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|Stendhal (1783-1842) - Pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle|
One of the most original French writers of the first half of the 19th century, who played a major role in the development of the modern novel. Stendhal is best known for his masterpieces Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), sharp and passionate chronicles of the intellectual and moral climate of France after Napoleon's defeat. Stendhal also wrote travel books, literature and art reviews, and biographies about such composers as W.A. Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Stendhal's subjects are often melodramatic, but they form a fascinating frame for his psychologically deep stories of selfishness and different paths towards self-discovery.
"A novel is a mirror that strolls along a highway. Now it reflects the blue of the skies, now the mud puddles underfoot." (from Le Rouge et le Noir)
Stendhal was born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, a district of France, which he disliked. His father was a well-to-do lawyer and landowner. Stendhal's mother died when he was seven, and his pious aunt took care of his education with a Jesuit priest; he hated them both. At the age of 16 Stendhal moved to Paris to study and to become a playwright. One of his relatives, Pierre Daru, was an influential adherent of the First Consul. In May 1800 Stendhal joined the French Army, under the command of Napoleon, and served as a lieutenant of dragoons for some 18 months. Stendhal fought in Italy, Germany, and Russia. After resigning, he worked in civil and military administration. When the French empire fell in 1814, Stendhal was placed on half-pay. He applied for a new position but couldn't even get a job as a low-paid librarian. In this situation Stendhal decided to leave France and settle in Italy, the scene of his several love affairs. His travel book, Rome, Naples et Florence en 1817, came out in 1817. It was the first publication for which he used the pen name Stendhal. In Florense he visited Santa Croce. Overwhelmed by Giotto's famous frescoes he wrote in his diary: "I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations." His psychosomatic reaction to the overdose of beautiful art, disorientation, powerful emotions from confusion to hallucinations, is nowadays called 'Stendhal syndrome'.
Stendhal was exiled from Milan by Metternich's police. In 1821 he settled again in Paris, trying to make his name in the salons. During this period he had an affair with countess Clémentine Curial, who wrote 215 letters in two years to her lover. In Milan he had an unhappy love affair with Matilde Dembowski. In 1822 Stendhal published De l'amour (On Love), which was according to Ford Madox Ford "the dryest book about love that was ever written". It was based on the psychology of Destutt de Tracy. Stendhal regarded himself as a disciple, and perhaps borrowed from him the classificatory, cataloguing spirit with which he started the book. In On Love he distinguished four species - the physical, the tasteful, love from vanity, and love from passion, which is the source of the highest happiness. The book appeared posthumously. Its most famous chapter is 'Des fiasco' (On fiascos). Les Souvenirs d'égotisme(Memoirs of an Egoist) was an autobiographical fragment, in which Stendhal depicted the salons, theatres, and museums of Paris, but also his personal fiascos. In London he failed to duel with an arrogant English captain, but found a tiny but elegant house of three prostitutes.
Stendhal's first novel, Armance, a psychological story about impotence, was published in 1827. The Red and the Black appeared when the author was 47. It examined political and social conditions of France during the period 1815-30 through the experiences of Julien Sorel, a hero and villain. As often in Stendhal's novels, the protagonist is in search of himself. Julien is a carpenter's son, who can memorize everything and anything. He tries to achieve greatness and establish his place in the world by the force of his will, and by using seduction as a tool for social climbing. He shoots at his first employer, Mme de Rênal, in a church. She is the only woman he loves, but she is an obstacle in his projected marriage to the aristocratic Mathilde de la Mole. Mathilde loves Julien passionately, but Julien is bored. Finally he reveals his true self in his speech to his judges: "Gentlemen, I have not the honour to belong to your social class. You see in me a peasant in revolt against the baseness of his fate... I see men who would like in my person to punish and dishearten for ever that class of young people who, born in a lowly and poverty-stricken class, had the chance to educate themselves and the courage to associate with those circles which arrogance of the rich calls society..." de Rênal tries to save Julien and dies after he has been taken to the guillotine. The title of the book refers to Julien's character and choices of career: the army, symbolized by the color red, and the church, symbolized by the color black. Behind the story was a newspaper account which Stendhal had read in 1827. It told of the trial of a young man charged with the attempted murder of a married woman.
After the 1830 revolution King Louis-Philippe came to power. Stendhal was appointed consul at Trieste, but the Austrians refused to accept him. Eventually he found a post in the small port of Cività Vecchia in the Papal States. There he wrote Memoirs of an Egoist, the self-searching Vie de Henry Brulard (The Life of Henry Brulard), and Lucien Leuwen, dealing with the corruption under Louis-Philippe. All these were unfinished works. "With luck, I may well be read in 1900 by the souls I love, the Madame Rolands, the Mélanie Guibers, the..." Stendhal wrote in Henry Brulard. The executor of the will published part of Lucien Leuwen, the first 18 chapters, under the title Le Chasseur vert (1855).
"Love has always been the most important business in my life, I should say the only one." (from La Vie d'Henry Brulard)
Stendhal's political views were full of contradictions: he was loyal to the ideals of the Enlightenment and an individualist with strong opinions but a sceptic at the same time, his lack of success fueled his embitterment toward the Restoration and Orleanist France, but after achieving fame, he became a moderate conservative. However, he never found his place in the post-Napoleonic world. Stendhal was "an aristocratic son of the ancien régime grande bourgeoisie," Erich Auerbach wrote in Mimesis (1946) – he had inherited "aristocratic instincts". During a prolonged leave in Paris from 1836 to 1839, Stendhal composed his second masterpiece The Charterhouse of Parma. It was a chronicle of the adventures of Fabrizio del Dongo, a projection of the author's personality in his youth, who search for himself from the battlefield of Waterloo to a Carthusian monastery. In an essay the Italian writer Italo Calvino especially praised its opening chapters, "in which history with the rumble of its cannons marches side by side with and at the same pace as the rhythm of the individual life." (from 'Guide for New Readers of Stendhal's Charterhouse', 1982).
The book opens with the fall of the old ideas: "risking one's life became fashionable; happiness depended, after centuries of insipidity, upon loving one's country with a passion, upon seeking out heroic actions to perform." Fabrizio is loved by his uncle’s wife, Gina Pietranera, the Duchess Sanseverina, but Fabrizio himself is in love with Clélia. And there is the Machiavellian Mosca, who loves Gina. Clélia's son by Fabrizio dies, the grieving mother also expires. Fabrizio dies in the Charterhouse of the title in the novel's final pages, and Gina, who has married Mosca, dies unhappy and without Fabrizio.
The Charterhouse of Parma was published to Balzac's acclaim in 1839. The great author himself, celebrating the work, said that it "often contains a whole book in a single page." From 1841 Stendhal was on sick leave from his post, living in Paris. He died on March 23, 1842 in Paris, smitten by apoplexy in the street. His work was rediscovered in the 1870s. It has influenced among others George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
For further reading: Mimesis by Erich Auerbach (1953); Stendhal et la voie oblique by Victor Brombert (1954); Stendhal by F.W.J. Hemmings (1964); Stendhal: Fiction and the Themes of Freedom by Victor Brombert (1968); The Problematic Self : Approaches to Identity in Stendhal, D. H. Lawrence, and Malraux by Elizabeth Brody (1978); A Lion for Love by Robert Alter (1979); Stendhal et le roman by Hans Boll-Johansen (1979); Stendhal's Paper Mirror by James T. Day (1987); Reading Realism in Stendhal by Ann Jefferson (1988); Stendhal's Violin by Roger Pearson (1988); Stendhal by Stirling Haig (1989); Le Desir De La Voix Vive: Etude Du Ton Chez Stendhal by Francoise Coulont-Henderson (1990); Stendhal Revisited by Emile J. Talbot (1993); The Feminization of Dr. Faustus: Female Identity Quests from Stendhal to Morgner by Helga Druxes (1993); Approaches to Teaching Stendhal's the Red and the Black, ed. by Dean De La Motte, Stirling Haig (1999) - See also: Francois La Rochefoucauld