Stendhal, 1830

Folio Society, 1965; bound in cloth embossed boards and slip cased; translated and with an introduction by Margaret Shaw; wood engravings by Frank Martin.

She was a simple soul, who had never risen even to the point of criticising her husband, and admitting that he bored her.  She supposed, without telling herself so, that between husband and wife there could be no more tender relations. 

Stendhal was an alias of a Frenchman named Henri Beyle.  He had many aliases (or pen names) and history has had trouble coming to grips with the man behind them.  He came from a respectable family in Grenoble and served under Napoleon.  During that time, he witnessed the burning of Moscow.  He then held various government positions that allowed him to write.  He was very vain, not very handsome, and he saw more in his attractions to women than they did – so distinguishing him sharply from both Balzac and Hugo.  He spent much time in Italy, and fell for their notion of manhood.  For him, Italy was a country of love and hate.  Men loved for passion and they died for love.  He thought that in Italy men dared to be themselves.  It would be interesting to know how he squared his adulation of Italian men with the fact that his hero, Napoleon, wiped the floor with them.

Stendhal was the image of the artist against the world, the bearer of a kind of self-imposed separation or alienation.  That masque may hide the most awful snobbery, but Stendhal suffered acutely from two lesions that beset men of France at that time and have done so since.  First, there was le peuple.  ‘I love the people, I hate their oppressors, but it would be a perpetual torture for me to live with the people…I had and I have still the most aristocratic tastes, I would do everything for the happiness of the people, but I would sooner, I believe, pass two weeks in every month in prison than live with shopkeepers.’ 

Then there was Napoleon – the man who said that the nemesis of France was a nation of shopkeepers.  (The business of shopkeeping may be prosaic, but is there anything else wrong with it?)  Stendhal wrote of one of his heroes: ‘For many years perhaps not an hour of his life had gone by without him telling himself that Bonaparte, a penniless and unknown lieutenant, had made himself ruler of the world with his sword.’  Would he have felt the same about Hitler when he was at the height of his powers?  Will the French ever get over the little Corsican?

Stendhal has at least something in common with Cervantes – and other writers like him.  His style was dry and spare.  He even said that before starting to write each day, he would read a page of the Code Napoléon in order to chasten or flatten out his language.  He sought to avoid describing dramatic moments in a dramatic manner.

I make every effort possible to appear dry.  I want to impose silence on my heart which imagines it has much to say.  I always tremble in case I may only have written a sigh when I wished to note down a truth.

As a result, Zola said that Stendhal was the father of the naturalistic school.  He is principally remembered for two novels, The Charterhouse of Parma and Scarlet and Black. 

The latter was based on a celebrated murder trial.  Somerset Maugham remarked that ‘Stendhal was more interested in himself than anyone else and is always the hero of his novels…Julien Sorel, the hero of Le Rouge et le Noir, is the kind of man Stendhal would have liked to be.  He made him attractive to women and successful in winning their love, as he himself would have given everything to be, and too seldom was.’  Well, there must be some limit to that notion – Sorel ends up being executed for murder. 

Following the plot of the murder trial, Sorel seduces the mother of children he is engaged to teach, ‘not because he is in love with her, but partly to revenge himself on the class she belongs to, and partly to satisfy his own pride.’  Then he does fall for her, but propriety means he has to give her up.  He goes to a seminary.  Then he gets a post with a real aristocrat.  The daughter of the Marquis falls for Sorel – because he was different to the aristocrats who surrounded her and who despised them as much as she did.  She also sensed his ambition and she saw his dark side. 

Maugham said: ‘Those two self-centred, irritable moody creatures scarcely know if they love with passion, or hate with frenzy.’  When the daughter gets pregnant, the Marquis has to consider consenting to the union.  At this point, the hero loses it.  He suggests the Marquis asks the prior mistress for a reference!  When she blows Sorel’s cover, he seeks final revenge.  You might think this sounds more like an Italian opera than a French novel, but Maugham says the novel had to end this way – had Sorel gone on to fame and fortune, he would have been a different hero in a different book – he would have been like Rastignac, the hero of Old Goriot.

Julien Sorel comes from peasant stock in a small rural town.  He has been abused by his father and brothers.  He sees the priesthood as the way out and up.  A priest teaches him Latin.  The socially aware mayor appoints him as a tutor to his three children.  The mayor instructed Julien to cease to have anything to do with his family friends as ‘their tone would not be suited to my children.’  He had married a wealthy heiress when she was young.  Madam de Rênal had been brought up by Sacred Heart nuns who hated the French because they were against the Jesuits.  She was only thirty.

She was a simple soul, who had never risen even to the point of criticising her husband, and admitting that he bored her.  She supposed, without telling herself so, that between husband and wife there could be no more tender relations.  She was especially fond of M. de Rênal when he spoke to her of his plans for the children, one of whom he intended to place in the army, the second on the bench, and the third in church.  In short, she found M. de Rênal a great deal less boring than any of the other men of her acquaintance.  This wifely opinion was justified.  The Mayor of Verrières owed his reputation for wit, and better still for good tone, to half a dozen pleasantries which he had inherited from an uncle…As he was in other respects most refined, except when the talk ran on money, he was regarded, and rightly, as the most aristocratic personage in Verrières…..

The flatteries of which she had been the precocious object, as the heiress to a large fortune, and a marked tendency towards passionate devotion, had bred in her an attitude towards life that was wholly inward.  With an outward show of the most perfect submission, and a self-suppression which the husbands of Verrières used to quote as an example to their wives….her inner life was in fact dictated by the most lofty disdain.

Well, there you have the dry style and fierce psychological insight of Stendhal – and an insight into the wreckage that would almost certainly follow if she fell for the tutor.

The second part of the novel deals with the aristocracy.  These people look down on anyone not descended from a Crusader (apparently forgetting that the Crusaders lost.)  It is a world of mental stagnation and frightful boredom.

There is no income of a hundred thousand crowns, no blue riband that can prevail against a drawing-room so constituted.  The smallest living idea seemed an outrage.  Despite good tone, perfect manners, the desire to be agreeable, boredom was written upon every brow.  The young men who came to pay their respects, afraid to speak of anything that might lead to their being suspected of thinking, afraid to reveal some forbidden reading, became silent after a few elegantly phrased sentences on Rossini and the weather.

Here are the aspirations of the Marquise de La Mole.

Baron de La Joumate was a chilly creature with expressionless features.  He was small, thin, ugly, he spent all his time at the Chateau, and, as a rule he had nothing to say about anything.  His speech revealed his mind.  Madame de La Mole would have been passionately happy, for the first time in her life, if she could have secured him as a husband for her daughter.

What a drab, cruel world.  Barry Humphries and Clive James would have liked this writing, but is it any wonder that adultery was the order of the day?  And it is no surprise that the daughter would be ripe for plucking by the hero.

In having an affair with Sorel, Mathilde is, in the words of the author, outraging her caste.

‘If, with his poverty, Julien had been noble, my love would be nothing more than a piece of vulgar folly, an unfortunate marriage; it would lack that element which characterises great passion; the immensity of the difficulty to be overcome and the dark uncertainty of the issue’.

Her brother sees Julien differently.

Beware of that young man who has so much energy…if the Revolution comes again, he will have us all guillotined.

Here is how this dry writer describes the end of his hero.

The bad air of the cell was becoming intolerable to Julien; happily, on the day on which they told him he was to die, a lovely sun enlivened nature, and Julien was in a courageous mood.  To walk in the open air was to him a delicious sensation, as to walk on land might be to a sailor who has been long at sea.  Well, everything is going well, he told himself, I don’t lack courage.  Never had that head been so poetic as when it was about to fall.  The sweet moments he had passed in the woods of Vergy crowded upon his memory with the utmost force.  Everything took place simply decently, and on his side without affectation.

It takes nerve to write as sparely as that, but you can see why Stendhal had such appeal for the later American writer named Ernest Hemingway.  He would take aspects of the hero of the other great Stendhal novel as a model for parts of Farewell to Arms.

For many, now, the passion of this 19th century melodrama will be way over the top; a political sub-plot in the second half of the novel comes from and goes to nowhere; then with a rapid change of pace, the whole deal unfolds in three pages; some might ask whether the hero has any heart at all; and it’s a bit rough to be executed for murder when the victim is alive and begging for mercy. 

But, boy, this guy could write, and this novel is a stand-out.  And fans of the film La reine Margot will recall that the de La Mole family had form with the severed heads of lovers.

Like a lot of the novels of Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust, this one is a study in caste in France after Napoleon.  They make you wonder why the French bothered to have a revolution at all.

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