The best thing on Stendhal in English is an essay by Lytton Strachey in which he remarks the way the author denovelises the novel while skilfully retaining all its traditional apparatus. Stendhal’s imagination is a kind of parody of Scott’s: his sensibility is itself its own journal and his own memoir. Reviewing Stendhal’s last book, The Charterhouse of Parma, when it appeared in 1839, Balzac noted admiringly that the novel ‘often contained a whole book in a single page’. But that book is not one which Stendhal would have bothered to write, and no audience would have been concerned to read it.
Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000
That John Bayley (LRB, 17 February) doesn’t much care for Stendhal is a pity but does not, of course, disqualify him from commenting on a new translation of The Charterhouse of Parma. What does, however, disqualify him is that he does not seem to have noticed that Fabrice Del Dongo is not, in fact, the scion of an ‘ancient Piedmontese house’: he is the son of the penniless Frenchman, Lieutenant Robert, to whom the Marquise regularly reports on the boy’s progress and who later becomes that Napoleonic general whose horse is so ungently replaced by Fabrice’s own during the Battle of Waterloo. This means, among other things, that Gina Sanseverina is not Fabrice’s aunt and (unlike him) knows it, having been a wide-awake adolescent witness to the Marquise’s affair with the Lieutenant. It also means that all the social advantages Fabrice enjoys during the restoration era are based on an ironic misapprehension. This surely casts an oblique new light on many of the events in the later chapters John Bayley finds so boring, and perhaps even on the novel’s much-discussed mysterious title.
It is true that Stendhal differs from Scott and Balzac in that he does not remind us over and over again of the basic facts of his stories. He takes the efficiency of our memory for granted, and if his confidence turns out to have been misplaced, that’s too bad.