The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Fictional endings disappoint, and the conclusion of The Charterhouse of Parma is perhaps its only true imperfection. Although a highly realist novel, Stendhal manipulates his story lines to a displeasingly tidy conclusion. Nabokov wrote to ask an expert in French literature, ‘Did Stendhal even pen a decent sentence?’ Unlike Flaubert, with whom Stendhal shares the ability to construct a precise world, Stendhal is not a meticulous obsessive, sweating over his sentences. He is a narrator, a phenomenal storyteller.

Stendhal successfully adopts an ‘intelligent tone of conversation’. Though he takes readers through the end of the Napoleonic era, and into the political intrigues of nineteenth century Italian court life, he never bogs the reader down with extraneous historical padding. The omniscient narrator, misleading from the first pages, takes no sides as the reader is told the parallel, deeply intertwined stories of the noble Fabrizio del Dongo and his aunt Gina, Duchess Sanseverina.

Of the two, Sanseverina, is better realised and unforgettable in her passion and percipience. The third protagonist Clelia is more illusive, succeeding more in her relation to Fabrizio. Their love story is one of the most sublime in literature, easily overwhelming that of Jerome and Alissa. After Fabrizio’s killing of the ‘mummer’ (sort of mime artist, reason enough to be killed surely), Giletti, he is imprisoned in a debilitating environment. Though Fabrizio has long dreaded prison, it is here he falls in love, for the first time, with Clelia. Despite the dreadful conditions of his imprisonment and the constant risk of poisoning, he initially resists encouragement to escape:

I would expose myself every day to the prospect of a thousand deaths to have the happiness of speaking to you with the help of our alphabets, which now never defeat us for a moment, and you wish me to be such a fool as to exile myself in Parma, or perhaps at Bologna, or even Florence! Understand that any such effort is impossible for me; it would be useless to give you my word, I could never keep it.

Stendhal’s world lives off the page because of the depth of his characters, fully realised, psychologically complex creations. In a memorable scene, Duchess Sanseverina outclasses the Prince of Parma, using contempt and cunning intelligence to apparently win Fabrizio’s freedom. The Prince turns to Count Mosca, her courtly lover, and says, ‘What a woman!’ It is darkly funny at the time but the reader also senses that Sanseverina’s victory over the Prince will not be without cost.

I wrote previously about Stendhal’s treatment of female characters, quoting Beauvoir, ‘He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.’  Beauvoir lead me to Stendhal, so it is appropriate I end these thoughts with Beauvoir, from The Second Sex, in a sentence that evokes the strength of Sanseverina:

The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger.

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