Stendhal wrote compulsively from an early age. He scribbled copious advice to himself in a diary, coached his elder sister by correspondence, wrote travel books, autobiographies, a treatise on love, books on composers and painters. He wrote fast too, completed Le Rouge et le Noir while he was receiving the proofs of the work’s earlier chapters, and notoriously dashed off the whole of La Chartreuse de Parme in seven weeks. Yet this swift and prolific writer published only three novels in his lifetime, and was also a great master of the false start. He gave up enough novels to provide a book later assigned just that name: Romans Abandonnés. The equally abandoned Lucien Leuwen is some six hundred pages long, and one of the world’s greatest unfinished books. The serious competition, I suppose, would be Musil’s Man without Qualities.
Stendhal’s case is not really like Musil’s, though, or anyone else’s. Musil found himself an interminable project, a book so personal that he could vanish into it for ever. Stendhal kept finding projects that weren’t personal at all, bright ideas which might have done quite nicely for someone else, Balzac for example. He kept trying to be slow and sociological, when all his virtues were related to politics and speed. But he also knew what was missing, cranked out plans for unlikely twists of plot, and then wrote on the manuscript: ‘This is pretty baroque, but I need a passion.’ A passion that his hero or heroine can have, he means – a source of narrative animation, the drive he found ready-made in the stories he worked up for his great novels. He waited for inspiration, especially after Le Rouge et le Noir (‘Nantes, I hope, will be for me what Marseilles was for the Rouge’), got lost (‘Perhaps I’ve already said that somewhere?’ – he had), told himself he was lost (‘Plan. 2 August. I don’t know where I’m going’). Should we say, then, with the veteran Stendhal scholar V. del Litto, that the sheer disarray is what is striking, that if Stendhal had not written La Chartreuse soon after much of this groping stuff we might well think his vocation as a novelist was a myth?
It is true that Stendhal is the sort of writer the New Criticism dreamed of, the most disappearing of authors. Not only is his name a pseudonym, not only are his intentions invariably slippery and multiple, but the novels themselves really do seem sudden miracles of form: one moment there is nothing, or at best mere anecdote; the next there is dazzling art. None of the slow seepage from life into writing, the long and intricate continuities from draft to draft that we find, say, in Proust. We may guess that the seepage must take place somehow, if that’s our biographical theory, but we certainly don’t see it.
We do see something other than Stendhal’s mistakes, however. We see him cruising, so to speak: not in the workshop but on the prowl. We see his imagination alternately at bay (‘Use my imagination to depict the absence of imagination’) and sent off on odd errands. The Pink and the Green is a very good place to observe all these moves. The title is terrible, of course, a bit of pastel-minded self-plagiarism, but Stendhal would probably have changed that. He considered another, worse possibility: The Rose of the North. ‘A flat and pretentious title,’ he ruefully commented, ‘which seemed fine to me yesterday.’ The work was written in 1837, after Stendhal had abandoned Lucien Leuwen, before he found La Chartreuse. It offers us some hundred pages of the beginning of a novel, a few scenes, some characters, one or two narrative possibilities. Stendhal estimated that he had another eight hundred pages to go. He hasn’t found a passion for his hero and heroine, and he has already surrounded them with more conspiracy than can be good for them or him. But he is not simply lost here. The Pink and the Green is not a neglected masterpiece, and I’m not sure how much it would interest us if it were not by Stendhal, but it is an attempt at a novel that neither he nor Balzac had written or would ever write: best described, I think, as an early French draft, the Enlightenment’s version, of what would become James’s Portrait of a Lady. It is a novel about the adventures of the intelligence – as distinct from the conscience or the will – in a world which fears intelligence above all things.
Mina Wanghen is a rich Prussian heiress of the 1830s, 18 years old, romantic in spirit, inclined to radical political thought, and repelled by money – or more precisely by people who think of nothing but money. Her many suitors, rapidly attracted by news of her fortune, ‘disgust’ her: ‘all these young men gathered here with the base motive of gaining the millions of my dowry, and to that end affecting all the appearances of a tender sentiment, truly horrify me ...’ As she herself says, she can’t quite account ‘for the nature and the degree’ of her horror, and the weepy explanation she has borrowed from a sentimental novel and hands on to her mother can’t be right: ‘Because of these millions I can never believe I am loved.’ The insecurity may be real enough, the anticipation of difficulty in love: but she’s not just a poor little rich girl, since she is later just as horrified by talk of money in a situation where none of the speakers is a suitor, or remotely interested in her at all. ‘Those men horrify me,’ she says. ‘The terrible crudity’ – la grossièreté profonde – ‘of those souls so happy to possess money!’
Mina thinks of pretending to shed her fortune, settles for a trip to Paris, falls, or may fall, under the influence of a devious priest who wishes to marry her to a young duke and thereby convert her and her millions to Catholicism. The young duke himself is a mirror of Mina, as worried about his dukedom as she is about her money, but the two don’t hit it off at first meeting. The manuscript ends at this point. The set-up allows Stendhal to do some rather deft juggling with national stereotypes, with what the French and the Germans think of themselves and of each other. Thus the Germans are dreamy and sentimental, but also provincial and bad at acting. The young men affect ‘excessively long blond hair and a melting or terrible gaze’; Mina knows the duke is not German, although his looks suggest he might be, because he doesn’t leap about when he dances. The French, on the other hand, are polished, slack, ironic, frivolous and money-grubbing, the aristocrats as much as the bourgeoisie. One of the firmest features of Stendhal’s design is his plunging the over-sensitive Mina into Louis-Philippe’s France. She couldn’t do worse. Her idea of France was drawn from books, especially Marivaux. In retrospect, Koenigsberg now seems boring and convention-ridden, but at least not irredeemably coarse.
Stendhal’s point is to make Mina seem naive – her naivety then becoming, presumably, a narrative possibility, a source of trouble, an innocence to be clouded or corrected – but also entirely right in her perception of France, which is just as squalid as she thinks it is. The fact that the squalor is normal, and doesn’t surprise anyone else, doesn’t make it any better. When Mina cries out in her gloom, ‘Does the agreeable society I have dreamed of exist on this earth?’ we can smile at her simplicity. Her société aimable is just a German girl’s dream of a stylised France. But we can hear longer echoes in the question too, almost a promise of the beginning of La Chartreuse de Parme, where a société aimable is abruptly imported from France into Italy with Napoleon’s army. Is there anywhere on earth where people don’t perpetually conspire, insult each other, and attach their hearts to money? Yes, but not everyone finds the place, and it doesn’t last.
Can we understand Mina’s horror of money any better than she does? It’s not the money that bothers her, but what people will do for it. She hates the hypocrisy of her suitors, the miming of sentiment; the rabid or stealthy selfishness she finds in French salons. Stendhal, as we would expect, can be very funny on this topic, showing us ‘several writers seeking ... to be known by parading their faces like a prospectus’; and earlier, an ‘obscure writer who in this capacity sought to enter the Académie Française’. ‘In this capacity’, en cette qualité, is a wonderful touch, since it makes obscurity a qualification and scores off both the writer’s meagre hopes and the Académie’s openness to mediocrity. Money is a synecdoche then, shorthand for baseness. A French count is reported as saying that people who go on about the national honour are well paid to do so, and Mina fervently agrees. She is the favourite pupil of a distinguished intellectual, now languishing in a Silesian gaol for his opinions.
The young duke, who starts off caring mainly about horses, at one point begins to sound like a quite different type of Stendhalian hero, wishing Diderot and Rousseau were still around to talk to. ‘It will be seen that quite without realising it,’ Stendhal says, rather neatly covering his changed tracks, ‘the duke loved wit.’ He, too, hates money, and feels remote from his friends who ‘worship’ it, who ‘see only one means of superiority in the world; money’. Money is corruption and power, the opposite of mind. Mind is irreverence and curiosity, not necessarily liberal politically, but always awkward and usually in opposition.
Mind, wit and intelligence here are translations of the French esprit, a word which recurs so obsessively in The Pink and the Green that it begins to seem its unfocused, perhaps undiscovered subject. Richard Howard’s version is fluent and graceful, catching as few translations do the bounce and abruptness of Stendhal’s voice, and has only a handful of small errors. Howard renders esprit variously as ‘wit’, ‘intellect’, ‘intelligence’, ‘mind’, ‘native wit’, ‘turn of mind’, ‘spirit’ – the sense being created by the context. Wit and spirit are the most common meanings of the word, but in Stendhal these rather different applications constantly tend to merge. To be possessed of esprit is to make jokes or ask tricky questions, or both; it is to be lively. It is also to be able to conspire and manipulate people if you want to, but Stendhal rides this meaning softly. In this text, esprit even receives the ultimate Stendhalian accolade: it can’t be faked, it is the equivalent of bravery: ‘like courage under fire, it is the only commodity which cannot be altogether replaced by hypocrisy.’
Stendhal has given his hero and heroine more mind than their class and historical juncture require: but he hasn’t given them much else, and certainly not enough of a plot to keep them going. There are some subtle notations. The duke, we learn, ‘was beginning to need his own esteem, that of others no longer sufficed him.’ He is sensitive enough, in other words, to know you can’t inherit self-respect. But essentially he and Mina are blank pages, cards the novel has not yet marked or played. ‘This young duke ... had no idea what he actually was, and certainly no one knew what he would be.’ ‘In truth,’ we read of Mina, ‘neither she nor anyone else knew what she might someday become, if she ultimately managed to desire or fear something.’ We see Stendhal’s difficulty. He doesn’t know any better than his characters what they want or are likely to get; worse, the two characters look as if they may collapse into one, male and female, French and German versions of just the same dilemma or sensibility.
James didn’t have the doubling problem in Portrait of a Lady, but he did have the blank card: ‘a certain young woman’, as he said, ‘affronting her destiny ... the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl’. The trick was to invent the girl’s destiny, and he did: marriage refused, a handsome inheritance, marriage accepted, the horrible constriction of her new life finally understood, her ‘mere still lucidity’ as exciting, James hoped, as the story of a pirate. But then James knew what a destiny was in this case – what he would be ready to call a destiny. We can’t usefully guess at what Stendhal didn’t find, but we can see what he couldn’t have accepted. Isabel Archer’s intelligence registers the limits of her chosen world, its ultimate use is to help her survive humiliation. There are no such pacified stories in Stendhal. Intelligence gets his characters into trouble – into Silesian gaols, for example – but it does so because it frightens an unchosen world, the rigged and unreflecting society Stendhal never tired of depicting. This world, whether it is run by a ridiculous despot or the eager bourgeoisie, is a tyranny because it can’t abide thought, because its rules won’t bear inspection. A barrage of reason, or perhaps just mischief, might well ruin it, and that is why it is so worried by wit or mind in any form. A story Stendhal could continue would need to make considerable room for this worry. Gilbert Osmond, so to speak, would need to feel not only threatened by Isabel’s intelligence, but seriously put at risk by it. His fear would be our hope, a chance of his tyranny’s ending. What La Chartreuse de Parme suggests is that such hopes and chances are pretty unrealistic, but indispensable all the same. They may be all that stands between us and actual complicity with the tyrant.
‘Mina de Vanghel’ is a completed short story written in the winter of 1829-1830 – that is, when Stendhal was already thinking of and about to write Le Rouge et le Noir. It is often described as a sketch for The Pink and the Green, and certainly uses some of the rather rickety plot material Stendhal thought of revamping for his novel. But the textual resemblances, although very visible, seem to me quite slight: the name and national origin of a girl, certain broad touches in her character, nothing else much. The story has none of the grace and irony of the novel fragment, and is entirely conventional in its deployment of national character. There is some energy in the heroine, who disguises herself as a chambermaid in order to be close to the man she loves, and shoots herself when he abandons her at last, shocked as he is on learning of her subterfuges. He was not as distinguished as she thought – was only a flat Frenchman after all. ‘Was her life a miscalculation? Her happiness had lasted eight months. Hers was too ardent a spirit to be content with the realities of life.’ ‘A powerful mind,’ Stendhal says earlier, ‘radiates a kind of magnanimity which is happiness.’ But Mina’s mind is not powerful, it is merely capricious, and operates in trivial territory. Her rejection of the realities of life is not a questioning of those realities, as in The Pink and the Green, but a romantic simplification of them, as if she had fallen into every cliché she sought to avoid. Stendhal, I take it, could see the potential ironies in all this, but couldn’t at this point find the prose for them.
Roger Pearson’s very good book is a study of Stendhal’s relations with his readers, or more precisely, of the kind of invitations his novels offer to his readers. ‘A novel is a mirror which one carries along a road,’ Stendhal famously said, situating himself somewhere between Hamlet and Jack Kerouac. In context, the remark is a dubious apology for some of the contents of Le Rouge et le Noir, not at all to be trusted; and out of context it seems even less reliable, too bland and hands-off by half. Who chooses the road, the angle of the mirror? But Stendhal also said: ‘A novel is like a bow, the soundbox of the violin is the reader’s mind.’ Pearson would like us to take the ‘less well-known comparison’ as an emblem because ‘Stendhal’s principal aim is to remove himself from his novels and emancipate the reader from authorial oppression.’ Hence Pearson’s title. There are some curious implications in such a suggestion (principal aim? oppression?), and in spite of his quiet and courteous manner, only occasionally rising to a ‘quite wrong’ or a ‘nothing could be further from the truth,’ Pearson is proposing a major re-routing of Stendhal studies.
Traditionally Stendhal has been seen as a great projector of the self – very oddly, it seems to me, given his protean performances on the page – and his works have been scanned for coded confessions, usually found in the form of the ‘imaginary revenge’, the secretive compensation in fiction for the disappointments of life. This elementary idea has had a far longer run than it can ever have deserved. Such a Stendhal could certainly manipulate and please or offend a reader, but he couldn’t think at all of his/her freedom. The Stendhal Pearson evokes hides behind a series of narrator’s masks, not in order to protect his privacy (and thereby signal how much privacy he has to protect), but in order to make us think. Stendhal’s word for such thinking is rêverie, which allows for some vague and pleasant emotions but also for sustained, pleasurable reflection on what interests us. This is what novels are meant to provoke, this is the ‘real pleasure of the novel’, in Stendhal’s phrase, the music made by bow and violin together. Pearson shows that Stendhal has a coherent theory of this effect, developed out of certain remarks in Rousseau, and working back from music to fiction.
Pearson therefore doesn’t go all the way to the vanished or abolished author of Roland Barthes and the New Critics, but he gets well away from the single authorial meaning for a text. There is a single author, but this author wants us to differ – from him and from each other. The Happy Few, so often called upon by Stendhal, are not an élite circle of code-crackers but the société aimable of anyone who is up to the readerly freedom on offer. This rescues the author’s conceptual life, but makes it pretty precarious. An author in this sense (I would say in most senses) must be a fiction, and in Pearson’s careful situating of Stendhal’s texts in the moments of their writing, there is the slight feeling of a ghost being temporarily moored by a few historical weights.
Pearson is interesting on Armance, which he sees as an alert comedy of the mal du siècle rather than an embarrassed tragedy of impotence, and on the way critics have mystified themselves about La Chartreuse de Parme. He has two excellent chapters on tenses in Le Rouge et le Noir, and makes more sense of the climax of that novel, Julien Sorel’s shooting of Mme de Rênal, than anyone else has yet, pulling together a whole deck of rival interpretation into a satisfying formal proposition: ‘Julien’s shooting is the act of a radical not at the level of plot but at the level of narrative style: a moment of energy told with energy, a premeditated act of violence.’ I’m a little sceptical about ‘premeditated’, because it implies such confidence in the plans of that precarious author, but the account of the effect is just right. There is no separation of form and content here, and no bogus blending of the two either. It’s just that they both will talk, and say all kinds of things, if we know how to listen.