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Seer of the Ego

Stendhal

by Joanna Richardson
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 344 pp., $10.00

In the last full-length biography of Stendhal in English—now thirty years old—F.C. Green observed that the impression he makes “derives from a quality rarely found in imaginative literature—the unswerving respect for the truth.” The point would be to define, as Green did not, what is the use made of the word “truth” in this context, and by Stendhal himself. Dante or Shakespeare or Milton did not exactly tell lies: the splendor of their art lies in the way it takes for granted not only natural appearance and human activity but the great metaphysical cosmologies which grew up with these and gave them the coherence of a second nature. In this sense even Homer, the great truthteller, is simply endorsing an accepted view of things. And this acquiescence is always as true as the opposing challenge—that the emperor has no clothes. But there are times when this kind of truth is truer than the other, more vital to perception and reflection alike; and Stendhal’s was emphatically one of them.

So no doubt is our own; which is why Joanna Richardson remarks modestly that the immense accretion of Stendhal studies in the last thirty years justifies a further biography, and a reappraisal of what Stendhal means to us today. Stendhal said in the 1830s that he would really be read “round about 1900,” and his forecast was so far accurate that it would be true to say he has meant much the same thing, to the same sort of people, for the last hundred years. He is not the first of the authentiques, but he is certainly the most authoritative. He made a particular kind of dynamic solipsism seem the only honest way of looking at life. His version of the Cartesian cogito is: “What I experience must be the case,” and most novelists who have come after him have said the same, though seldom with so much instinctive conviction.

Nothing illustrates this better than Stendhal’s celebrated discovery about the true nature of a battle. Such a thing never takes place where I am; hence, can it really be said to take place at all? In his capacity as supply officer to the Napoleonic armies Stendhal took part in the retreat from Moscow as well as in the Marengo campaign, and he experienced his share of military hardships and discomfort. But he was only present at one major battle, Bautzen, fought during the retreat across Germany in 1814.

From noon to three we saw perfectly well all one can see of a battle, in other words nothing. The pleasure consists in the fact that one is a little moved by the certainty that something is happening there which one knows is terrible.

It was in this fashion that Fabrice, in La Chartreuse de Parme, will be present but not present at the battle of Waterloo. Stendhal would have been the first to admit that his perception of this truth proceeded from the way in which such things had happened to him personally, hanging around—as he did—on the skirts of Napoleonic glory, passionately romantic about “this young General Bonaparte who will perhaps make himself king”; and yet always finding himself cast for some comparatively humble and workaday role, ordering linen covers to preserve the imperial furniture at Fontainebleau from the damp, or taking inventories of flour kegs at Milan. It was this mixture of the heroic dream with the factual reality which Stendhal perceived as characteristic of the modern spirit, and of the way things must appear to it.

It is of course an alienated vision in the classic Hegelian sense. And from a literary point of view Stendhal also owes much to Voltaire’s technique of irony: the deliberate alienation of language itself from its customary associations. It is significant that Tolstoy, who learned so much from Stendhal, employs both the Stendhalian and the Voltairian technique, describing the events of a battle in such a way as to “make it strange,” as the Russian formalists say, to abolish the idée reçue and what Stendhal himself called “the done thing.” Thus young Rostov at Austerlitz has for some of the time the same sense of total unmeaning as young Fabrice at Waterloo.

But it is also significant that Tolstoy does not stop there. Stendhal never, as it were, puts himself outside the alienated vision, but Tolstoy widens the panorama to include every possible kind of perception, from the conventional and Homeric—action taking an orderly and for that reason an idyllic course—to the intrusion of total absurdity, the nightmare of naked and unaccommodated awareness. The strength of Tolstoy is that he thus avoids the menace to literature of the predictable, for Stendhal’s vision of things, once made into a formula—and what writer since the mid-nineteenth century has been able to perceive the reality of war in a fashion different from his?—has become just as much “the done thing” as any other ancient stereotype, any other version of what Stendhal dismissed as “the noble and emphatic.”

The young Henri Beyle (Stendhal was the romantic-sounding pseudonym he adopted when he began writing) spent his early years detesting his father, a bourgeois of Grenoble, and worshiping the memory of his mother who had died when he was seven. “It seems that my memory is only the memory of my sensibility,” he was to record in his journal, and all his life he was strangely indifferent to fact and physicality, living largely on the recollection of and nostalgia for his various loves, and seeking for others in order to add further chapters to his memory. In his stylized autobiography, the Vie de Henri Brulard, he shows a remarkable perception—which like so many of the discoveries of the romantics anticipates Freud—not only of the sources and prognosis of the Oedipus complex, but the ways in which the political and ideological convictions and alignment of the adult are determined by childhood emotion. The Beyles were legitimist and devoted to the Bourbons, and Henri’s father awaited with anguish the news from Paris of the outcome of the trial of Louis XVI.

When the news of the condemnation arrived my family were in absolute despair. “But they’ll never dare to carry out that infamous sentence,” they said. “Why not?” I thought—“if he was a traitor?”

I was in my father’s study in the rue des Vieux-Jesuites, at about seven o’clock in the evening. It was quite dark. I was reading by the light of my lamp and separated from my father by a very large table. The house was shaken by the mail coach arriving from Lyon and Paris.

I must go and see what those monsters have done,” said my father, rising to his feet.

I hope that the traitor has been executed,” I thought. Then I reflected on the extreme difference between my feelings and those of my father. …I was judging the case between my family and myself when my father came back.

It’s all over,” he said, heaving a deep sigh. “They have murdered him.”

I was overcome by one of the most intense feelings of delight which I have ever known.

That is Stendhal’s style at its best, at once pregnant and uninsistent (“Comme il insiste peu!” said André Gide), detached and yet intimately commonplace. There is something to be said for the view that Henri Brulard is his best work, for Stendhal talking about himself is more suited to his own manner, as it were, and to his own personality, than when he is cooking up the romantic self-projections of Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo. Both in a sense are case histories (Julien Sorel is based on a newspaper account of a young man called Berthet who murdered his mistress), and the history and fate of both are totally determined by their early experiences. Both appear to be infinitely free, plunging into a Stendhalian chasse au bonheur, and endowed with all the potentialities for the career that Napoleonism had opened to their talents; but they end up where they began, their worldly skills condemned to the service of an imprisoning memory and sensibility. It is the same with Octave in Armance, whose impotence—never openly stated by Stendhal, but most subtly and pervasively suggested—has its unrevealed sources far back in some childhood situation.

It is likely that the reason why Stendhal never finished Lucien Leuwen, a shapeless and contradictory though in many ways a fascinating novel, is that he could not see how to chain up its aimless young hero satisfactorily in the past. Lucien gets involved in politics, the details of which have considerable interest and show Stendhal in his most disenchanted and also his most Balzacian vein, but the main interest is his infatuation with Madame de Chasteller, an entirely suitable and admirable girl, whom Stendhal cannot convincingly relate to any childhood need or disability in his hero; hence he has to concoct a ludicrously contrived separation, in which Lucien is led to believe that she has just had a child by another man though he has seen her—quite evidently unpregnant—a few days before.

To these shifts was Stendhal reduced when he had to invent a novel instead of drawing on his own powers of self-analysis. And the clumsiness points to a more serious weakness: Stendhal’s romantic inability to understand or bother about the feelings of anyone but himself and his hero; or rather perhaps—though it comes to the same thing—his lack of interest in the actuality even of the persons who stirred his sensibility. His famous phrase about the novelist being “the mirror in the roadway” is scarcely true of himself. The mirror reflected only his own reactions to what was passing, but its picture of these had total fidelity.

So analytical a talent must also be abstract; and the reason why the treatise on love, De l’Amour, is such a tedious work is its mania for categorization—it makes a ghost of the whole flesh and blood business. Not that categories need necessarily be bloodless—the Kama Sutra and Theophrastus show that, as well as Tolstoy’s post-Stendhalian tales—but like many apparent sensualists and roués Stendhal was genuinely uninterested in physical phenomena. If asked about the physical details of love-making with a particular woman he would have honestly replied, like the artist womanizer in Anthony Powell’s novels, that he “hadn’t noticed.” What appealed to him was the accumulation of nostalgia, and the triumph of impulse over hesitation. How many young men have been encouraged and inspired by Julien Sorel’s silent resolution to embrace Madame de Renal before the clock shall have struck nine? In Les Grands Timides Dugas announces that the center of Henri Beyle’s life was the struggle against his own timidity; and one of his most perceptive French critics, Louis Brombert, has suggested that the false accouchement of Madame de Chasteller, which deceives Lucien, is a parody of Stendhal’s own permanent need to be the dupe of love.

And though the dupe of love may understand it from his own point of view he can hardly be sensitive to the needs of others. Tolstoy’s art is as transparently and stimulatingly solipsistic as Stendhal’s, but because he was a “seer of the flesh” Tolstoy understood the language of the flesh in others—hence the marvelous intimacy of our rapport with Anna Karenina, Natasha, or the Little Princess. Stendhal’s heroines may appeal to those who are somewhat obliquely constituted—the arrested, the masochistic, even the cryptohomosexual—but to the more conventional majority they can never be anything but stuffed dummies.

Madame de Renal and Madame de Chasteller are mere pillow-dreams of their creator, and as for that devastating bore, the Duchesse de Sanseverina in La Chartreuse de Parme, no one could bear to go near her except the Stendhalian fanatic, the adept of the interior will, determined to erect the image of a “brilliant woman” and to become her creature. They may in fact not really be women at all, but figments of a will and imagination essentially bisexual. Stendhal records in his journal how he suddenly “fell in love” with a handsome young Russian officer of the occupying army at the Paris opera in 1814, but this was one emotional challenge he did not pursue.

Joanna Richardson is much too shrewd and perceptive a biographer not to find all this something of a handicap when she comes to give—as she rightly desires to do—a three-dimensional picture of the many women in Stendhal’s life. They all remain very shadowy, wraiths whose intelligence, vivacity, and charm we have to take for granted. Their interior being, even the ordinary details of their personal lives, is something that cannot quite get itself into the framework of the picture. It is significant that the most solid of them—in every sense—is Madame Daru, wife of the secretary of the ministry of war, whose robustly easy-going features gaze at us with such unromantic geniality from the portrait by David.

Pierre Daru was from Beyle’s background, an able bourgeois on the make, to whom the revolution and the Empire gave his chance to rise to great heights. He launched Stendhal on his career in the commissariat, and his wife—who died at the birth of her seventh child—was briefly Stendhal’s mistress, but it is clear that he only made use of her while sighing after more spiritual even though no less attainable mistresses. The career of the Darus also shows us something of great significance about the Stendhalian personality: though he prided himself on being in the swim and on the make, a Napoleonic man, party to all the dynamics of the new state, he was in reality neither competent nor singleminded enough to be a success in that tough and glittering world. One could not serve both Napoleon and the interior sensibility, even though—as Stendhal was later to boast to Byron—he actually accompanied the emperor for part of the Moscow retreat, noted his behavior, and heard his conversation.

It was no doubt for this reason, rather than because of Napoleon’s downfall, that Stendhal failed to make the success of his life that his bourgeois origins and convictions made him ambitious for. He knew it himself—rueful and humorous honesty is one of his most attractive characteristics—and he constantly lamented his failure to make the income he thought due to l’homme stendhalien, just as he lamented his failure to settle down with a rich and amiable heiress. It was his destiny and his ultimate wish to remain on the outside looking in, confident that the complexity and truth of his message would one day be fully recognized.

Le Rouge et le noir had indeed a great succès d’estime, but Stendhal wryly noted that De l’Amour sold only a few copies, a fact that seems to show his contemporaries found the book no more diverting or convincing than we do. There is a sense, of course, in which Stendhal is scarcely for Anglo-Saxons anyway—at least where his concept of Woman is concerned—although his romantic and accurate dramatization of intrigue and the will has probably appealed more to our modern culture—and especially to its novelists—than it has to his more habituated fellow countrymen. To us he offered—still offers—the appeal of a stimulating and challenging life style, but to the French he is perhaps chiefly unique and remarkable as a literary stylist, whose matter-of-fact absence of fine writing did much to emancipate French prose from the rules of classicism and good taste.

In his later years Stendhal languished as consul at Civitavecchia, a poky and provincial seaport near Rome, submitting to a succession of raspberries from higher up on account of his negligence, his tendency to sneak away from his duties to Rome (whose society was in any case uncongenial to him), and even for his extravagance in matters of postage. As he had never found his ideal woman, so he was never able to settle in the town of his dreams—Milan—where he had first undergone that heady experience, part worldly, part visionary, which started him on the chasse au bonheur; and which caused him to ask for the words Arrigo Beyle, Milanese, to be cut on his tombstone. Intensely French in many ways, he despised his fellow countrymen and adored an Italian ideal, as he adored a feminine one. In this he was true to himself, revealing not only how compatible is the romantic spirit with the most down-to-earth and searching personal analysis, but how close together, in the homme stendhalien, were the impulses of tough calculation and worldly snobbery with delicate ideals and timid and vulnerable yearnings of the soul.

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