As the world re­flects on the Waterloo an­niver­sary, as­sesses the en­dur­ing poignancy of Stend­hal’s Napoleonic novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

Two cen­turies af­ter they ended, the Napoleonic Wars have lost much of their sig­nif­i­cance, though they shaped the en­tire course of the 19th cen­tury, in­clud­ing the era’s art and literature. The “Napoleonic Idea”, for ex­am­ple, pro­vided the back­drop to the great flow­er­ing of re­al­ism in the 19th-cen­tury novel, from Austen to Thack­eray, Balzac to Tol­stoy. Their work brings within our grasp some of the en­thu­si­asms, ideals and hor­rors of these wars.

For pure ex­hil­a­ra­tion, how­ever, no Napoleonic novel matches The Char­ter­house of Parma by Marie-Henri Beyle, bet­ter known as Stend­hal. Pub­lished in 1839, Stend­hal’s fi­nal novel cap­tures the hu­man drama and the po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions wrought by the Cor­si­can’s rise and fall. But un­like War and Peace (1869), in which Napoleon fea­tures as a ma­jor char­ac­ter, in Char­ter­house the em­peror ap­pears as a fleet­ing ap­pari­tion in the life of Stend­hal’s pro­tag­o­nist Fabrizio Del Dongo, a hand­some, ide­al­is­tic and not very bright mi­nor Ital­ian aris­to­crat in search of his life’s pur­pose.

Inspired less by the Napoleonic Idea than by the em­peror him­self, Fabrizio es­capes his staid, re­pres­sive house­hold on Lake Como to fight along­side the French in the Hun­dred Days cam­paign — Napoleon’s last, launched shortly af­ter his es­cape from Elba and cul­mi­nat­ing in his de­feat at Waterloo. Fabrizio makes a ter­ri­ble soldier. He even­tu­ally makes his way to the front, where he drunk­enly sleeps through much of Waterloo.

This un­heroic ac­count of the bat­tle is one of the book’s many odd and de­light­ful el­e­ments. The Waterloo pas­sages form a brief pro­logue. But what a pro­logue — here are some of the most in­tense, propul­sive de­scrip­tions of the chaos of com­bat in all of literature. Pic­ture the great­est of these, of Fabrizio rid­ing through a bar­rage of Bri­tish gun­fire, in slow-mo­tion: The fur­rows were full of wa­ter and the soil, very damp, which formed the ridges be­tween these fur­rows kept fly­ing off in lit­tle black clumps three or four feet in the air. Fabrizio no­ticed as he passed this cu­ri­ous ef­fect; then his thoughts turned to dream­ing of the Mar­shall [Ney] and his glory. He heard a sharp cry close to him; two hus­sars fell struck by shot; and when he looked back at them, they were al­ready twenty steps be­hind.

Stend­hal dic­tated Char­ter­house over the course of seven weeks, and the novel has the plot holes, un­de­vel­oped char­ac­ters and dis­jointed struc­ture to show for it. Yet it is such sat­is­fy­ing read­ing that even the struc­tural flaws ap­pear as adorn­ments.

Born in Greno­ble, France, Beyle (1783-1842) took hun­dreds of pen names, Stend­hal re­main­ing the best known. A diplo­mat and vet­eran of the Napoleonic Wars, Stend­hal was a life­long lover of all things Ital­ian. The ba­sic plot of Char­ter­house he gleaned from the life of pope Paul III (1468-1549). Ac­cord­ing to a 17th-cen­tury ac­count Stend­hal en­joyed, the pope was pushed to high ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal of­fice by his be­witch­ing aunt and her lover Ro­drigo Bor­gia (pope Alexan­der VI).

Sim­i­larly, the fic­tional Fabrizio’s cap­ti­vat­ing aunt, the duchess Gina San­sev­e­rina, and her mar­ried lover, the re­ac­tionary prime min­is­ter Count Mosca, set out to in­stall Fabrizio in po­lit­i­cal of­fice once the lad re­turns from his Napoleonic quest — so long as he aban­dons his erst­while rev­o­lu­tion­ary ten­den­cies.

Fabrizio is not a man of ideas or in­trigue but of great pas­sions, mostly cen­tred on women. The duchess plainly loves her nephew, while Count Mosca lives for the duchess, and the re­sult­ing love tri­an­gle is a pro­found study in fem­i­nine de­sire and the furies of male jeal­ousy. The count at one point rages at his own pa­thetic role as terzo in­co­modo be­tween aunt and nephew, “a third per­son when two are com­pany” — “what mis­ery for a man of spirit to feel that he is play­ing that ex­e­crable part”.

Char­ter­house brims with po­lit­i­cal as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight.

Much has been made of how Stend­hal con­trasts his own France with an imag­i­nary Italy — a coun­try that pro­duces peo­ple of great spirit and au­then­tic­ity amid back­ward­ness and re­pres­sion. Fabrizio is em­blem­atic in this re­gard: he gets clos­est to self-un­der­stand­ing while locked up in the Far­nese Tower, where he can’t reach his beloved, the jailer’s daugh­ter. By con­trast, Stend­hal’s French­men, though sup­pos­edly an­i­mated by lib­eral ideals and per­mit­ted to read Rousseau, are mean and in­au­then­tic.

The most re­ward­ing po­lit­i­cal read­ing of Char­ter­house is as an ac­count of the pas­sage from the per­sonal ab­so­lutist prin­ci­pal­ity to the mod­ern, cen­tralised state. The prince of Parma wields ter­ri­ble power, but there are all sorts of idio­syn­cratic lim­its to that power — not least the in­flu­ence of a se­duc­tive, in­tel­li­gent court woman like the duchess. He is, for good or ill, “a tyrant who knows all his vic­tims”.

Pass­port, war­rants and other such doc­u­ments ex­ist, but es­cape to the prin­ci­pal­ity next door and they lose their au­thor­ity. This is the world, al­most unimag­in­able to­day, lost to the rise of the im­per­sonal state. Stend­hal has one nos­tal­gic foot in Eter­nal Italy and the other in the mod­ern, and it’s this pos­ture that makes Char­ter­house such a re­veal­ing and mem­o­rable por­trait of the Napoleonic mo­ment.

There’s much more to Char­ter­house than meets the eye. The novel has a frame story, about the nar­ra­tor be­ing handed the man­u­script by the nephew of some dead canon or other in Padua with a most ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to the char­ac­ters and events therein. Sev­eral false starts and ap­par­ently aban­doned sub­plots puz­zle the reader. And the char­ter­house in the ti­tle doesn’t ap­pear un­til the very last page, where Stend­hal ded­i­cates the book “TO THE LUCKY FEW”. It’s a cryptic homage, but you can’t help but imag­ine you’re one of those few.

June 20-21, 2015

Stend­hal by Olof Jo­han So­der­mark (1840)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.