• Email
  • Print

Genius Con Brio

We know a great deal about Stendhal’s methods and habits as a writer, for he was an irrepressible diarist. He left not only journals that cover the first half of his life but also hundreds of notes and comments jotted down on manuscripts, on proofs, in the margins or on the blank pages of books he was reading, material that throws light on the products of his later years, particularly on his masterpiece, La Chartreuse de Parme, which he wrote just a few years before he died in Paris in 1842. He wrote these notes sometimes in French, sometimes in English (which was not always correct), and sometimes in a mixture of the two with a dash of Italian added. At times he encoded them, as in the sentence he wrote on one of the blank pages of the first printed copy of La Chartreuse to reach him: “Aimetumie ux avoireut rois fem mesoua voir fa itcemanro?” With the proper word divisions restored and the backslang at the end rearranged, it reads: Aime(s)-tu mieux avoir eu trois femmes ou avoir fait ce roman?1 Which do you like best—to have had three women or to have written this novel?

Most of the notes, however, are more serious, especially the one that gives us the interesting fact that he wrote his final novel, his masterpiece, in fifty-two days. “The 3 septembre 1838 I had the idea of the Char. I begined after a tour in Britanny, I suppose, or to the Havre. I begined the 4 Nov till the 26 december. The 26 dec I send the 6 énormes cahiers to Kol. for les faire voir to the bookseller.” (Kol. is Stendhal’s cousin Romain Colomb, who had been a close and helpful friend since their school days in Grenoble and after Stendhal’s death acted as his literary executor.)

When Stendhal “begined” his novel in his apartment on the Rue Caumartin on November 4, he told the concierge to admit no one except his copyist and dictated day after day a revised version of what he had drafted the day before. The basic outline of his plot and the models for his characters had been in his possession for some time. They were drawn both from one of the old, anonymously composed manuscripts he had bought in Italy and from the copies of others he had made in family libraries there. He brought these with him, when, in 1836, he left his post as consul in Civitavecchia for an extended leave in Paris. They were sensational chronicles of love and violence in the lives of sixteenth-century aristocrats, material for the stories and novellas which he published in the next few years, such as “La Duchesse de Palliano,” which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in August 1838, though most of them were published by Colomb after Stendhal’s death.

One of the manuscripts, a short account of the origins of the greatness of the Farnese family, told the story of one Alessandro, nephew of Vandozza Farnese, the mistress of Roderico Borgia, who used her influence to further Alessandro’s career, only to have it interrupted by his arrest for kidnapping a young woman whom he fancied and his imprisonment in the Castel Sant’Angelo, from which he escaped on a long rope supplied by his aunt; he eventually became a cardinal but carried on a love affair with a young woman called Cleria. Rereading it in August 1838 Stendhal wrote on it one of his memoranda: “to make of this sketch a romanzetto.” He did indeed write a short version entitled “La Jeunesse d’Alexandre Farnèse,” which Colomb published after his death; it gets the story only as far as Alessandro’s imprisonment and shows few, if any, signs that Stendhal had as yet any inkling of “the idea of the Char.”2

A vital contribution to the “idea” came from another source. In 1836 he had made the acquaintance, through his friend Prosper Mérimée, of a Spanish lady, Doña Maria, Condesa de Montejo, who was living in Paris with her two daughters, Paquita and Eugenia, eleven and ten years old (Eugenia would later marry Napoleon III and become the Empress Eugénie). Stendhal was charmed by the two girls and enthralled them with his stories of the first Napoleon, in whose armies he had served for many years as an administrative officer in Italy, Germany, and the disastrous invasion of Russia. These sessions with the girls may have been what inspired him to begin writing, in November of 1838, his Mémoires sur Napoléon, a book he never finished. But it contains in its seventh chapter a brilliant account of the excitement in Milan when Napoleon’s young soldiers, hungry and in rags, marched into the city on May 15, 1796—a preview of the opening chapter of the Chartreuse.

It is possible that he also began writing for the girls an account of the Battle of Waterloo; in any case he certainly told them about it, for at the end of Chapter Three of the Chartreuse, the point at which Fabrice has just had his horse commandeered by the French troopers he was riding with, Stendhal added one of the more cryptic of his notes: “Para v. P y E 15 x 38,” which has been interpreted as Para vosotras Paquita y Eugenia 15 décembre 1838, a date confirmed by another notation on one of the printed copies of his book. When, on September 3, 1838, he “had the idea of the Char,” it must have been to update the story of Alessandro Farnese to the Napoleonic era, beginning with the arrival in Milan of a lieutenant Robert who was billeted in the house of the Marchesa del Dongo (the Marchese, who feared and hated the French, had left town) and became the unknowing and unacknowledged father of a son, Fabrizio del Dongo, who would later try to join Napoleon’s army at Waterloo. Stendhal spins the intricate web of the story of Fabrizio’s aunt, Gina Sanseverina, one of the most fascinating female characters of all fiction, her lover, the Machiavellian Count Mosca, minister at the court of Ernesto IV of Parma, and Fabrizio’s imprisonment in the Farnese tower, where he falls in love with Clélia, the daughter of the prison governor. There follows his escape and the assassination of Ernesto IV, who had imprisoned him, both engineered by Gina, his return to Parma, driven by love of Clélia, his second imprisonment and his release, the consummation of his love for Clélia, the birth of their child, its death, her death, and Fabrizio’s retirement to the monastery which gives its name to the novel but is mentioned for the first time on its last page.

As Richard Howard remarks in the afterword of his superb new translation of the novel: “English-speaking readers invariably characterize Stendhal’s works, and especially The Charterhouse of Parma, by the words gusto, brio, élan, verve, panache.” These words are all apt descriptions; some of them imply a sixth that might be added: speed. From the very beginning the narrative takes the reader by storm with its fervid pace, the pace at which Stendhal wrote it, dictating day after day for fifty-two days to produce a text that covers 493 pages in this new edition. And this speed lies at the base of another aspect of the narrative, its unpredictability. The reader never has that familiar reaction to a novel that may have begun well: “Oh, I see where this is going.” In fact Stendhal himself didn’t know where it was going; he tells us so twice. “I was improvising as I dictated. I never knew while dictating one chapter what would happen in the next one.” And again, a note on a passage in Chapter Five: “When I was dictating this, I had no idea what the next chapter would contain. Improvisation.”3 And yet, as Howard points out, the book is full of inner coherencies that reinforce its unity as a work of art.

Throughout the novel, incidents and details recur, repeat themselves, recall some earlier instance. Certain verbal echoes may keep the reader conscious of the pattern: Fabrizio’s first imprisonment and his night with the jailer’s wife will “become” Fabrizio in the Farnese Tower, loving Clélia; the del Dongo castle at Grianta towering above Lake Como “becomes” the Citadel of Parma; the astronomy lessons on the platform of one of the castle’s gothic towers “become” Abbe Blanès’s observatory on top of the town bell tower, then the platform of the citadel on which the Farnese Tower is erected. Towers, platforms, windows; height, imprisonment, flight; divination, hiding, vision: these images and themes weave the novel together. The same words are used in widely separated situations: the translator must make sure they recur in his version.

Howard is a distinguished poet; he is also an accomplished translator of French writers, among them Gide and Baudelaire—work which has won him the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Gouvernement Français. This version of Stendhal’s masterpiece, besides preserving those verbal correspondences that link the divergent threads of the plot, brings over into modern American English the peculiar flavor of Stendhal’s style—his deliberate avoidance of what he called the “somewhat inflated”4 style of his contemporaries, one that in his opinion will make them “unreadable forty years from now.” He is thinking of Georges Sand, Chateaubriand, and, above all, Victor Hugo, who, “if he had seen [as Stendhal had] a young woman murdered, lying in the middle of the street and beside her head a pool of blood about a foot across, would have called it ‘being bathed in one’s own blood.”’

Howard’s version not only preserves the brio, gusto, élan, verve, and panache of the original but also, written at the end of the century, can unhesitatingly match Stendhal’s occasional use of obscene language. In the masterly account of the chaotic retreat of the French army after the defeat at Waterloo, Stendhal has Fabrizio join up with a corporal who is keeping his squad together, fighting his way out. At one point they cross the path of a wounded general whose aides are carrying him on a stretcher. He orders the corporal to detach some of his men to relieve his aides, but the corporal, who believes that the generals have betrayed the Emperor, replies: “Va te faire foutre.” In the excellent translation that Margaret Shaw produced for the Penguin Classics in 1958 this defiant refusal appears as “Go to hell!” but—autres temps, autres moeurs—Howard can print “Go fuck yourself!” It is not an anatomically correct translation (and the French is more insulting) but it is certainly just what an American corporal would say in similar circumstances.

This same passage exemplifies another feature of Stendhal’s style—his impatience, his suppression of anything the reader could obviously supply for himself. The general, when the corporal tells him what to do with himself, replies “in a rage. ‘Are you disobeying orders? I am Count B——, the general in command of your division,’ and so on.” That “and so on” (etc., etc. in the original) is a good example of what Howard sums up in the statement that Stendhal “engages your complicity”—he assumes you are intelligent, takes you into his confidence. He does so all through the book: “In the wake of several minor incidents of which a narrative might seem tedious…”—“Shall we dare say that he wished to consult the Abbe Blanès?”—“Will this be believed?”—It is as if he were talking to us, telling us the story face to face, as, in a sense, he is, since he is dictating to a copyist, working with the spoken rather than the written word. Interestingly enough, Howard too read his version aloud to Ben Sonnenberg, who had commissioned it, a chapter a week for twenty-eight weeks.

Nine years ago, in one of the last issues of Grand Street edited by Ben Sonnenberg,5 there appeared a translation by Howard of one of the strangest of all the strange notes and memoranda Stendhal left behind. It is headed “Privileges of April 10, 1840,” and begins with the words: “God makes the following contract with me.” What follows is a list of powers conferred on “the privileged being”; among them are that his penis will be “like the forefinger for hardness and movement…. Its shape, two inches longer than the forefinger, same thickness.” Also that “the privileged being, by wearing a ring and rubbing this ring when he looks at a woman, will cause her to fall passionately in love with him.” And that he should have “no major pain, until a very advanced old age; then, not pain but death by apoplexy, in bed, during sleep, with no mental or physical suffering.”

This was the only one of the twenty-three privileges that God saw fit to grant him, though it came earlier than he could have wished—he was only fifty-nine. On March 22, 1842, leaving the Foreign Office in Paris after dining there with Guizot, he fell to the pavement in an apoplectic fit; he never regained consciousness and died at 2 AM the next morning in the house of Romain Colomb. One year earlier, after a preliminary mild stroke, he had written to a friend: “I find there’s nothing ridiculous about dropping dead in the streets,” but added, with typical Stendhalian humor, “as long as one doesn’t do it deliberately.”6

  1. 1

    For the text of this and other Stendhal notes mentioned in this review, see La Chartreuse de Parme, texte établi avec introduction, bibliographie, chronologie, notes et variantes par Henri Martineau (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1950).

  2. 2

    Printed in Martineau, pp. 467-496.

  3. 3

    Both passages in French in the original. Martineau, pp. 526 and 582.

  4. 4

    Un peu enflé.

  5. 5

    Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring 1990).

  6. 6

    Jonathan Keats, Stendhal (Carroll and Graf, 1997), p. 419.

  • Email
  • Print