by Robert Alter.
Allen and Unwin, 285 pp., £8.95, May 1980, 0 04 928042 2
Show More
Show More

Henri Beyle was born in what could reasonably count as Year I of the modern era, since it was then, in 1783, that the independence of the United States was formally recognised by the European powers. Stendhal made his appearance 34 years later, when a travel guide to Italy was published in Paris as the work of ‘M. de Stendhal, officier de cavalerie’. Had that pseudonymous cavalry officer, Beyle in real life, perished in the retreat from Moscow, as statistically he should have done – the chances of getting back safely were little more than one in six – no one would be thinking today of writing his biography: in 1812, Beyle was Beyle, a nonentity. Without Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme there would be no curiosity about the cavalry officer’s earlier life. Without them, it is all too likely that no one would have thought of exhuming and publishing the other works left in manuscript at Beyle’s death, in particular that fascinating analysis of an unhappy childhood, the Vie de Henry Brulard, quarried by every author of a ‘life of Stendhal’ as he drafts his opening chapters.

No matter whom they choose as their subject, the problem that faces all literary biographers is the same: how to deal with the masterpieces when one reaches them along the line of the narrative. They were conceived, written, published at certain known points in the author’s life, so that they have a history which can be dovetailed into that life. But they also exist, and much more importantly, outside it: that is, after all, what one means when one calls them timeless. And since Stendhal didn’t achieve proper recognition until long after his death, should one not prolong his biography beyond the moment on 22 March 1842 when a stroke felled him as he was walking down the Rue Neuve-des-Capucines, in order to encompass the ‘life of the books’ as well as the ‘life of the man’?

Joanna Richardson, the last chapter of whose biography was entitled ‘Stendhal and Posterity’, evidently thought one should. (Her book, incidentally, appeared only six years ago; and ‘thick and fast they come at last,’ like Lewis Carroll’s oysters.) Robert Alter has not followed her example, but instead takes time to discuss the major works from the point of view of content, style, technique etc, when he reaches that point in Stendhal’s life at which they were written. This means that the chronological flow is interrupted, narrative necessarily yields ground to evaluation, and the evaluation is inevitably unsatisfactory since space is limited; if there is one art that Alter has not learnt from Stendhal, it is that of saying a great deal in a few words.

The difficulty, so stated, is almost insuperable, and one seemingly sensible way of dealing with it is perhaps to write two books, one on the author’s life, another on his works. This was the solution adopted, many years ago, by Henri Martineau, who brought out a two-volume life, Le Coeur de Stendhal, which turned out to be much more worthwhile than his one-volume Oeuvre de Stendhal. There is, however, something a little artificial in separating ‘life’ and ‘work’ (or works), especially with a writer like Stendhal whose novels bristle with bits of autobiography. Take Le Rouge et le Noir. One of the books on which the young Julien Sorel dotes, is a book which moved the adolescent Henri Beyle: Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise. When Julien starts taking letters from dictation, his employer, M. de La Mole, notices to his dismay that his newly engaged secretary spells cela with two l’s: the same mistake had been made by Beyle himself when he began work as a clerk in the War Ministry in 1800, and had provoked the same irritated stupefaction in his superior, Pierre Daru. In 1824, Clémentine Curial, one of the most passionate of his mistresses, kept Beyle shut up for three days in the cellar of her country château, smuggling in food and drink and even disposing personally of the contents of his chamber-pot. The memory of this amorous incarceration must have been in Stendhal’s mind when he described Julien’s clandestine visit to Mme de Rênal on the way from Besançon to Paris – though the chamber-pot is chastely omitted.

Minutiae such as these, which would be put down to pure invention if Stendhal’s life were not now known in such intimate detail, do not suffice to turn the novels into disguised autobiography: Stendhal does not belong to the same category as Benjamin Constant or Proust. As Alter puts it, ‘Stendhal’s characters pulsate with the inward movements of his own experience, and he does sometimes lend them actual anecdotal fragments of his past, but the vivid individuality with which he endows them is hardly the result of a scissors-and-paste assemblage from persons remembered and acts performed.’

Neither, on the other hand, did Stendhal belong to the category of purely inventive or observant novelists, like Balzac or Dickens (setting aside David Copperfield). Plot invention, in particular, was never his forte: Le Rouge et le Noir derived from two separate causes célèbres, La Chartreuse from an untrustworthy 16th-century account of the youthful escapades of Pope Paul III, and Lucien Leuwen was shamelessly cribbed from the manuscript of a story submitted to him for his opinion by a lady admirer. The design had to be given; the texture then came from the experiences of rather more than half a lifetime. One has always to bear in mind that, as a novelist, Stendhal was a very late starter: if his contemporary Jane Austen had waited as long as he did before writing her novels, she would never have published anything at all.

It follows, then, that the life must be in some ways relevant to the work: but in what ways? It was, after all, a very ordinary life, when one considers the extraordinary historical period which was its setting. Beyle was born early enough to have a very clear recollection of the Revolution and the Terror. He had the advantage, in his late teens and twenties, of living through the Napoleonic adventure, something his creature Julien Sorel would have given his eye-teeth to have done. He witnessed the preliminary transforming blasts of the Industrial Revolution – it was, significantly, in the year of his birth that the first steam-propelled paddle-boat was launched on the waters of a French river. He met and talked to Byron, he knew and corresponded with Balzac, he had an affair with one of Delacroix’s mistresses: in this way, if in no others, he was caught up in that other revolution, European romanticism. But he was for ever on the sidelines, an interested spectator, never a participant. The biographer can make a much more exciting story out of the life of almost any other major French writer of that century or this; even Zola, stodgy, paunchy bourgeois though he may have been, at least pitchforked himself into the Dreyfus Affair. But Stendhal never really brought off anything – except, of course, the novels. We watch him drifting and coasting along, dependent on high-placed, energetic patrons like the aforementioned Daru, whom he was always disappointing: a bored clerk, an officer of dragoons who could hardly sit his horse, a would-be dramatist who never got to the point even of submitting a play to a theatre manager; finally, after many such false starts, ending his life as an ill-paid consul in a dismal little Italian seaport, pestered by an officious and treacherous subordinate, and more bored than ever. He had no belief in an after-life, but one has to believe in it for him, because it would be too depressing to think that the nearest he ever got to realising how highly he would rate among the writers of the century was when he read Balzac’s eulogistic review of La Chartreuse de Parme.

There were times when life seemed so discouraging that he played with the idea of putting an end to it, as deliberately as did Octave, the suicidal hero of his first novel, Armance. He would sketch pistols in the margins of manuscripts, beg a friend in Italy to send him a suitable poison, draw up his will, sometimes several times in a year, or else amuse himself inventing inscriptions for his gravestone. These tended to be in Italian rather than French or Latin, and include the famous line ‘Visse, scrisse, amo,’ composed in 1821 when he was feeling particularly bruised in spirit after being expelled from his beloved Milan as a political suspect. The implication of the formula – a fair one – was that all he did in life worth recording was to write and to love. His loves included Tasso and Shakespeare, Cimarosa and Mozart, together with a great many women, by no means all of whom were responsive, in some cases because he never declared himself, in others because his approach was too embarrassed or clumsy, in a few possibly because his physique was against him: though, curiously, it was when he was in middle age, fatter and balder than ever, that two young women separately and spontaneously declared themselves to be in love with him. One of them was married, the other not, and he actually made her a serious proposal: but it was not accepted. This rake, more a rake by reputation than in fact, could not even secure himself a wife.

To judge from appearances, then, a rather sad, undistinguished, mediocre life, dogged for most of the time by money troubles and marred, particularly towards the end, by bouts of ill-health, mostly the long-term consequences of the venereal infection he caught, with his usual bad luck, from the very first prostitute he went with, at the age of 18. Yet it is Stendhal’s quasi-divine grace that he can, after his own unique fashion, convey to a receptive reader some sense of the sheer delight to be found in living and loving, and in writing, too, if one has a mind to, however stout, ill-favoured, middle-aged and penurious one may be. This grace seems to have increased as Stendhal grew older. It is hardly discernible in Armance, only occasionally flickers to the surface in Le Rouge et le Noir, but abounds in La Chartreuse and in the last, unfinished novel Lamiel, about which I find Alter altogether too dismissive.

This allegro mood, which is Stendhal’s Ariel taunting Beyle’s Caliban, this irrepressible spirit of delight which can hardly be called comic since it skirts perpetually the cliff-tops of catastrophe, can be seen in all kinds of privileged scenes and sequences: Gina making a fool of Prince Ernest Ranuce, Lamiel teasing the Abbé Clément, M. Leuwen spreading havoc in the Chamber of Deputies, Julien mocking the jurymen whose verdict will send him to the scaffold. This same spirit, Voltairian without Voltaire’s bitterness, Shavian without Shaw’s bloodlessness, punctures all pretentions, deflates all establishments, cocks a liberating snook at every convention. It is the spirit of fun and the spirit of youth. When Gina objects, only half seriously, that a certain arrangement proposed by Mosca is ‘highly immoral’, the middle-aged minister, without denying the immorality, urges it on her nonetheless as the course to be taken ‘if we want to spend the rest of our lives cheerfully and not grow old before our time’. One always seems to shed ten, twenty years when one rereads Stendhal. What may be thought puzzling is that he has so few genuine admirers among the young these days.

Nous nous anglisons, nous ne rions plus guère: the epigraph to the Mémoires d’un Touriste does not imply anglophobia, but one has to remember that the book was published in the first year of Victoria’s reign. The Victorians ignored Stendhal or dismissed him as a frivolous libertine. At different times, the Edinburgh Review accused him of flippancy and George Sand, whom one wouldn’t have thought so stuffy, expressed the liveliest disapproval of his clowning. But it may be that Stendhal knew, better than George Sand or the Edinburgh Review, what to take seriously and what not. It is noteworthy that his young heroes all take themselves very seriously – as indeed did Beyle himself when young: but Stendhal, for his part, is never tempted to take them too seriously. This is where the celebrated irony comes in: an irony, however, directed, not just against Julien and Lucien, but also against all the values in accordance with which most of us live and in the name of which most of us would judge his life to have been sad, undistinguished and mediocre.

This is no doubt the heart of the problem for Stendhal’s biographers. They have a story to tell, undoubtedly, and one that can be told in the minutest detail as to external facts and occurrences, thanks to Stendhal’s own habit of making encoded memoranda of practically everything that happened to him, so that all scholars have needed to do is to decipher the record. But the story of his life is no more than the nutshell in which he is bounded: within, he is still king of infinite space. One needs to know the story, to be sure: but it is the infinite space that counts. In the end, if one is to read about Stendhal, as one must, for curiosity about the man is a natural result of the magnetic attraction that draws one back to his books, then it is better to turn aside from the Alters, the Joanna Richardsons, the Martineaus, and resort to one of those more free-wheeling essayists who veer disconcertingly from ‘work’ to ‘life’ and in the process strike off the occasional illuminating observation in the improvisatory manner proper to Stendhal himself. I am thinking of R. M. Adams’s Notes on a Novelist, Margaret Tillett’s Background to the Novels, and more especially of Storm Jameson’s delightful little book, published last year and too little noticed in the press at a time when reviews were all too thin on the ground.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences