Stendhal (stehn-DAHL) is the most widely recognized pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle. He was born in Grenoble, a provincial city in the southeast of France, on January 23, 1783. He was alive during the time of the great upheaval in French and European society brought about, in the first place, by the French Revolution and subsequently by the rise and fall of Napoleon I. Stendhal had intimate experience with the latter phenomenon.
Grenoble was not a place where Stendhal felt at home. He had little time for its narrow outlook in matters of politics and religion, and its atmosphere was out of touch with the burgeoning spirit of liberty of the author’s boyhood. Much of what Stendhal came to oppose in human affairs and behavior he initially found in his father, with whom he was severely in conflict. This antagonism was made worse by, or perhaps had its source in, the death of the novelist’s mother when he was seven. In his candid and innovative, though unfinished, autobiography, Vie de Henri Brulard (wr. 1835-1836, pb. 1890; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925), he details with almost embarrassing intimacy his love for his mother. This autobiography’s title draws attention to Stendhal’s love of pseudonyms. He is thought to have used more than two hundred pseudonyms.
In 1799, having completed his education at Grenoble, Stendhal went to Paris and enrolled in the École Polytechnique, intending to study mathematics. The attractions of the capital, however, soon militated against study, and by 1800 he had secured a commission in Napoleon’s army. His duties took him to Milan, where he began a lifelong love affair with Italy. One of the four Italian words inscribed on his tomb is “Milanese,” and it was in his adopted native city, finally free of the constraints of Grenoble, that he entered into the first of many ardent and arduous emotional liaisons.
His first visit to Milan lasted until 1802. In that year, he resigned his army commission and returned to...
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