The Horror of Money

Michael Wood

  • The Pink and the Green by Stendhal, translated by Richard Howard
    Hamish Hamilton, 148 pp, £10.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 241 12289 9
  • Stendhal’s Violin: A Novelist and his Reader by Roger Pearson
    Oxford, 294 pp, £30.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 815851 3

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.

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