Study Guide

Stendhal

by Jonathan Keates

Stendhal Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pseudonym Stendhal, is a difficult biographical subject. His professional career was varied, the range of his friendships and associations was broad, his intellectual interests were eclectic, and his written work was diverse and uneven. Until the age of thirty-five he was little more than a faceless functionary, a low-ranking cavalry officer and bureaucratic cog in the machinery of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. Yet through his uncle Pierre Daru, Napoleon’s secretary of war, Stendhal was very near the center of power. He took part in Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy (1800-1801), Germany (1806), Austria (1809), and Russia (1812) and distinguished himself for bravery and efficiency, which twice earned him an audience with the emperor himself. After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Stendhal turned to writing. His Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase (1815; The Lives of Haydn and Mozart, with Observations on Métastase, 1817), large portions of which he plagiarized, marked his publishing debut. More significant, if equally erratic, works were Histoire de la peinture en Italie and Rome, Naples et Florence en 1817 (Rome, Naples and Florence in 1817, 1818) which followed in 1817 and marked the first appearance of the pen name Stendhal, under which all of his subsequent major writings would appear. “Stendhal,” however, was but one of more than two hundred pseudonyms under which Stendhal published, corresponded, and referred to himself in his journals and autobiographical writings. Indeed, his friends coined yet another name, “Jemoi” (I-myself), to characterize the author’s principal obsession.

Another obsession for Stendhal was Italy, where he spent close to a third of his peripatetic life. He might well have settled in Milan, a city he grew to love during his first posting there in 1800, had not the suspicions of the city’s Austrian occupiers forced his return to France after his most extended stay there from 1814 to 1821. It was in Italy that Stendhal experienced the most intense of his many love affairs, and where he met Elena Maria Metilde Viscontini Dembowski, the unrequited love of his life who inspired one of his best-known works, De l’amour (1822; Maxims of Love, 1906).

It was also in Italy that the widely read Stendhal began to engage more directly with the intellectual currents of the age. His encounters there with English poet Lord Byron and the circle around Count Ludovico Di Breme introduced him to major figures and ideas of Romanticism, a movement to which, ever since his service in Germany a decade earlier, he had had an ambivalent relationship. As Jonathan Keates observes, “The central paradox of Stendhal’s position within the cultural perspective of his age must always be defined by his rigorously selective sympathy with its cult of sensation.” A telling indication of Stendhal’s aesthetic predilections, which hovered between eighteenth and nineteenth century sensibilities, is the fact that in his musical tastes he preferred Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa to Ludwig van Beethoven and published a gushing biography of Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini in 1823.

During the 1820’s Stendhal became a habitué of the Parisian salons (especially that of Étienne-Jean Delécluze) through which he met a number of prominent artists and writers, including Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Frédéric Jacquemont, and Prosper Mérimée, who became a close friend. Stendhal himself emerged as a witty, outspoken, and slightly eccentric bon vivant whose effervescent cynicism both amused and infuriated his contemporaries. After a visit to England in 1821, Stendhal became a Paris correspondent for various English-language journals (including the New Monthly Magazine, the London Magazine, and the Paris Monthly Review, in which his articles appeared in translation), thus beginning a long and checkered career as a journalist and commentator on literature, art, culture, and society.

Stendhal’s first major work of fiction, the novel Armance, was published in 1827 (English translation, 1928), but it was his novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898) that established the nearly fifty-year-old author as a major personality in French literature. By then, the July Revolution of 1830 had brought the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe to power and a revival of Stendhal’s civil service career. At the end of 1830 he was appointed consul-general in Trieste but, owing to the objections of the Austrian...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)