Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, 1839, trans. by John Sturrock, 510 pages)

Stendhal (pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle-1783 to 1842) is the author of two great 19th century French novels.    Normally his first novel, The Red and The Black (1830) is the one of his books listed among the world's 100 best novels.   Stendahl lived a very interesting life.   When I discovered that he had gone to Moscow with the army of Napoleon in 1812 and made it back when 90 percent of those who made the trip did not I knew he was a person of great strength of character.   After returning from Moscow he basically moved to Italy and became fascinated with Italian culture (and became involved with many Italian women).     The Charterhouse of Parma was written via dictation in 53 days. (A charterhouse is a Chartrusian monastary.   Parma is a city in Northern Italy on the Mediterranean Sea)

The Charterhouse of Parma is the story of the life of Fabrice del Dongo, from his birth in 1798 to his death.    The real action of the novel opens with Napoleon's invasion of Italy.   In a series of comic misadventures Fabrice enters France determined to join the army of Napoleon.    He ends up witnessing Napoleon's historic defeat at Waterloo.   I thought the battle scenes in this section of the book were totally gripping in that Stendahl seems to succeed in conveying the  horrors of war  as seen by the participants in the battle who see only the tiny bit of land in front of them.    After the war is over Fabrice returns to Italy and a lot of his time is taken up in the social circle of his aunt, who may or may not be a Duchess.   The aunt and the prime minister of Parma meet and fall in love.   The prime minister then has the aunt marry a very rich old man who he plans to send out of the country for many years as an ambassador.   This leaves the prime minister and the aunt free to carry on their affair.   The plot has many soap opera like turns.   In one very well done section Stendahl's depiction of a period where Fabrice was in prison is so well done I almost longed for it to be over.     Stendhal goes into great detail about the lives of people in the court of Parma.   There is no romanticising of the nobility in the world of Stendahl.   Stendahl has a very acute sense for the moral dimensions of his characters.    Nothing  seems lost on  him.   Machiavelli would feel right at home in the world depicted by Stendahl.

The question might be,  to be blunt,  "why is Stendahl considered a great novelist?".    I think it is for his very realistic portayal of human nature, for his ability to make things come alive for  the reader (some say his battle scenes are the best anywhere), for his ability to keep us interested at all times in Fabrice who is far from a purely noble character.   Historically his importance is immense.   I am currently reading Ford Madox Ford's history of literature, The March of Literature.   Ford says Fabrice is one of the best and  most minutely realized characters in all 19th century literature. Ford also suggests that  Balzac and Stendahl created the realistic novel.    Ford also said  the lead characters in The Charterhouse of  of Stendhal are "the most fantastic to be found in any book of adventure ever written, and they are rendered almost maddening by the light of sinister reality that plays on all his scenes".

One of the reasons I was drawn to read Stendahl at this point in my life is that Stendahl seems to be the most admired writer among the best of the Japanese novelists of the 20th century.   The author of the Burmese Harp, Michio Takeyama translated his work into Japanese and carried The Red and the Black in his rucksack while serving in the Japanese Imperial Army in the Philippines.   Most of the best of the Japanese novelists seemed to have studied at one point in their academic years 19th century French novels and Stendahl was consistently the most admired.   I think it is because of his ability to place real people in real settings and show them buffeted  about by the forces of history as well as his great empathy for his characters and his psychological acuteness  as well the feeling of great cultural depth that drew the pre-WWII  Japanese novelist to Stendahl.   

The Charterhouse of Parma is also a very funny book.   It is a great satire on the vanity of man and the folly of putting too much faith in nobility, whoever they may be.  It shows great empathy for its female characters.     If you like to read classic 19th century  novels, The Charterhouse of Parma should for sure be on your one of these days list.    I am glad I took the time to read it.   It helped me understand a little more the development of the 19th century novel.   I also am starting to think that the modern Japanese novel got the germ of its start when a group of young men from elite schools in Tokyo in the 1890s to 1910  began to be able to read 19th century French literature and married this to classical Japanese forms and devices.   This is just a theory and maybe scholars would say it  is off the wall idea that makes no sense.    I enjoyed this book and with a bit of patience others in love with the 19th century novel will also, I think.   It is a serious book to be respected.

Mel u


Emidy @ Une Parole said...

Wow, it sounds like I really have to read a book by this author! I feel like I'm missing out. Great review!

Tasha said...

That's an interesting fact about some of the most admired Japanese novelists being readers of Stendahl. I haven't read any of his work, although two friends have told me that The Red and The Black is great if you want a book that will put you to sleep. I've avoided him for that reason, but perhaps I should rethink that.

ds said...

Stendahl is one of the many writers on my "someday" list. This is a very interesting analysis of his novel. Your theory about the development of the 20th century Japanese novel definitely has merit, I think (but I'm no expert). Great post, Mel--you taught me a lot.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The Ford quote is amusing - he's deliberately excluding Walter Scott, who was a crucial influence on Balzac and Stendhal, on exactly the characteristics he's emphasizing.

I think your link between modern Japanese writers and Stendhal is correct. They saw something in him that French writers had missed. Turgenev is not so different - probably more important in Japanese than in English.

Rebecca Reid said...

I own this book but it has never called my name -- yet! Thanks for this now I'm really looking forward to it.

Trevor said...

I'm currently reading The Charterhouse...Didn't read the whole review because I didn't want any spoilers yet, but I found it interesting his impression on Asian authors...New follower and thought I'd say hi: Trev @