February 19, 2018

Stendhal's 52-Day Novel

On this day in 1839 Stendhal's last novel, a product of 52 consecutive days of dictation, appeared in French bookshops. The aging author had begun employing a copyist in 1835, when wearing glasses became a necessity. Stendhal complained that the process of dictation proved annoyingly boring, but he couldn't seem to write while wearing spectacles. On Nov. 4, 1838, he barred the door of his residence in Paris, caused word to be spread that he had gone hunting, and became a shut-in with his copyist/secretary, who wrote Stendhal's spoken words every day until Dec. 26. Then the author's cousin took the six fat notebooks to a publisher who, after some cuts toward the end, sent the book to press. The Charterhouse of Parma, now on many 'Top 100' lists, was just five months in the making. Referring to his whirlwind of productivity, Stendhal told Balzac he "was being hurried by the ideas." And perhaps by a feeling that time was running out: apoplexy would strike the next year, and Stendhal died a year after that. "If ever a novel," wrote modern French critic Jean Prevost, "has pulled together the collected and embellished memories of a man who is waiting to die, it's The Charterhouse of Parma."

Stendhal loved to make love and he loved to make war. Born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, he was seven when his mother died. His grandfather, a physician living in the city's finest house, took in the young boy and provided for a Jesuit education, from which Stendhal would flee to Paris. He served twice in Napoleon's army, the second on the Emperor's failed mission to Russia. Not until Bonaparte fell from power did Stendhal begin his literary career. When he did, the little general loomed large on the page, as in the opening sentence of Charterhouse:
    On May 15, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entrance in Milan at the head of this young army that had just crossed the bridge of Lodi, and had just shown the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor.
Just as young Julien in The Red and the Black adored Napoleon (cherishing his photo as one might a secret lover's), Fabrice del Dongo is fascinated by the general. He arrives at Waterloo as the first cannons roar and soon finds himself a bystander as Bonaparte's entourage nears:
    Suddenly the escort cried, "Long live the Emperor!"...But he only saw a few generals galloping, followed, they themselves also, by an escort...Fabrice had a great desire to gallop after the Emperor's escort and become a part of it. What happiness it would be to do battle actually right behind this hero! It was for this that he had come to France.
But the ambitious Fabrice will nevertheless give up the military career he prefers. He agrees to exchange his red uniform for the black robes of the church, but he refuses to relinquish his pursuit of a woman's love.

The chronologies of Stendhal's life record affairs with more than a few women. One of the author's ill-fated liaisons led to the writing of De l'Amour (On Love). Critic Michael Dirda notes that in the love treatise Stendhal "eccentrically tabulates the psychological impulses behind every aspect of eros (not excluding unexpected 'failure' or impotence)." In an unsent draft of a letter to Balzac, Stendhal suggested that his habits were, if nothing else, good for his writing: "I compose 20 or 30 pages, then I need to be distracted; a little love when I can or a bit of orgy; the morning after I have forgotten all, on reading the last three or four pages of the previous day, the chapter of the day comes to me."

At the conclusion of Charterhouse, just before writing "FIN" ("THE END"), Stendhal placed the words, in English, "TO THE HAPPY FEW." In the aforementioned draft of an October 1840 letter to Balzac, who praised his friend and lamented his lack of readers, Stendhal predicted that "my work would not be read until 1880." Critics today say that he "transformed unalterably the capabilities of the novel."

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