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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 met, and where he lodged. One of his stormier mistresses hid him in the cellar of her château, out of fear of her violent husband. That was a coup.

A plain narrative of his life is as diverting as any picaresque novel. But as Robert Alter in his new biography says, as others have done before him, the life is so entwined with his work as a writer that the significance is lost without a critical attempt to interpret it. There is hardly a scene in his novels without its echo of inner or active experience. This is true but I fear one more portentous psychoanalytical analysis of the Oedipal aspects of his character or another obfuscating examination of myths and symbols suggested by towers, the Alpine summits, prison, the hermitage, and the mire of vulgar life. Mr. Alter is tactful about these inescapable matters. He is a perceptive biographer, sensible, fresh, fairly free of academic jargon—though he is overfond of that newish academic technological cliché “stance” and there is the horrible package word “complementarity.”

In his lively narrative Mr. Alter is good on the natures of the women Stendhal successfully or unsuccessfully pursued in the cause of what he called his profession: “the study of the human heart.” He is sound about the novelist’s changes of character, mind, and feeling in each important phase of his life. He does not miss Stendhal’s surprising efficiency as an administrative officer in Napoleon’s army in Germany and Russia, and is very good on the influence of his journalistic habits, including his plagiarisms, on his practice as a great novelist. If Stendhal’s own character is provisional, like that of outstanding characters in his novels, we see how important improvisation was—as important as his powers of minute scrutiny were to his work. As a man he is separated from observing his dreams and sensual desires by an almost military concern for strategies and inventing obstacles. The obstacle provokes the psychologist. In life his stratagems often misfire, in love and politics: in art—as he would say, the thing that alone can make experience “real”—they lead to the rewards of reverie he had caught from Rousseau.

Stendhal’s finest work was written late because, as he said, he lived first. He was a refractory son, careless of education. He broke with his father and sought the important influence of his well-placed relations in Paris. He was not as uncouth an outsider as the half-self he projected in Julien Sorel—but he strikes one as standing in his own light and naïve. He was after a comfortable job and rising fortune so that he could dress well, conquer women, and devote himself to playwriting and literature. He was conscientious in his boring offices and fixed in his mistaken belief that he was a playwright: it took him years to see that Napoleonic times did not provide the stable society, set manners and morality on which eighteenth-century comedy depended.

Luckily the romantic young man got into Napoleon’s army in Milan and he found in Italy a spiritual home. Like the pushing young Boswell in London, he found actresses and opera singers who so often played the parts of great ladies were surrogates for aristocratic women of society: and the calculating and timid Stendhal was given to something like seizures of romantic feeling which dissolved in tears, before the moment of achievement. He was driven to brothels. In Paris he did not impress his benefactors, but at last he did manage to cadge his way into administrative rank in Napoleon’s Russian adventure, though not as a fighting soldier. He was again efficient but spent his time toiling at his impossible play, and reading. He saw Moscow burn, managed barely to survive the appalling retreat, and lost for good the illusion of Napoleonic glory which so deeply affected his generation. This is all well known. More interesting is Mr. Alter’s comment:

Whatever Beyle actually saw [he was not yet disguised as Stendhal] of cowardice, crudity, savage egoism in the masses of men fleeing across the frozen Russian countryside conveyed to him an abysmal vision of human nature (parallel in a way to what many sensitive writers experienced in World War I) for which the polished precision and the cool confidence of the language of the Philosophes were somehow beside the point.

The idea of a rational control over human relations was chimerical. After the Russian experience where he had been flung into the mire.

Beyle would tend to place himself as much as he could within the civilized, protected perimeter of that symbolic clean well-lighted place…the ballroom of a high culture that knew how to translate desire into a perfectly choreographed pattern of repeated fulfillment.

This is the point where Stendhal’s doctrine of “the happy few” was shaped.

The next point at which Mr. Alter does well is on Stendhal’s attitude to women as it appears in that eccentric essay De l’Amour. He was a feminist and, being an Anglophile who had read of Bentham, he held that to deprive women of education “deprives society of half its potential for intellectual achievement.” The argument was not original, but Stendhal made it witty as he drifted from theory to anecdote. His work is (Mr. Alter notes) free of the female stereotypes—the patient sufferer, the gentle paragon of redemptive virtue—which were found later in the novels of Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. The memorable women in Stendhal’s novels have the “same qualities of energy, willfulness, self-dramatizing extravagance, physical daring, and intelligence” that are present in his male heroes.

On the puzzling idea of “crystallization” which De l’Amour advances, and which we could perhaps call the igniting power of “idealization.” Mr. Alter notes the importance of Stendhal’s change of heart about the merits of Don Juan and Werther. Don Juan had been his guide as a youth, first as the eighteenth century’s adaptation of the myth in Valmont of Les Liaisons dangeureuses. In maturity he changed his mind. Don Juan paid too high a price for his useful virtues of daring, resource, and wit, and Stendhal turned to the nineteenth century and Werther, “who opened the soul to all the arts, to all the soft and romantic impressions.” Mr. Alter writes, “The plots of his two greatest novels are a kind of derailing of Don Juanism and the discovery of a Wertherian denouement.” There is a romantic withdrawal from the world. Don Juan kills love.

We come closer to the writer at his desk when we turn to the origins and side effects of Stendhal’s habit of borrowing and improvisation. Despite his class—perhaps because of his rejection of it—Stendhal was so at odds with the education he had that he was, like so many other great writers, realty self-taught and therefore, for all his enormous reading, a guesser who relied on dash, impulse, and wit.

He became a very clever and readable journalist, notably as a correspondent of the Edinburgh Review, for that paid well; at times he lifted other people’s ideas as it suited him and notoriously lifted the text of other people’s work. He had two hundred pseudonyms and these, if they protected him politically—for the Austrian police kept an eye on him in Italy—they also covered his plagiarism. This, as Mr. Alter says, is deplorable and uncovers the marked strain of opportunism in his character. But if he was guilty of this, what at once strikes one in his works of travel is the presence of his person, his sharpness of sight and ear, the sound of the journalist’s voice, disputing, asserting, generalizing. He loves pungent anecdote, he catches character and dialogue. Mr. Alter quotes one passage which has all the anecdotal undertone of La Chartreuse de Parme:

We were told the touching anecdote of Colonel Romanelli who killed himself in Naples because the Duchess C had left him. “I could easily kill my rival,” he said to his servant, “but that would distress the Duchess too much.”

Fabrice has a very similar reflection when he steals a horse from a stranger who he thinks threatens his life as he escapes across the Swiss frontier.

The plain writing that winds back and forth in time as it runs through the mind enables Stendhal when he moves into longer analyses of feeling to be crisp and exact—to see Count Mosca moving from day to night about his house tormented by jealousy yet coming slowly upon the proper strategy to adopt. Yes, we say, that is what jealousy is like, it moves from hour to hour, from room to room. The plain style is essentially conventional, but when rapture has to be evoked it comes spontaneously. In one sense his novels are as declamatory and anticlimactic as opera. More important, in the great novels, the talker makes no bones about the point of view: he can be the narrator outside the character and yet drop into direct dialogue and slip into words of interior monologue between utterance and thought so easily that we hardly notice it. What we do notice is that the people have become, as in life, many dimensional: they seem to be singing and moving in Mozartian arias among themselves.

Where did he acquire this fluency and domination? His adoration of operatic music plays its part. But explicitly, from Fielding in Tom Jones, a novelist who, as Mr. Alter says, invents “a genial expatiating narrator who casts a finely woven net of cultural, social, and political commentary over the narrated events; enriches our perception of the characters through a shifting play of ironies.” Stendhal wrote in the margin of Lucien Leuwen, after rereading Le Rouge et le noir: “true but dry. One must adopt a more ornate, less dry style, witty and gay, not like the Tom Jones of 1750, but as the same Fielding would be in 1834.” There is an additional reason for the speed he puts into his circuitous inspections and the dominance of the conversational style: he dictated his work; his writing could not be deciphered. After the five weeks in which he is said to have “written” La Chartreuse de Parme his amanuensis must have been a wreck.

It seems to me that Mr. Alter’s interpretation weakens at one critical point: the significance of Armance, Stendhal’s first novel written in his forties. The subject is surmised sexual impotence. It was a fashionable subject borrowed from another novelist. (That, by the way, is all we mean when we say he lacked invention: in the borrowed subject he acquired the necessary freedom which enables the novelist to invent a deepened self and to pour in random echoes of his own experience.) It is agreed that Stendhal was far from impotent despite his fascination with the experience of fiasco. In the Promenades dans Rome, and in his own peculiar mixture of French and English, he had written: “Enfin Dominique regarde love as a lion terrible only at forty-seven.” But in the far more detailed and searching examination of Armance by Martin Turnell (The Novel in France, 1951) one understands that Armance is the first of Stendhal’s “outsiders” whose singularity points less to a sexual or social context than to a haunting psychological and moral dilemma: the conflict between misanthropy, duty, and sensibility. And Turnell’s writing is superior to Mr. Alter’s.

Mr. Alter is more acceptable on that other difficult unfinished novel Lucien Leuwen, which becomes tedious and breaks in two: the subject of French bourgeois politics killed Stendhal’s Italian brio and blurred his real powers of self-invention. The portraits from provincial life are nevertheless very freezing examples of his success in “exact chemistry.” Mr. Alter does his best with Lamiel. Here Stendhal was non-plussed by his real-life model: she was to be a female Julien Sorel who lived for active political conspiracy and danger—things which had an uncomfortable bearing on the pursuit of happiness and the rewards of reverie. Perhaps he was too old and too embittered and melancholy in his humiliating role as a mere consul in Civitavecchia to “see” this book. He went to Paris briefly and died of a stroke as he came out of the office of the foreign ministry. A year before, maintaining his irony as an enigma, he had said:

I find that there is nothing ridiculous in dying in the street, so long as one does not do it deliberately.

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