Yet another study of Stendhal? Alter admits in his Preface that he is following in the “graceful” and “perceptive” critical tracks of Robert Martin Adams, Victor Brombert, Harry Levin, and Michael Wood, and the recent biographies by Joanna Richardson and Gita May. Then there is Henri Martineau’s Le Coeur de Stendhal in two volumes (1952-1953), the most authoritative biography to date. However, Alter shows himself a lion in braving the regiment of recent Beylistes: he considers Martineau’s interpretations “often debatable or deficient,” while the ladies Richardson and May both lack “a fresh or, indeed, a coherent, critical perception” of their subject.
Alter’s chief critical and biographical rival is, of course, Stendhal himself, since he was a perpetual autobiographer, whether writing fiction, letters, or diaries. Indeed, his overtly autobiographical works harmonize among themselves so as to narrate his life from birth to the year 1824. The Life of Henry Brulard (1835-1836, but not published until 1890), brazenly direct in its self-referential information, takes the reader through the first seventeen years of Stendhal’s life, ending with his arrival in Milan to join Napoleon’s army in 1800. The Private Diaries (or Journals) take him from 1801 through 1818. Souvenirs d’egotisme cover 1821 through 1824. And then there is the enormous correspondence, ten volumes of it in the definitive French edition, which is scattered over his entire life.
In these and other works of Stendhal, we meet a complicated and compelling character, capable of exhausting a large vocabulary of descriptive phrases: a compulsive inventor of secrecies and disguises, a contriver of innumerable exotic intrigues, a provocative wit, a coarse jester, an obsessive egotist, an enraptured solitary, a hater of authority, a lover of liberty, a scorner of materialism yet an unashamed political opportunist, a ridiculer of the bourgeoisie and pretender to nobility, an idealistic romantic yet a disillusioned cynic. He was a soldier, administrator, diplomat, traveler, tutor, diarist, journalist, art and music critic, inveterate gossip, and amorist. He never considered himself a professional writer, and he failed as a dramatist because he constructed arid, moral stereotypes who could not conflict convincingly. His powers of creative invention were limited by his narcissism and perverse devotion to detail; he did not finish his first novel until he was forty-seven. Yet, despite his dandyism and dilettantism, he nevertheless wrote two of literature’s greatest works of fiction and is now regarded as the father of the modern psychological novel, the precursor of James, Turgenev, Proust, Gide, and Joyce, and their peer.
Alter takes us through all the obligatory milestones of Stendhal’s career: his birth as Henri Beyle in the worldly city of Grenoble; his desolating loss of his mother when he was seven, ending the joys of his childhood; his detestation of his royalist, money-grubbing father; his hatred of his stern Jesuit tutor, the Abbé Raillane; his retreat into reading, particularly his favorite book, Don Quixote, which influenced his fiction more deeply than any other; his attachment to his grandfather, a surgeon whose amiability contrasted with his father’s severity; and his love for his grandaunt, Elisabeth Gagnon, a romantic spinster who introduced the boy to the concept of Es-pagnolisme—the cultivation of grandeur, pride, spontaneous passion, and heroic energy of will.
In November, 1799, Henri left for Paris, where he became the protégé of wealthy cousins who helped him enter society and a profession. From 1800 to 1802 he worked in the offices of the Ministry of War, then became a second-lieutenant of the dragoons, studied philosophy and acting as well as literature and the ladies, and wrote unsuccessful plays. Henri crossed into Italy for the first time in May, 1800, and immediately recognized his spiritual home there. He joined Napoleon’s victorious army, became administrator of the Imperial domains in Brunswick, and in 1812 was assigned to the Grand Army’s commissariat in Russia, just in time to share the misery of the French escape from newly conquered Moscow. Napoleon had marched into Russia with 700,000 men; only 55,000 were to reach France after his appalling retreat. The rest were victimized by frostbite, starvation, Cossack calvary raids, and guerrilla ambushes.
This was Beyle’s first encounter with hardship to the edge of tragedy, after a self-indulgent, dreamy, all-too-romantic existence. Alter stresses his resourcefulness as quartermaster in finding provisions and his courage as well as practicality; but the experience profoundly shattered Beyle’s view of man’s nature. He had previously cherished the elitist idealism of Ariosto, Cervantes, and Rousseau; his reading in the Philosophes, especially Destutt de Tracy’s Elements of Ideology, had imbued him with belief in man’s rationalism and capacity for enlightened...
(The entire section is 2070 words.)