A Pair of Yellow Gloves

Tim Parks

  • Italian Chronicles by Stendhal, translated by Raymond MacKenzie
    Minnesota, 344 pp, £20.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 5179 0011 3

There are so many Stendhals – art historian, music critic, travel writer, novelist, political pundit, opera buff, soldier, bureaucrat, diplomat, sparkling conversationalist and incorrigible womaniser – that the reader may despair of conceiving any overall project undertaken by the man baptised Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783. Aside from ‘Stendhal’ there were scores of pseudonyms, any number of unfinished writings and thousands of letters and journal pages in which Beyle often signs himself or even refers to himself using a variety of other names. Codes and red herrings abound. Major life plans appear and disappear at the drop of a hat. Ambitious novels or biographies are researched, half-written and abandoned. Stories and even essays never go where you expect. Digressions are the norm and, when not actually misleading, titles rarely say much about content. Of the book On Love the critic and Stendhal admirer Etienne-Jean Delécluze wondered whether the pages might have been bound in the wrong order.

So what is going on? And how to approach, in all this disorienting, fragmentary, always dazzling abundance, a new translation of the little read Italian Chronicles, 340 pages of stories and novellas, some presenting themselves as faithful translations from old archival material, others as based on historical events, others entirely invented, two unfinished, one offering two quite different versions of the same story?

Perhaps the word ‘independence’ will help. Beyle had to be free. Free from his father and family, free from his own name, free from his birthplace, Grenoble, and from France and the French, free from responsibilities, money worries, people and places that bored him, free above all from the anxieties that have us seeking the approval of our peers, which is to say, from vanity, the great scourge, as Beyle saw it, of modern society. ‘The more I advance,’ he writes in 1812, ‘the more ambition disgusts me. It is simply putting one’s happiness in the hands of others.’

Beyle liked to oppose freedom and slavery. ‘Popery and the lack of liberty [are] the source of all crimes.’ Bowing to the conventions of ‘an effeminate court’, Racine is ‘a slave who adorns his chains’. Treated as ‘inferior beings’, the ‘great virtue’ of English women ‘is devotion. The virtue of slaves.’ To his recently married sister, who was nearing the end of an extended honeymoon, he wrote: ‘I must congratulate you on your non-pregnancy … Your chains will come soon enough.’

But free to do what exactly? Free to travel; Beyle was forever on the move. Aside from France, he lived in Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia and never missed an opportunity for an excursion. Free to support outlawed ideas, liberalism first and foremost. Free to be loyal, to the defeated Napoleon, for example, whom he admired all the more ardently once he was imprisoned. Free to plagiarise: Stendhal had no qualms about stealing whatever was useful to build a book. Free to lie, when it was convenient or made a good story. Free to be candid: few writers have been franker about their friends’ shortcomings, or their own transgressions. ‘I don’t think he was bad at heart,’ George Sand remarked of Beyle’s habitual cynicism and constant obscenities, ‘he made too much effort to seem so.’

Above all, Beyle wished to be free to feel, to give himself up to ‘agreeable passions’. Free to love and to make love. To other men’s wives often enough. To women whose suffocating attentions he might soon be eager to escape and others, more highly prized, who never dreamed of succumbing to him. Free perhaps to slip a hand up a skirt to ‘where the ebony starts to shade the lily’. There were so many women in his life, so many incidents with women – the time he hid for days in a cellar to enjoy his beloved, the time he sprang from a cupboard to catch an unfaithful mistress in flagrante – that any Stendhal biography risks becoming a procession of them. From his mother, whose embraces Beyle returned ‘with such ardour that she was often obliged to leave the room’ and with whom he ‘was as criminal as possible, frenzied in my adoration of her’ (all this before she died when he was seven), to Contessa Giulia Cini, 28 years his junior, for whom, two years before his death in 1842, aged 59, he began a diary entitled The Last Romance. Because the freedom to record everything, to analyse everything, was also important. Including all one’s foolish desires: a penis that would grow erect at will, a magic ring he could use to make women fall in love with him, good teeth, good skin, money in his pocket.

But is romantic passion compatible with freedom? Beyle knew it wasn’t. To fall in love was to be ‘overwhelmed by some superior force’. Nor did it guarantee the happiness he was seeking. It brought moments of supreme transport, but nothing would make you more unhappy than love turned sour, or unrequited. ‘The sight of happiness has made me unhappy,’ one young lover says in Italian Chronicles. Various characters in his masterpiece The Red and the Black (1830) share his experience. Literary composition, a resource one turned to precisely to savour passion, or revive it, or exorcise it, had similar drawbacks. Writing was ‘a silk prison’, Stendhal remarks in Memoirs of an Egoist, like the cocoon a silkworm spins for itself. A refuge and a trap. No sooner do you begin a piece of writing than it becomes a job, something you’ll soon be chafing to leave for some other idea, or woman. ‘The imagination flies elsewhere, this book is thus interrupted.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in