ALL’S FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR
As the world reflects on the Waterloo anniversary, assesses the enduring poignancy of Stendhal’s Napoleonic novel
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)