The Cuttlebone

Edmund White is the author of the short biography, "Marcel Proust" and has just finished a novel, "The Married Man," which will be published next spring

"The Charterhouse of Parma" has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation. I would say that Howard has removed layers of grime from a masterpiece--except that the effect is more musical than visual. For Stendhal combines Mozart's brio with Mozart's tender pathos, and it is this range that Howard has so masterfully recreated in our language. French, compared to English, has a smaller vocabulary--for our full complement of "glower," "glance" and "glimpse," French has only regarder with an assortment of adverbs that follow it as limp afterthoughts. For our "glow," "glimmer" and "gleam" (I'm sticking just with words beginning in "gl-"), French has only briller. But where French gains in suppleness and elegance (if not always in concreteness) is in the language of courtliness and the complexity of word order and grammar, and it is this richness that Howard, a prizewinning poet, commands so fully in English and is able to work out with such aristocratic lightness of touch.

Admired by Proust and Gide ("He is the cuttlebone on which I sharpen my beak--what I envy in him is that he doesn't have to put on his track shoes before he starts running"), Stendhal wrote his last great novel in 52 days at the end of 1838, when the author (whose real name was Henri Beyle) was 53--roughly the age of the Conte Mosca, the Machiavellian but passionate minister of the state of Parma. The other two main characters are the Duchessa de Sanseverina, the beautiful and spirited heroine whom Mosca adores, and her much younger nephew, Fabrizio, a headstrong, handsome adolescent whom she adores. Although Stendhal obviously dotes on all three of his principal characters, their tragedy is that not one of their passionate loves is reciprocated. Fabrizio feels immense esteem for his aunt, just as she has a seasoned, worldly affection for Mosca, but the boy doesn't love the woman anymore than the woman loves the older man.

But this is not a sordid tale of frustrated longings and middle-class hypocrisy. In fact the author affords the reader none of the usual pleasure of condescending to his fictional characters, of knowing better than they what they are really feeling. No, Stendhal's three main characters may all be highly political and artful schemers, but only in order to promote their entirely irrational obsessions, which they acknowledge with complete candor, at least to themselves and usually to one another. They are never self-deceiving nor frightened. In fact, they live with operatic abandon and constant cunning. Typically, when Mosca realizes that the duchess is in love with Fabrizio, he reasons to himself: "Since I am blinded by excessive pain, let us follow that rule, approved of by all elderly men, which is called prudence. Moreover, once I have uttered the fatal word jealousy, my role is determined forever. On the contrary, by saying nothing today, I may speak tomorrow, and remain master of the whole situation."

Beyle's admiration of heroic virtues and his repudiation of every form of pettiness can be traced back to his early life. He was born in Grenoble, a somber, thoroughly bourgeois city, which he despised the whole of his life. His mother died when he was 7, and he was raised by a hated father, who was a lawyer, and a tyrannical Jesuit tutor. He ran away from home and had the good fortune to serve under Napoleon from 1800 to 1814 as an aide-de-camp during the emperor's campaigns in Germany, Austria and Russia. Despite Napoleon's political tyranny and military mistakes, Beyle ever after regarded those 14 years as a golden period and extended his enthusiasm backward in time to include the immediate aftermath of the revolution as well.

In the glorious opening hundred pages of "Charterhouse," Stendhal describes the "pleasure and happiness" that flowed into Northern Italy with the arrival of the extremely young French army, one that drove out the Austrians and their stifling, oppressive reign: "These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long, most were not yet 25, and at 28 their commanding general was accounted the oldest man in his army. Such youth, such gaiety, such free and easy ways offered a fine answer to the furious imprecations of the monks who for six months had preached that the French were monsters under orders, on pain of death, to burn down everything and cut off everyone's heads. . . ."

Just as Stendhal had to live in the dull aftermath of the Napoleonic era, so his characters must also cope with the conservative reaction that beset many of the Italian city-states in the two decades following Waterloo. Stendhal served as the French consul in the dusty little Italian town of Civitavecchia for several years; there he was bored witless and frequently escaped to nearby Rome, despite his superiors' tut-tutting that he was neglecting his official duties. The gossipy, intrigue-laden atmosphere of Civitavecchia doubtlessly informed Stendhal's portrait of Parma, a town he scarcely knew, though it had been home to his favorite painter, Correggio (he wrote Balzac that one should imagine the Duchessa de Sanseverina as a character painted by Correggio).

Stendhal is a blend of the modern and the old-fashioned (Balzac saw his great contemporary as something like an 18th century writer of ideas). On the modern side are Stendhal's cynical immorality and taste, at least in fiction, for realpolitik--the frustrated byproduct of his own thwarted political ambitions, according to his childhood friend, Felix Faure, who rose far higher (he became a peer). Equally modern is Stendhal's stripped-down style; he liked to read legal documents while he was working on the novel. Moreover, his understanding of human feelings is as mercurial, even as queasy-making, as Dostoevsky's.

The old-fashioned part is his constant authorial intervention. Whereas the later Flaubert accustomed readers to hands-off narration, a studied neutrality of tone, Stendhal, like his hero Sir Walter Scott, is constantly moralizing and interpreting. No matter: We want to hear what Stendhal is thinking, since it is bound to be shrewder and more tolerant than what's passing through our minds. Often, in true 18th century style, he generalizes about national character, playing off Italy against France (it was Stendhal who said that the French are Italians in a bad mood).

Typically, when the duchess bewails the possibility that Fabrizio may be poisoned, she forgets that she herself has just ordered the death by poison of the prince of Parma. Stendhal reflects: "It did not occur to her to make that moral reflection which would not have escaped a woman brought up in one of those Northern religions which encourage self-scrutiny: 'I was the first to use poison, and now it is I who shall be destroyed by poison.' In Italy, such reflections, in moments of passion, are taken as the sign of a vulgar sensibility, much as a pun would be regarded in Paris in similar circumstances." Again and again Stendhal contrasts Italian recklessness and idealism with French caution and self-advancement. But, equally obviously, Stendhal is invariably addressing a French reader, whose finely tuned sensibilities he is counting on. Characteristically, as Howard points out in his afterword, Fabrizio is the secret son of a French officer who had been billeted in the Del Dongo palace in Milan during the French occupation.

"The Charterhouse of Parma," though long and sometimes wearingly given over to accounts of court intrigue, nevertheless leaves behind a final impression of moral complexity, narrative force and historical sophistication. Stendhal was initially inspired by 17th century accounts of the rise of the Farnese family, and his job as a novelist was to adapt these bloodthirsty impetuous Renaissance characters to the more mundane reality of the feebler 19th century. Sometimes the seams show, the transitions from the stuff of myth to the method of convincing realism, but Richard Howard makes no effort to smooth out these rough edges; friction, after all, is what produces sparks.

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