Stendhal’s experience of life was as rich and as varied as the range of his writings might suggest. Born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble—a city that he detested all of his life as the very symbol of small-minded provinciality—on January 23, 1783, he lost his mother, Henriette Gagnon, before he was seven, a traumatic experience that left him with a classic Oedipus complex, adoring her memory and everything connected with her and loathing his father, Chérubin Beyle, and everything connected with him. The most abominated of the representatives of his father was a Jesuit priest, the Abbé Raillane, who became his tutor; never, in a single page of his subsequent writings, does Stendhal mention Jesuits without irony and contempt.
No part of Stendhal’s writing is wholly separable from his biography. He lived through so many events that, by the time he became a novelist, “history,” for him, meant that which he himself had experienced. He was six years old when the French Revolution broke out and eleven when the Terror struck Grenoble; during the latter, he enjoyed himself thoroughly playing cops and robbers and making a dangerous nuisance of himself to his father and to the rest of his family. In spite of everything, however, he received an excellent nonclassical education at the newly established École Centrale at Grenoble, concentrating on modern subjects, on art, and on mathematics, and in November, 1799, he set off for Paris to follow courses at the École Polytechnique, intending to qualify as a military engineer.
This early fascination—on one hand, with the precision of mathematics, and on the other, with the positive aggressivity of military science—was to endure all of his life; it is ironic, therefore, to discover that he never so much as set foot within the walls of the École Polytechnique. Instead, no sooner had he arrived in Paris than he discovered in himself a new ambition: that of becoming a dramatist, “a new Molière”—an extraordinary aberration that was to preoccupy him fruitlessly for the better part of twenty years. On top of this first wrong turn came a second: Alone in his student lodgings, freezing with cold in the depths of a Parisian winter, he developed pleurisy, with complications. Short of a miracle, it would be the end of Marie-Henri Beyle.
The miracle duly occurred. On the day before Stendhal arrived in Paris, November 10, 1799, Napoleon had seized power. Among Napoleon’s ablest supporters and administrators—quickly rising to a position of enormous influence as director of the army’s Ministry of Supply—was Pierre Daru, a distant cousin of Stendhal’s father. The Daru family rescued their seventeen-year-old provincial relative in his distress, and when he had recovered, Pierre Daru found him a job in his own office. Stendhal was so ignorant of letters in that period that the very first time Daru dictated a memorandum to him, he misspelled the word cela as cella. Thirty years later, Julien Sorel would do the same thing in The Red and the Black.
At the beginning of May, 1800, Napoleon opened his second campaign against the Austrians in northern Italy by taking his army over the Saint-Bernard Pass and descending out of the blue onto the plain of Lombardy to beat the enemy at Marengo. Pierre Daru invited his young cousin to participate in the march, and Stendhal accepted with enthusiasm; thus, still in civilian clothes, and decidedly ill-balanced on an awkward “Swiss” horse (falling off horses is a chronic occupational hazard for the Stendhalian hero), Stendhal followed in the baggage train. On May 30, he came under fire for the first time; two days later, having a free evening in the little township of Ivrea, he paid for a seat to hear a third-rate opera company perform its uninspired version of Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (1792; The Secret Marriage ). This banal experience was a quasi-mystical revelation that changed Stendhal’s life. From that moment on, not France but...
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