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 …