence were our admirations; and the enclosing reverie—M. Bombert’s concern—seemed, I’m afraid, no more than a charming Romantic nostalgia. (Casanova is better about prisons.) Stendhal’s curt, disabused, and iconoclastic manner made the reader of Joyce, Gide, and Proust feel at home. But this movement fizzled out, though it persisted among Beylistes who had a delightful time taping Stendhal’s mystifications, footnotes, vanishing tricks, love affairs, and changes of address. In the Thirties left-wingers and Catholics were frosty about his politics and withering about his atheism: he gleamed like a Sahara and was without depth.
Now that the wheel has turned, we can see ourselves in something like a Stendhalian situation. Existentialists find the self-inventing man sympathetic; practitioners of le nouveau roman, who believe that the omniscient novelist is as done for as the writer of stage comedy was in Stendhal’s time, look to the novel without a center. In the drift of the novel toward autobiography, Stendhal’s offers a complexity which this form of writing badly needs, once the evanescence of the first person singular is faced.
What role to play in the world, what style to adopt—this, as Mr. Brooks says, is the subject of Lucien Leuwen, and indeed of all the novels. A passage from Robert Adams relates this warmly, if also with detachment, to our present interest. He is discussing Stendhal’s lasting taste for the Ideologists who fed his early belief in logique and scientific definition. (Fortunately, as an artist, he came to see science in terms of the lively transmutations and fizzings of chemistry.) Mr. Adams says:
Perhaps the most enchanting yet terrifying thing about the heroes of Stendhal is the sense that they define their own beings only provisionally and temporarily, in conflicts of thought and action, in negations; without enemies, they are almost without natures and wither away, like Fabrizio, when deprived of danger. I think it is this vision of human nature which allies the novels of Stendhal with the great hollow, reverberant structures of Joyce, and the legerdemain card-houses of Gide; the fact that all systems of thought and feeling are tangential to the nature of their heroes is linked to the circumstance that their central natures are themselves a dark and hollow mystery. From this aspect there is no core or center to the Stendhal fiction, as there is none to the fiction of Joyce; the more little anagrams and puzzles of correspondence one solves, the less one finds actually being asserted. What the novel means is its shape, its surface, its structure; the arcana of society, like those of thought, are simply emptiness which returns to the surface of life and the solitude of the cynical individual.
But, after the emptiness, he adds that Stendhal’s philosophy was Apollonian, implying throughout
a belief in the therapeutic value of sunshine, open air, and rationality. Stendhal’s art, like his thought, is a tour de force of light and dark—a shimmering web of bright, geometrical consciousness weaving transparent patterns over the caverns of unconscious association.
With more cautious sensibility, M. Brombert would describe the light in the Chartreuse as autumnal and serene. The self-inventing man is a life-long pursuer of freedom:
Neither is it by coincidence that the greatest ecstasies of life take place behind austere and quasimonastic walls. Ultimately it is freedom from all worldly ambitions, an almost spiritual elation, that Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo achieve…. Freedom remains a prisoner’s dream, and man’s vocation is solitude.
This conclusion certainly fits with the poetic direction in Stendhal’s mind; but it is important here to recall what he wrote about the purpose of Lucien Leuwen: it was to be “exact chenistry: I describe with exactitude what others indicate with a vague and eloquent phrase.” The poetry is to be in the chemistry. Love is a consciously produced effervescence; it produces its transcendant, chemical moment of “bonheur“: then the beautiful experiment vanishes. One returns to contemplation until the next “moment.” To this pattern there are no conclusions and therefore there is something the reader, brought up on the traditional novel, feels to be rash, perfunctory, and abrupt. (There are rash, even grotesque inventions also in the narrative: the scene of the faked childbirth in Lucien Leuwen is an example of the intellectual’s tendency to take farce or the preposterous seriously.) In Lucien Leuwen, what one has been admiring all along is a traditional novel brilliantly skeletonized so that it is closer to life. (It is true that Stendhal said that he would put a smile on the skeleton if he revised the book.)
Except for Mr. Brooks, none of these critics pays very much attention to Stendhal’s treatment of the social background or to the secondary characters who give body to his work. Lucien Leuwen is rich in people who have been “placed” as astutely as any in Balzac, but with more militancy. The unpopular garrison at Nancy is superbly done, for the minor characters have their malicious concern for style and role also. They horrify the hero. There are rich portraits of people who are drying up in futile class hatred. He is as cool—perhaps in his coolness lies the contemporary appeal—about the new middle class; he is exact but without the heavy hatred that is sometimes too black and white in Balzac. The following portrait of Mlle. Sylvanie, the shopkeeper’s daughter is full, yet compressed; poetic yet also ironically of this world:
A statue of Juno, copied from the antique by a modern artist; both subtlety and simplicity are lacking; the lines are massive, but it is a Germanic freshness. Big hands, big feet, very regular features and plenty of coyness, all of which conceals a too obvious pride. And these people are put off by the pride of ladies in good Society! Lucien was particularly struck by her backward tosses of the head, which were full of vulgar nobility, and were evidently meant to recall the dowry of a hundred thousand crowns.
Stendhal’s method is to put a collection of static shots or stills together and to give a questioning, disjointed motion to them; the narrative flows only where he intervenes in one of his disguises. He is a restless rather than a flowing novelist. He is always beginning again. This abruptness is the making of his portraits of young men; here no novelist in any literature or period has surpassed him, not even Tolstoy. To be continually startled is to be young. No one has so defined and botanized the fervor, uncertainty, conceit, timidity, and single-mindedness of young men, their dash, their shames, their passion for tactics and gesture. They shed self after self and are always becoming something else; this, though with less élan, for in Stendhal’s world they are passive, is true of his women. Stendhal’s sense of human beings living now yet transfixed, for an affecting moment, by their future, gives the doctrine of self-invention a depth which is not often noticeable in its practitioners today.