Today is the birthday (1783) of Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, a 19th-century French writer, known for the novels Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. He is highly regarded for the acute analysis of his characters’ psychology and considered one of the early and foremost practitioners of realism.
Stendahl was born in Grenoble, Isère, and had an unhappy childhood. His mother died when he was 7, and he found his father, a barrister, unbearable (he actually called him “unimaginative”). In 1799 he left for Paris, ostensibly to prepare for the entrance examination to the École Polytechnique, but in reality to escape from Grenoble and from paternal rule.
The military and theatrical worlds of the First French Empire were a revelation to Stendhal. His secret ambition on arriving in Paris was to become a successful playwright, but some highly placed relatives of his, the Darus, obtained an appointment for him as second lieutenant in the French military forces stationed in Italy. He was named an auditor with the Conseil d’État on 3rd August 1810, and thereafter took part in the French administration and in the Napoleonic wars in Italy. He travelled extensively in Germany and was part of Napoleon’s army in the 1812 invasion of Russia. Stendhal witnessed the burning of Moscow from just outside the city. He was appointed Commissioner of War Supplies and sent to Smolensk to prepare provisions for the returning army. He crossed the Berezina River by finding a usable ford rather than the overwhelmed pontoon bridge, which probably saved his life and those of his companions. He arrived in Paris in 1813, largely unaware of the general fiasco that the retreat had become. Stendhal became known, during the Russian campaign, for keeping his wits about him, and maintaining his clear-headedness. He also maintained his daily routine, shaving each day during the retreat from Moscow.
After the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau, he left for Italy, where he settled in Milan. He formed a particular attachment to Italy, where he spent much of the remainder of his career, serving as French consul at Trieste and Civitavecchia. His novel The Charterhouse of Parma, written in 52 days, is set in Italy, which he considered a more sincere and passionate country than Restoration France. An aside in that novel, referring to a character who contemplates suicide after being jilted, speaks about his attitude towards his home country: “To make this course of action clear to my French readers, I must explain that in Italy, a country very far away from us, people are still driven to despair by love.”
Stendhal identified with the nascent liberalism and his time in Italy convinced him that Romanticism was essentially the literary counterpart of liberalism in politics. When Stendhal was appointed to a consular post in Trieste in 1830, Metternich refused his exequatur on account of Stendhal’s liberalism and anti-clericalism.
Stendhal was a dandy and wit about town in Paris, as well as an obsessive womanizer. However, his genuine empathy towards women is evident in his books; Simone de Beauvoir spoke highly of him in The Second Sex. One of his early works is On Love, a rational analysis of romantic passion that was based on his unrequited love for Mathilde, Countess Dembowska, whom he met while living at Milan. This fusion of, and tension between, clear-headed analysis and romantic feeling is typical of Stendhal’s great novels.
In On Love Stendhal speaks of “birth of love” in which the love object is ‘crystallized’ in the mind, as being a process similar or analogous to a trip to Rome. In the analogy, the city of Bologna represents indifference and Rome represents perfect love:
Stendhal’s depiction of “crystallization” in the process of falling in love.
When we are in Bologna, we are entirely indifferent; we are not concerned to admire in any particular way the person with whom we shall perhaps one day be madly in love; even less is our imagination inclined to overrate their worth. In a word, in Bologna “crystallization” has not yet begun. When the journey begins, love departs. One leaves Bologna, climbs the Apennines, and takes the road to Rome. The departure, according to Stendhal, has nothing to do with one’s will; it is an instinctive moment. This transformative process actuates in terms of four steps along a journey:
Admiration – one marvels at the qualities of the loved one.
Acknowledgement – one acknowledges the pleasantness of having gained the loved one’s interest.
Hope – one envisions gaining the love of the loved one.
Delight – one delights in overrating the beauty and merit of the person whose love one hopes to win.
This journey or crystallization process (shown above) was detailed by Stendhal on the back of a playing card while speaking to Madame Gherardi, during his trip to the Salzburg salt mine.
Hippolyte Taine considered the psychological portraits of Stendhal’s characters to be “real, because they are complex, many-sided, particular and original, like living human beings.” Émile Zola concurred with Taine’s assessment of Stendhal’s skills as a “psychologist”, and although emphatic in his praise of Stendhal’s psychological accuracy and rejection of convention, he deplored the various implausibilities of the novels and Stendhal’s clear authorial intervention.
Friedrich Nietzsche refers to Stendhal as “France’s last great psychologist” in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). He also mentions Stendhal in the Twilight of the Idols (1889) during a discussion of Dostoevsky as a psychologist, saying that encountering Dostoevsky was “the most beautiful accident of my life, more so than even my discovery of Stendhal.”
Ford Madox Ford, in The English Novel, asserts that to Diderot and Stendhal “the Novel owes its next great step forward…At that point it became suddenly evident that the Novel as such was capable of being regarded as a means of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion and therefore as a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”
Erich Auerbach considers modern “serious realism” to have begun with Stendhal and Balzac. In Mimesis, he remarks of a scene in The Red and the Black that “it would be almost incomprehensible without a most accurate and detailed knowledge of the political situation, the social stratification, and the economic circumstances of a perfectly definite historical moment, namely, that in which France found itself just before the July Revolution.”
In Auerbach’s view, in Stendhal’s novels “characters, attitudes, and relationships of the dramatis personæ, then, are very closely connected with contemporary historical circumstances; contemporary political and social conditions are woven into the action in a manner more detailed and more real than had been exhibited in any earlier novel, and indeed in any works of literary art except those expressly purporting to be politico-satirical tracts.”
Simone de Beauvoir uses Stendhal as an example of a feminist author. In The Second Sex de Beauvoir writes “Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destinies.” She furthermore points out that it “is remarkable that Stendhal is both so profoundly romantic and so decidedly feminist; feminists are usually rational minds that adopt a universal point of view in all things; but it is not only in the name of freedom in general but also in the name of individual happiness that Stendhal calls for women’s emancipation.” Yet, Beauvoir criticizes Stendhal for, although wanting a woman to be his equal, her only destiny he envisions for her remains a man.
Love is a well from which we can drink only as much as we have put in, and the stars that shine from it are only our eyes looking in.
One can acquire everything in solitude except character.
Life is very short, and it ought not to be spent crawling at the feet of miserable scoundrels.
Only great minds can afford a simple style.
All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few.
Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.
Almost all our misfortunes in life come from the wrong notions we have about the things that happen to us.
To describe happiness is to diminish it.
Stendhal suffered miserable physical disabilities in his final years as he continued to produce some of his most famous work. As he noted in his journal, he was taking iodide of potassium and quicksilver to treat his syphilis, resulting in swollen armpits, difficulty swallowing, pains in his shrunken testicles, sleeplessness, giddiness, roaring in the ears, racing pulse and “tremors so bad he could scarcely hold a fork or a pen”. Modern medicine has shown that his health problems were more attributable to his treatment than to his syphilis.
Stendhal’s birthplace, Grenoble, is well known for Sauce Grenobloise, typically used to sauce fish. It is the delightful mix of lemon and capers but with additions – tons of butter, parsley, chunks of lemon, and croutons. This video is typical.