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.

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