Words, Words, Words

“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”

Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens

“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”

“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”

David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard

“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”

Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’

  1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard
  2. David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  3. The Pickwick Papers
  4. Both parts of Henry IV
  5. Pessoa’s poems and prose

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

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.

Stendhal’s Women

What stands out most, two-thirds of the way through The Charterhouse of Parma, is the life that Stendhal injects into his characters. The plot will fade, the nuances of Italian court life will cease to matter, but in years to come I will remember, of course, Fabrizio del Dongo and, possibly, the forlorn Count Mosca, but undoubtedly Duchess Sanseverina.

Simone de Beauvoir, an enthusiast for Stendhal’s writing, admired his understanding of women. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes [of Stendhal]:

This tender friend of women – and precisely because he loves them in their truth – does not believe in feminine mystery; there is no essence that defines women once and for all; the idea of an ‘eternal feminine’ seems pedantic and ridiculous to him. ‘Pedants have been repeating for two thousand years that women have quicker minds and men more solidity; that women have more subtlety in ideas and men more attention span. A Parisian passer-by walking around the Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the trees are born pruned.’

Beauvoir goes on to say:

Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.

This is the strength of Sanseverina, true also of Clelia, the second of the duo of women that love Fabrizio. It is through them that Fabrizio learns about the world, but they have a destiny of their own. Allow Fabrizio to fade into the background of Charterhouse, and Sanseverina’s story still screams to be told.

Stendhal: Prototypical Authentic

My recent readings of Sartre and Beauvoir provided the impetus to read Stendhal. Both considered Stendhal a favourite writer.

I’m currently relishing The Charterhouse of Parma; strong characters and such pace, though I can understand Nabokov’s assertion that Stendhal never wrote a great sentence. The man can tell a story but, in my translation, is patently not a stylist.

I’m also reading, as is my inclination, around Stendhal, and fascinated by the argument that Stendhal was a prototypical Sartrean hero of authenticity. Stendhal, Henri Beyle originally, was much preoccupied with the problem of self, summed up by four personal maxims:

  1. Know yourself
  2. Be yourself
  3. Shape yourself
  4. Hide yourself
Stendhal’s goal was to become natural (whatever that means). After failing to live up to these maxims, Stendhal turned, in the second half of his life, to fiction as a way of realising his goal through his characters.
Living up to his fourth maxim, Stendhal used over a hundred pseudonyms. His autobiographical works are Memoirs of an Egotist, his Private Diaries and The Life of Henry Brulard.