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la chartreuse de parme

22 january 2010

Of all 19th-century novels, La Chartreuse de Parme is probably my personal favorite. Aside from Moby-Dick and a few others that I "teach" frequently, La Chartreuse is the one I've read most often. I sometimes think it's the greatest literary achievement by a 19th-century novelist, though that is hardly a majority opinion, and it's not easy to explain. But explaining things about books is both my job and my hobby, so I might as well devote a few hundred words here to the attempt.

The charm of La Chartreuse de Parme lies in its author/narrator's inexhaustible personability. (If that's a word: "the quality of being personable?" Dictionaries suggest the word is "personableness," which sounds even less wordlike.)

Late in the novel, the narrator is discussing some impossibly complicated intrigues at the court of Parma. This begins to get really tiresome, at which point the narrator interrupts and says

Mais le lecteur est peut-être un peu las de tous ces détails de procédure, non moins que de toutes ces intrigues de cour. (416)

[But the reader is perhaps a little tired of all these procedural details, not to mention all these intrigues at court.]
Exactly! Despite all the things that are possibly objectionable about Stendhal – his anti-democratic ideals, his archness, the shallowness of his characters and milieus – one gets the sense that he knows what reading a book is like, and wants his reader to have the best possible reading experience.

The grander literary artists of the century (also its more progressive spirits) – Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, George Eliot – knew how to intrigue a reader, certainly. But they often feel obliged, once they have their readers' attention, to harangue us for a score of pages on their favorite themes and ideas. Stendhal isn't bereft of themes or ideas, but he prefers to sum them up in a snappy epigram and return forthwith to the plot.

La Chartreuse de Parme is all plot: perpetual frantic motion in asymmetric directions, dictated by the desires of characters who never look back and rarely look where they're going, either. In fact, Stendhal's villains are those who care too much about appearances, morals, and rules; they watch where they're going entirely too carefully. His scoundrels – the courtier Rassi, who obsesses about nobility; the Prince of Parma, who is driven to tyranny by his paranoid fear of assassins, and then can't even be an effective tyrant because he fears public opinion; the pusillanimous Fabio Conti, the unspeakable Marquis del Dongo and his son Ascagne – are all driven by their self-consciousness to acts of hypocritical insolence.

By contrast, the characters that Stendhal loves are no prizes by the standards of conventional morality. "Notre héros" Fabrice del Dongo kills a man who objects to Fabrice hitting on his girlfriend. Gina, Fabrice's aunt, poisons more than one man before making a sexual bargain to ensure that Fabrice will be cleared of the murder. And Count Mosca, Gina's lover, embodies corruption, on behalf of a reactionary regime whose policies he doesn't even believe in.

But we love these characters and want them to succeed, because they desire what they desire so wholeheartedly. They cut through ordinary ethics to reach goals which are all the more justified for being technically immoral. When Mosca wants to live openly with the widowed Gina as his mistress, he realizes that he can't bring her to the shark pool of the Parmesan court as an unmarried woman. So he advises her to marry the decrepit duke of Sanseverina-Taxis, one of those characters who cares about nothing but appearances (in this case a grand cordon awarded for service to the prince). As duchess, Gina will never have to see her husband, whom Mosca will send away on an embassy; but she will also be protected from the attentions of the Prince.

"Mais savez-vous que ce que vous me proposez là est fort immoral," says Gina [But you know what you're proposing is terribly immoral] (102). But in the world of the court, the immoral is the only right course of action. Technical morality entails gross hypocrisy. Being true to one's self and others involves immorality – and the less hypocritically it's achieved, the better.

Stendhal can be arch, even cynical, but he is never a hypocrite; he values abandon in the pursuit of happiness, not hypocrisy. His characters love with the whole of their beings, and the good ones among them are fiercely true to themselves and their lovers. They never compromise, they never rest, and they never weaken.

In short, they are Romantic with a capital "R." But they are also lovingly detailed comedy-of-manners characters, which makes La Chartreuse de Parme a peculiarly animated blend of Romanticism and realism that at times verges on the postmodern. It's not a postmodernism of mirrored surfaces and refolded plots, but it's a postmodernism of the appeal of stylized narrative: the postmodernism of Paul Auster, perhaps, or of Vladimir Nabokov, who knew that his "fancy prose style" would be for nothing without a good murder story to seize the reader's interest. Nabokov, oddly enough, despised Stendhal. But as with Nabokov's opinion of Freud, one has to imagine that this contempt was tinged with envy. Nobody did narrative better than Stendhal, who in the process incurred the jealousy of the masters.

Stendhal. La Chartreuse de Parme. 1839. Paris: Garnier, 1961.