Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Stendhal (1783–1842)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frederic Taber Cooper (1864–1937)
MARIE-HENRI BEYLE, French novelist and man of letters, who is better known under his bizarre pseudonym of Stendhal, is a somewhat unusual figure among French writers. He was curiously misappreciated by his own generation, whose literary movements he in turn confessedly ignored. He is recognized to-day as an important link in the development of modern fiction, and is even discussed concurrently with Balzac, in the same way that we speak of Dickens and Thackeray, Emerson and Lowell.  1
  There is nothing dramatic in Stendhal’s life, which, viewed impartially, is a simple and somewhat pathetic record of failure and disillusion. He was six years older than Balzac, having been born January 23d, 1783, in the small town of Grenoble, in Dauphiné, which, with its narrow prejudices and petty formalism, seemed to him in after years “the souvenir of an abominable indigestion.” He early developed an abnormal sensibility, which would have met with ready response had his mother lived, but which a keen dread of ridicule taught him to hide from an unsympathetic father and a still more unkind aunt,—later his step-mother, Séraphie Gagnon. He seemed predestined to be misunderstood—even his school companions finding him odd, and often amusing themselves at his expense. Thus he grew up with a sense of isolation in his own home, and when, in 1800, he had the opportunity of going to some distant relatives in Paris, the Daru family, he seized it eagerly. The following year he accompanied the younger Darus to Italy, and was present at the battle of Marengo. This was the turning-point of Stendhal’s career. He was dazzled by Napoleon’s successes, and fascinated with the beauty and gayety of Milan, where he found himself for the first time in a congenial atmosphere, and among companions animated by a common cause. His consequent sense of freedom and exaltation knew no bounds. Henceforth Napoleon was to be his hero, and Italy the land of his election; two lifelong passions which furnish the clue to much that is enigmatic in his character.  2
  During the ensuing years, while he followed the fortunes of Napoleon throughout the Prussian campaign and until after the retreat from Moscow, Italy was always present in his thoughts, and when Waterloo ended his political and military aspirations he hastened back to Milan, declaring that he “had ceased to be a Frenchman,” and settled down to a life of tranquil Bohemianism, too absorbed in the paintings of Correggio and in the operas of Rossini to be provident of the future. The following years, the happiest of his life, were also the period of Stendhal’s chief intellectual growth,—due quite as much to the influence exerted on him by Italian art and music as by his contact with men like Manzoni, Monti, and Silvio Pellico. Unfortunately, his relations with certain Italian patriots aroused the suspicions of the Austrian police, and he was abruptly banished. He returned to Paris, where to his surprise life proved more than tolerable, and where he made many valuable acquaintances, such as Benjamin Constant, Destutt de Tracy, and Prosper Mérimée. The revolution of July brought him a change of fortune; for he was in sympathy with Louis Philippe, and did not scruple to accept the consulship offered him at Cività Vecchia. He soon found, however, that a small Mediterranean seaport was a poor substitute for his beloved Milan, while its trying climate undoubtedly shortened his life. In 1841 failing health forced him to abandon his duties and return to Paris, where he died of apoplexy on March 23d, 1842.  3
  So much at least of Stendhal’s life must be known in order to understand his writings; all of which, not excepting the novels, belong to what Ferdinand Brunetière stigmatizes as “personal literature.” Indeed, the chief interest of many of his books lies in the side-lights they throw upon his curious personality. He was a man of violent contrasts, a puzzle to his best friends; one day making the retreat from Moscow with undaunted zeal, the next settling down contentedly in Milan, to the very vie de café he affected to despise. He was a strange combination of restless energy and philosophic contemplation; hampered by a morbid sensibility which tended to increase, but which he flattered himself that he “had learned to hide under an irony imperceptible to the vulgar,” yet continually giving offense to others by his caustic tongue. He seemed to need the tonic of strong emotions, and was happiest when devoting himself heart and soul to some person or cause, whether a Napoleon, a mistress, or a question of philosophy. His great preoccupation was the analysis of the human mind, an employment which in later years became a positive detriment. He was often led to attribute ulterior motives to his friends, a course which only served to render him morbid and unjust; while his equally pitiless dissection of his own sensations often robbed them of half their charm. Even love and war, his favorite emotions, left him disillusioned, asking “Is that all it amounts to?” He always had a profound respect for force of character, regarding even lawlessness as preferable to apathy; but he was implacable towards baseness or vulgarity. Herein lies, perhaps, the chief reason for Stendhal’s ill success in life; he would never stoop to obsequiousness or flattery, and in avoiding even the semblance of self-interest, allowed his fairest chances to pass him by. “I have little regret for my lost opportunities,” he wrote in 1835. “In place of ten thousand, I might be getting twenty; in place of Chevalier, I might be Officer of the Legion of Honor: but I should have had to think three or four hours a day of those platitudes of ambition which are dignified by the name of politics; I should have had to commit many base acts:” a brief but admirable epitome of Stendhal’s whole life and character.  4
  Aside from his works of fiction, Stendhal’s works may be conveniently grouped under biographies,—‘Vie de Haydn, de Mozart, et de Metastase,’ ‘Vie de Napoléon,’ ‘Vie de Rossini’; literary and artistic criticism,—‘Histoire de la Peinture en Italie,’ ‘Racine et Shakespeare,’ ‘Mélanges d’Art et de Littérature’; travels,—‘Rome, Naples, et Florence,’ ‘Promenades dans Rome,’ ‘Mémoires d’un Touriste’; and one volume of sentimental psychology, his ‘Essai sur l’Amour,’ to which Bourget owes the suggestion of his ‘Physiologie de l’Amour Moderne.’ Many of these works merit greater popularity, being written in an easy, fluent style, and relieved by his inexhaustible fund of anecdote and personal reminiscence. His books of travel, especially, are charming causeries, full of a sympathetic spontaneity which more than atones for their lack of method; his ‘Walks in Rome’ is more readable than two-thirds of the books since written on that subject.  5
  Stendhal’s present vogue, however, is due primarily to his novels, to which he owes the almost literal fulfillment of his prophecy that he would not be appreciated until 1880. Before that date they had been comparatively neglected, in spite of Balzac’s spontaneous and enthusiastic tribute to the ‘Chartreuse de Parme,’ and the appreciative criticisms of Taine and Prosper Mérimée. The truth is that Stendhal was in some ways a generation behind his time, and often has an odd, old-fashioned flavor suggestive of Marivaux and Crébillon fils. On the other hand, his psychologic tendency is distinctly modern, and not at all to the taste of an age which found Chateaubriand or Madame de Staël eminently satisfactory. But he appeals strongly to the speculating, self-questioning spirit of the present day, and Zola and Bourget in turn have been glad to claim kinship with him.  6
  Stendhal, however, cannot be summarily labeled and dismissed as a realist or psychologue in the modern acceptation of the term, although he was a pioneer in both fields. He had a sovereign contempt for literary style or method, and little dreamed that he would one day be regarded as the founder of a school. It must be remembered that he was a soldier before he was a man of letters, and his love of adventure occasionally got the better of his love of logic, making his novels a curious mixture of convincing truth and wild romanticism. His heroes are singularly like himself, a mixture of morbid introspection and restless energy: he seems to have taken special pleasure in making them succeed where he had failed in life, and when the spirit of the story-teller gets the better of the psychologist, he sends them on a career of adventure which puts to shame Dumas père or Walter Scott. And yet Stendhal was a born analyst, a self-styled “observer of the human heart”; and the real merit of his novels lies in the marvelous fidelity with which he interprets the emotions, showing the inner workings of his hero’s mind from day to day, and multiplying petty details with convincing logic. But in his preoccupation for mental conditions he is apt to lose sight of the material side of life, and the symmetry of his novels is marred by a meagerness of physical detail and a lack of atmosphere. Zola has laid his finger upon Stendhal’s real weakness when he points out that “the landscape, the climate, the time of day, the weather,—Nature herself, in other words,—never seems to intervene and exert an influence on his characters”: and he cites a passage which in point of fact admirably illustrates his meaning, the scene from the ‘Rouge et Noir,’ where Julien endeavors to take the hand of Mme. de Rênal, which he characterizes as “a little mute drama of great power,” adding in conclusion:—“Give that episode to an author for whom the milieu exists, and he will make the night, with its odors, its voices, its soft voluptuousness, play a part in the defeat of the woman. And that author will be in the right; his picture will be more complete.” It is this tendency to leave nature out of consideration which gives Stendhal’s characters a flavor of abstraction, and caused Sainte-Beuve to declare in disgust that they were “not human beings, but ingeniously constructed automatons.” Yet it is unfair to conclude with Zola, that Stendhal was a man for whom the outside world did not exist; he was not insensible to the beauties of nature, only he looked upon them as a secondary consideration. After a sympathetic description of the Rhône valley, he had to add, “But the interest of a landscape is insufficient; in the long run, some moral or historical interest is indispensable.” Yet he recognized explicitly the influence of climate and environment upon character, and seems to have been sensible of his own shortcomings as an author. “I abhor material descriptions,” he confesses in ‘Souvenirs d’Égotisme’: “the ennui of making them deters me from writing novels.”  7
  Nevertheless, aside from his short ‘Chroniques’ and ‘Nouvelles,’ and the posthumous ‘Lamiel’ which he probably intended to destroy, Stendhal has left four stories which deserve detailed consideration: ‘Armance,’ ‘Le Rouge et Le Noir,’ ‘La Chartreuse de Parme,’ and the fragmentary novel ‘Lucien Leuwen.’  8
  As has been justly pointed out by Stendhal’s sympathetic biographer, Édouard Rod, the heroes of the four books are essentially of one type, and all more or less faithful copies of himself; having in common a need of activity, a thirst for love, a keen sensibility, and an unbounded admiration for Napoleon—and differing only by reason of the several milieus in which he has placed them. The first of these, ‘Armance,’ appeared in 1827. The hero, Octave, is an aristocrat, son of the Marquis de Malivert, who “was very rich before the Revolution, and when he returned to Paris in 1814, thought himself beggared on an income of twenty or thirty thousand.” Octave is the most exaggerated of all Stendhal’s heroes; a mysterious, somber being, “a misanthrope before his time”; coupling with his pride of birth a consciousness of its vanity:—“Had heaven made me the son of a manufacturer of cloth, I should have worked at my desk from the age of sixteen, while now my sole occupation has been luxury. I should have had less pride and more happiness. Ah, how I despise myself!” Yet it is part of Octave’s pretensions to regard himself as superior to love. When he discovers his passion for his cousin Armance, he is overwhelmed with despair: “I am in love,” he said in a choked voice. “I, in love! Great God!” The object of this reluctant passion, Armance de Zohiloff, is a poor orphan, dependent upon a rich relative. Like Octave, she struggles against her affection, but for better reasons: “The world will look upon me as a lady’s-maid who has entrapped the son of the family.” The history of their long and secret struggle against this growing passion, complicated by outside incidents and intrigues, forms the bulk of the volume. At last Octave is wounded in a duel, and moved by the belief that he is dying, they mutually confess their affection. Octave unexpectedly recovers, and as Armance about this time receives an inheritance from a distant relative, the story promises to end happily; but at the last moment he is induced to credit a calumny against her, and commits suicide, when Armance retires to a convent. The book is distinctly inferior to his later efforts, and M. Rod is the first to find hidden beauties in it.  9
  Very different was his next book, ‘Le Rouge et Le Noir,’ the Army and the Priesthood, which appeared in 1830, and is now recognized as Stendhal’s masterpiece. As its singular name is intended to imply, it deals with the changed social conditions which confronted the young men of France after the downfall of Napoleon,—the reaction against war and military glory in favor of the Church; a topic which greatly occupied Stendhal, and which is well summed up in the words of his hero Julien:—“When Bonaparte made himself talked about, France was afraid of invasion; military merit was necessary and fashionable. To-day one sees priests of forty with appointments of a hundred thousand francs, three times that of Napoleon’s famous generals;” and he concludes, “The thing to do is to be a priest.”  10
  This Julien Sorel is the son of a shrewd but ignorant peasant, owner of a prosperous saw-mill in the small town of Verrières, in Franche-Comté. “He was a small young man, of feeble appearance, with irregular but delicate features, and an aquiline nose;… who could have divined that that girlish face, so pale, and gentle, hid an indomitable resolution to expose himself to a thousand deaths sooner than not make his fortune?” His only schooling is gained from a cousin, an old army surgeon, who taught him Latin and inflamed his fancy with stories of Napoleon, and from the aged Abbé Chélan who grounds him in theology,—for Julien had proclaimed his intention of studying for the priesthood. By unexpected good luck, his Latin earned him an appointment as tutor to the children of M. de Rênal, the pompous and purse-proud Mayor of Verrières. Julien is haunted by his peculiar notions of duties which he owes it to himself to perform as steps towards his worldly advancement; for circumstances have made him a consummate hypocrite. One of these duties is to make love to Mme. de Rênal: “Why should he not be loved as Bonaparte, while still poor, had been loved by the brilliant Mme. de Beauharnais?” His pursuit of the Mayor’s gentle and inexperienced wife proves only too successful, but at last reaches the ears of the Abbé Chélan, whose influence compels Julien to leave Verrières and go to the Seminary at Besançon, to finish his theological studies. His stay at the Seminary was full of disappointment, for “it was in vain that he made himself small and insignificant, he could not please: he was too different.” At last he has a chance to go to Paris, as secretary to the influential Marquis de La Mole, who interests himself in Julien and endeavors to advance him socially. The Marquis has a daughter, Mathilde, a female counterpart of Stendhal’s heroes; with exalted ideas of duty, and a profound reverence for Marguerite of Navarre, who dared to ask the executioner for the head of her lover, Boniface de La Mole, executed April 30th, 1574. Mathilde always assumed mourning on April 30th. “I know of nothing,” she declared, “except condemnation to death, which distinguishes a man: it is the only thing which cannot be bought.” Julien soon conceives it his duty to win Mathilde’s affections, and the love passages which ensue between these two “ésprits supérieurs” are singular in the extreme: they arrive at love only through a complicated intellectual process, in which the question of duty, either to themselves or to each other, is always paramount. At last it becomes necessary to confess their affection to the Marquis, who is naturally furious. “For the first time in his life this nobleman forgot his manners: he overwhelmed him with atrocious insults, worthy of a cab-driver. Perhaps the novelty of these oaths was a distraction.” What hurts him most is that Mathilde will be plain Mme. Sorel and not a duchess. But at this juncture the father receives a letter from Mme. de Rênal, telling of her relations with Julien, and accusing him of having deliberately won Mathilde in order to possess her wealth. Such baseness the Marquis cannot pardon, and at any cost he forbids the marriage. Julien returns immediately to Verrières, and finding Mme. de Rênal in church, deliberately shoots her. She ultimately recovers from her wound, but Julien is nevertheless condemned and guillotined. Mme. de Rênal dies of remorse, while Mathilde, emulating Marguerite de Navarre, buries Julien’s head with her own hands.  11
  The ‘Chartreuse de Parme,’ although written the same year as the ‘Rouge et Noir,’ was not published until 1839, two years before his death, and was judged his best effort. “He has written ‘The Modern Prince,’” declared Balzac, “the book which Macchiavelli would have written if he had been living exiled from Italy in the nineteenth century.” The action takes place at Parma; and as a picture of court life in a small Italian principality, with all its jealousies and intrigues, the book is certainly a masterpiece. But it is marred by the extravagance of its plot. The hero, Fabrice, is the younger son of a proud and bigoted Milanese nobleman, the Marquis del Dongo, who “joined a sordid avarice to a host of other fine qualities,” and in his devotion to the House of Austria was implacable towards Napoleon. Fabrice, however, was “a young man susceptible of enthusiasm,” and on learning of Napoleon’s return from Elba, hastened secretly to join him, and participated in the battle of Waterloo. This escapade is denounced by his father to the Austrian police, and on his return Fabrice is forced to take refuge in Swiss territory. About this time his aunt Gina, the beautiful Countess Pietranera, goes to live at Parma; and to conceal a love affair with the prime minister Mosca marries the old Duke of Sanseverina-Taxis, who obligingly leaves on his wedding-day for a distant embassy. Gina has always felt a strong interest for Fabrice, which later ripens into a passion. It is agreed that Fabrice shall study for the priesthood, and that Count Mosca will use his influence to have him made Archbishop of Parma, an office frequently held in the past by Del Dongos. Unfortunately Fabrice is drawn into a quarrel with a certain Giletti, a low comedy actor, whom he kills in self-defense. Ordinarily the killing of a fellow of Giletti’s stamp by a Del Dongo would have been considered a trifling matter; but this offense assumes importance through the efforts of a certain political faction to discredit the minister through his protégé. The situation is further complicated by the Prince, Ernest IV., who has come under the spell of Gina’s beauty, and furious at finding her obdurate, is glad of an opportunity to humiliate her. Fabrice is condemned to ten years’ imprisonment in the Farnese tower, the Prince treacherously disregarding his promise of pardon. From this point the plot becomes fantastic. From his window in the tower, Fabrice overlooks that of Clélia, daughter of General Fabio Conti, governor of the prison. It is a case of mutual love at first sight, and for months the two hold communication by signs above the heads of the passing sentries. After his fabulous escape, effected by the help of his aunt, Fabrice is inconsolable, and at length returns voluntarily to the tower in order to be near Clélia. It is not until after the death of the Prince that the Duchess obtains Fabrice’s pardon from his son and successor. At last Clélia dies, and Fabrice enters the neighboring monastery, the Chartreuse of Parma.  12
  Fabrice’s experiences on the battle-field of Waterloo, where as a raw youth he first “smelled powder,” are recounted with a good deal of realistic detail. They suggest a comparison with a book of more recent date devoted to a similar subject, Stephen Crane’s ‘Red Badge of Courage,’ though of course the latter does not approach Stendhal in artistic self-restraint and mastery over form.  13
  The remaining novel, ‘Lucien Leuwen,’ was left in an unfinished state, and thus published after the author’s death, under the title of ‘Le Chasseur Vert.’ Recently they have been republished, under the name of ‘Lucien Leuwen,’ with additional material which the editor, M. Jean de Mitty, claims to have deciphered from almost illegible manuscripts found in the library at Grenoble. But even without these additions there is enough to show that ‘Lucien Leuwen’ would have been one of his best efforts, second only, perhaps, to the ‘Rouge et Noir.’ The hero, Lucien, is the son of a rich financier, who “was never out of temper and never took a serious tone with his son,” but cheerfully paid his debts, saying “A son is a creditor provided by nature.” Out of mere ennui from lack of serious employment, Lucien enters as sub-lieutenant a regiment of Lancers in garrison at Nancy. He has no illusions about military life in times of peace:—“I shall wage war only upon cigars; I shall become the pillager of a military café in the gloomy garrison of an ill-paved little town…. What glory! My soul will be well caught when I present myself to Napoleon in the next world. ‘No doubt,’ he will say, ‘you were dying of hunger when you took up this life?’ ‘No, General,’ I shall reply, ‘I thought I was imitating you.’” His early experiences at Nancy, his subsequent meeting with and love for Mme. de Chasteller, are admirable equally for their moderation and their fidelity.  14
  Since Stendhalism has become a cult, so much has been written on the subject that a complete bibliography of Stendhaliana would occupy several pages. Aside from the well-known criticisms of Balzac, Taine, and Sainte-Beuve, the most important contributions to the subject are the article by Zola in ‘Romanciers Naturalistes,’ that by Bourget in ‘Essais de Psychologie Contemporaine,’ and the biography by Édouard Rod in the ‘Grands Écrivains Français’ (Great French Writers) Series. Thanks to the zeal of M. Casimir Stryienski, a considerable amount of autobiographical material has lately been brought to light: ‘Journal de Stendhal,’ ‘Vie de Henri Broulard,’ and ‘Souvenirs d’Égotisme,’ which, together with his ‘Correspondence,’ are indispensable for a true knowledge of the man.  15

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.