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…

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