Lucky Lucien

Stephen Vizinczey

  • Lucien Leuwen by Stendhal, translated by H.L.R. Edwards
    Boydell and Brewer, 624 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 85115 228 7

In his preface to The White Devil Webster speaks of ‘those ignorant asses who visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to inquire for good books but new books’. I’m reminded of Webster by the fact that one of Stendhal’s great novels was not translated into English until 1951, 33 years had to go by before it was reprinted, and no publication – at least, none that I’m aware of – has taken any notice of the new Boydell Press edition. Lucien Leuwen does not have the dramatic sweep of The Red and the Black or The Charterhouse of Parma, but in an important sense it is closer to us: it is the best novel ever written on parliamentary democracy, on that ‘seductive blend of hypocrisy and lies which is called representative government’. It is set in the reign of the ‘Citizen King’ Louis-Philippe, brought to power by the Revolution of July 1830: France has a constitutional monarchy, a Chamber of Deputies, a legal republican party, a free press, and some people have the right to vote. Hence the need for hypocrisy and lies. The Prince of Parma can rely on his secret police: an elected government needs to impose its will by deception.

In his introductory essay to this edition, Geoffrey Strickland shows how deeply the novel is rooted in its historical period – ‘this halt in the mud’, as it was called by the popular liberal Deputy General Lamarque. But public officials ‘dying of fear and vanity’ are as common today as they were in Stendhal’s time; the government minister ‘who is a thief and never allows himself a single truthful remark’ is still with us, and so are bankers who, like Leuwen senior, the hero’s father, ‘occasionally buy news from ministers, or make use of it on a fifty-fifty basis’. Lucien Leuwen is filled with scandalous stories, the sort of gossip which political correspondents tell their friends but rarely print for fear of libel actions and lack of proof that would stand up in court, or in deference to ‘higher political considerations’. Only in fiction can the truth be told about the powerful. Indeed, as Stendhal wrote, quoting his friend Mme Destutt de Tracy: ‘one can no longer arrive at the truth except in a novel.’

No other novelist arrived at the truth about politics in such a lively and ironic manner as Stendhal. A few could match his genius, but none had his extensive experience of public affairs. Born in 1783, six years before the fall of the Bastille, he lived through ten different regimes and six different constitutions in France; he joined Napoleon’s army at the age of 17, took part in the triumphant campaigns of 1800-1801 in Lombardy and Piedmont, was a commissary officer with Napoleon’s armies in Germany and Austria (collecting taxes for Napoleon in Brunswick he was ‘nearly beaten senseless’ by an angry crowd – an episode he makes use of in Lucien Leuwen), then a councillor of state at the Imperial court in Paris, then a supply officer again, distinguishing himself by his efficiency in finding food and shelter for the survivors of the Grande Armée on the chaotic retreat from Moscow.

The former soldier, staff officer, administrator and government official wrote Lucien Leuwen while serving as Louis-Philippe’s consul in Civitavecchia. He was not an outsider attacking ‘the system’ but an insider priding himself on his exactitude, and hoping to be read in the 20th century. He aimed at defining how things work. Any competent executive would recognise the vital significance of observations such as ‘when one is a commanding officer, one must know how to humiliate oneself,’ or ‘Always treat a minister as an imbecile – he has no time to think.’

Still, the profundity and relevance of any great novel lie in the synthesis of all its truths, in the way the characters reveal themselves and the way they relate to each other – in a word, the story. Once again, Stendhal’s hero is a young man who wants to succeed in the world and remain decent at the same time. The twin discoveries of self and society are to the novel what counterpoint is to music, and Stendhal is their unequalled master.

Lucien is Stendhal’s luckiest hero. Unlike Julien Sorel or Fabrizio del Dongo, he has a jovial and affectionate father who believes that ‘a son is a creditor given by nature’ – a father, moreover, who is an extremely rich and powerful Parisian banker. Lucien doesn’t have to think about money. When he is expelled from the Ecole Polytechnique for taking part in an anti-government demonstration following the funeral of General Lamarque, he quickly ‘consoles himself for the misfortune of not having to work twelve hours a day’ and wastes two years ‘waging ceaseless war on cigars and new boots’. Idle, vain, but bright, energetic, full of generous and decent impulses, Lucien eventually decides to make something of himself and joins the Army. As his father buys a commission for him and he can pick his own regiment, he chooses the 27th Lancers, because he likes their uniform best. ‘He was walking around his room, without stopping, and every time he went around he turned his eyes a little. He was looking at a sofa; on this sofa someone had thrown a green tunic with dark-purple braid, and attached to this tunic were the epaulettes of a second lieutenant. There lay his happiness.’

The first thing Lucien does as a second lieutenant is to fall off his horse. This is good news to readers, who will recall from The Life of Henry Brulard that when the adolescent Henri Beyle joined Napoleon’s army on its way to Italy and mounted a horse for the first time in his life, the beast went berserk and ran towards the willows on the shore of Lake Geneva. For a quarter of an hour young Beyle lived in mortal terror of breaking his neck. The experience affected him so profoundly that it became one of his favourite motifs. Julien, Fabrizio, Lucien all fall off a horse. Evidently, recalling the incident by Lake Geneva was Stendhal’s way of tapping his subconscious and summoning the intense feelings of his youth, the enthusiasm, the dreaminess, the sadness and hilarity of adolescence, which suffused everything he wrote.

Lucien falls off his horse as his regiment enters the city of Nancy because he spurs his mount at the wrong moment: he is gazing at ‘a young blonde with magnificent hair and a disdainful look’ who is watching the parade from an upstairs window and who smiles (laughs at him, as he thinks) when he is thrown into the mud. Furious and infatuated, and determined to prove to her that he is a good horseman, he rides by her house looking up at her window every day until he falls off his horse again, after which he devotes himself singlemindedly to winning her. ‘To justify himself for the weakness and misery of being in love, Lucien told himself that he had never encountered such a heavenly face.’ He hardly knows what he is doing. ‘I’m no longer master of myself, I give way to ideas that suddenly come into my head.’ In a memoir of Stendhal Mérimée wrote: ‘I never saw him when he was not in love or convinced that he was in love.’ It is always one of Stendhal’s central themes, and this leads many people to call him a romantic. But while love in most novels is an excuse for airy nonsense about love and amnesia about everything else, in Stendhal it is an education.

To contrive an introduction to Mme de Chasteller, Lucien has to wangle his way into the salons of the local aristocracy and ‘pay court to the old, the ugly and the ridiculous’. Resentful of their shrinking share of the budget and wishing the regime would collapse, but also fearful of a revolution, the fretful landowners of Nancy spend most of their time talking about politics. Stendhal brings to life the anxieties, paranoia and pomposities of privileged people at the edge of events – while tracing a frustrated romance through a maze of enthralling political discussions. In Stendhal characters are constantly at odds with their opinions, and with the impartiality of critical intelligence he shows the folly in every point of view. As Geoffrey Strickland observes in his brilliant book Stendhal: The Education of a Novelist, ‘Stendhal lacked the servility of mind which any political allegiance is likely to require.’ Lucien’s sympathies are with the republicans and the editor of their newspaper, M. Gauthier, who ‘never faltered in his attempts to convert him to American democracy ... but never succeeded in destroying his prime objection to the Republic: the necessity of flattering mediocrities.’ Unfortunately, Lucien finds Gauthier boring, and he fears that he is doomed to spend his life among ‘legitimists who are mad, selfish and polite, adoring the past, and republicans who are mad, generous and dull, adoring the future.’ This still seems to me a perfect definition of the Left and the Right.

With the skill of a great composer, Stendhal builds up the tension between the contrasting themes of love and politics, each of which has its own contrasting echo. The contrary pulls of character and idea, love and fear of involvement, build towards convergence without quite achieving it. Mme de Chasteller and Lucien both flee the ‘dead blank’ of idleness, vanity, insipid company, insignificance and boredom to find their deliverance in love, but they also do their best to restrain themselves. A rich young widow whose father intercepts her letters and keeps her under virtual house arrest to foreclose her opportunities to remarry (the old man wants to live off her fortune without the hindrance of a son-in-law), Mme de Chasteller is nonetheless afraid of losing her emotional freedom to Lucien, while Lucien is afraid of making himself ridiculous, and possibly going mad, by falling in love.

They are parted by a deception perpetrated by the legitimists’ physician Dr Poirier on behalf of the bachelors of Nancy who do not want a Parisian outsider to carry off the richest widow of the town. Made insecure by Mme de Chasteller’s resistance, her ‘I-love-you-but’, Lucien is tricked into believing that she has had another lover and has given birth to a child. He deserts his regiment and rushes back to Paris, where, as we find from the second part of the novel, they are mismanaging the affairs of France.

‘I’m making the first draft too long,’ Stendhal wrote about Lucien Leuwen in his journal. ‘In Marseilles, in 1828 I think, I made the manuscript of the Rouge too short. When I wanted to get it printed in Lutèce [Paris], I had to add to it instead of cutting a few pages and correcting the style ... That is why I’m making this 200 pages too long, so that when I take it to Paris, after either I or the J [July Monarchy] fall, I will have only two things to do: 1. Cut pages and phrases; 2. Make the style clearer still and more flowing, less abrupt.’

In the end he put the book aside unfinished, with only the first part revised. The July Monarchy did not fall (it was not overthrown until the Revolution of 1848, six years after Stendhal’s death) and, depending for his livelihood on ‘the Budget’, as he scornfully called the Government, Stendhal could not afford to risk his post in Civitavecchia. So what we have is the original draft of the first two parts. Had he revised the manuscript, I doubt that he could have cut as much as 200 pages, but he might have managed to get rid of forty or fifty, improving the tempo of the work, and he could have rewritten some hastily sketched scenes which do not carry sufficient conviction. It is possible that a reader coming to Lucien Leuwen for the first time might be bothered by the rough spots: I myself used to think it was inferior to The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. But rereadings vindicate Geoffrey Strickland’s enthusiasm for it. And the book’s unfinished state is the most suitable form for its content – truths which no one in power wants people to know. If Stendhal wrote Lucien Leuwen today, he could no more hope to publish it and keep his consular post than he could in 1835.

This is from a conversation between Lucien and his father, on Lucien’s return to Paris. Banker Leuwen, who ‘fears nothing but bores and damp air’, offers to place his son as principal private secretary to the Minister of the Interior, but is worried that he ‘isn’t scoundrel enough for the post’. Lucien declares that he will not be a party to political assassination and will not write lying pamphlets.

  ‘Tut, tut, that is for literary men. In shady matters you give orders, you never act. This is the principle: every government, even the government of the United States, lies always and about everything; when it cannot lie about the basic facts, it lies about the details ... This is your first maxim of statecraft; never let it fall from your memory or your mouth.’

  ‘So I’m entering a den of thieves, but all their secrets, great and small, are entrusted to my honour.’

The Leuwens earn the reader’s affection by their clear-sightedness, their lack of hypocrisy, their contempt for the crooks and fools around them; they are intelligent, well-meaning, generous, and they take every opportunity to behave decently. Lucien’s first official act is to protect a wounded agent provocateur from being poisoned by the police who want to make sure he won’t tell what he knows. And yet both father and son cost society a great deal. Lucien becomes the minister’s private secretary because the minister gives Leuwen père tips about government decisions and Leuwen buys and sells accordingly on the Bourse. To this day, the practice enables politicians to become millionaires while ‘serving their country’.

Having found that ‘men nearly always lie when they talk about the motives of their actions,’ Stendhal does not accept the most boring and widely shared pretence about public affairs: namely, that political acts are committed for political reasons – in the public interest, or at least in the interest of some group or other. Even Marxists picture politicians in democracies as more or less disinterested representatives of an evil system, motivated by a desire to maintain the power of the exploiting class, rather than as what they are, hungry individuals out for themselves. Stendhal knew better. Here there are as many parties as characters.

But the worst news is that not all corruption has to do with money. Inspired only by the admirable ambition to prove that he isn’t just his father’s son, Lucien works hard for the minister he despises, trying to bribe the voters of Caen in order to prevent the election of the republican candidate, though he is a good man. Lucien fails in spite of his clever manoeuvres because the vain little Prefect of Caen would rather risk losing his job by ensuring the defeat of the Government’s candidate than co-operate with Lucien, who has offended his amour propre. The Caen election is lost but Lucien’s father, ‘in a fit of ambition’, gets himself elected Deputy for the Aveyron, acquires a group of followers in the Chamber, and creates a parliamentary crisis to punish de Vaize for failing to reward Lucien’s efforts in a sufficiently impressive manner.

Through a series of profoundly revealing incidents Stendhal demonstrates conclusively that the mismanagement of public affairs is not an aberration but a law of nature, because people cannot help making public decisions for private and often idiosyncratic reasons. The substance is in the myriad of concrete details which he called ‘little true facts’, but perhaps the spirit of Lucien Leuwen is best defined by one of his off-the-cuff ancedotes, recorded by Mérimée:

Once, at Mme Pasta’s, Stendhal gave us the following theory of cosmogony. ‘God was a very skilful mechanic. He worked night and day at his business, talking little and inventing unceasingly – a sun here, a comet there. Someone said to him: “But you must write down your inventions! You cannot allow them to be lost!” “No,” God replied, “nothing is the way I want it to be yet. Let me perfect my discoveries, and then ...” One fine day he died suddenly. They ran to fetch his only son, who was studying with the Jesuits. He was a mild and studious boy who didn’t know the first thing about mechanics. They took him to his father’s workshop. “All right, then, let’s get to work!” It was a question of governing the world. There he was, completely at a loss; he asked: “How did my father do it?” They said: “He turned this wheel, he did this, he did that ...” – So he turns the wheel, and the machines go completely askew.’