Playing Stendhal

A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal

by Robert Alter, in collaboration with Carol Cosman
Basic Books, 320 pp., $13.95

I would be rather taken for a chameleon than for an ox,” one of Stendhal’s pungent remarks, uttered, no doubt, in some Paris salon where he was, as usual, posing, and where his scornful wit was making its random hits. Someone who heard the phrase noted that the stocky, rather overdressed and ugly, timid man had made a studied effort to pass as “an ungraspable, conjectural figure.” In early portraits he looks bluff, even doggish. Silvestro Valeri’s picture of him in consular uniform in 1835 gives him a bitter mouth.

A great talker, something of a cox-comb, yet also a dreaming, drastic adolescent when he was a young man, at heart a solitary, Stendhal certainly played studied roles, as later generations know from his letters and his journals. They are so full of strategies that his continuously autobiographical writings give him the air of a man writing a manual in the art of seduction. He set out at an early age to scrutinize his character, to experiment with it and remake it. He was,in one sense, an artifice. Born bourgeois, he sought to break with his class and to become an aristocrat, even to the length of intriguing for a baronry; at heart he was a man of superior sensibility and feeling, a mixture of artist and man of the world.

He had felt the release of the Revolution, the elation of the Napoleonic glory, and the disillusion of Napoleon’s eclipse and saw himself as one caught in “an age of transition,” between two dispensations—the classical worldliness of the eighteenth century and the romantic energies of the nineteenth—an outsider in both or, as he put his ideal, an exceptional soul, one of “the happy few.”

As everyone knows, to his contemporaries he was an eccentric. The nature of his genius as a novelist was not understood until after his death when he was eventually recognized as a precursor of the psychological novelists Proust, Henry James, Gide, and even, today, of Joyce and the novel “without a center.” Julien Sorel and Fabrice seem to us to have uncertain temperaments close to our own. In one of the many good essays on Stendhal written in the last few years Robert M. Adams, for example, says:

Perhaps the most enchanting yet terrifying thing about the heroes of Stendhal’s novels is that they define themselves provisionally, in conflicts of thought and action, in negations; without enemies, they are almost without natures and wither away, like Fabrice when deprived of danger.

The biographer of Stendhal faces tantalizing competition in the autobiographer. The unfinished Vie de Henri Brulard, published after his death, is one of the finest terse and ruthless autobiographies ever written, reckless or careless as it may be in its detail. The indefatigable Beylists seem to have traced every moment of a man who was always on the move. They know, within a day or two, how long he spent with his many mistresses, every person he …

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