Other literary forms

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Stendhal also wrote short fiction, divided by later editors into two groups: his nouvelles written between 1829 and 1831, and the short stories Chroniques italiennes (1839, 1855; The Abbess of Castro, and Other Tales, 1926). Stendhal’s nonfiction works include musical history and criticism, as in Vies de Haydn, de Mozart, et de Métastase (1815; The Lives of Haydn and Mozart, with Observations on Métastase, 1817), Vie de Rossini (1823; Memoirs of Rossini, 1824; also as Life of Rossini, 1956), and Notes d’un dilettante (1824-1827); art history and criticism, as in Histoire de la peinture en Italie (1817) and five subsequent volumes of art appreciation; travel diaries, including Rome, Naples, et Florence en 1817 (1817, 1826; Rome, Naples, and Florence, in 1817, 1818), Promenades dans Rome (1829; A Roman Journal, 1957), Mémoires d’un touriste (1838; Memoirs of a Tourist, 1962), and Voyage dans le midi de la France (1838; Travels in the South of France, 1971); literary theory, including Racine et Shakespeare (part 1, 1823; part 2, 1825; Racine and Shakespeare, 1962); psychological theory, including De l’amour (1822; Maxims of Love, 1906); and autobiography and biography, including Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892; Memoirs of an Egotist, 1949), Vie de Henry Brulard (1890; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925). In addition, Stendhal’s works of journalism (written between 1822 and 1830), his Journal (1888), and his Correspondance (1933-1934) occupy some six or seven thousand pages.


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Stendhal is frequently referred to, along with Fyodor Dostoevski, as “the forerunner of the modern novel.” Insofar as the highest manifestations of the novel form in the twentieth century developed, by way of Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust, as an exploration of reality that goes beyond the limitations of “realism,” the recognition accorded Stendhal is justified. Half a century before Sigmund Freud, Stendhal’s power of psychological observation was granting as much scope to subconscious and irrational motivation as to more lucidly conceived manifestations of the compelling forces underlying all major human actions. The conversations between his characters rarely reveal more than the tip of the iceberg; what interests him is the long process of maturation in the mind (the monologue intérieur, or interior monologue) that precedes the spoken word.

While his contemporaries Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens were realists first and foremost, for Stendhal, realism was at best a means; it was never an end in itself. The result is an exact and compelling portrait of “reality” that at the same time (particularly in the case of The Charterhouse of Parma) is oddly off-key. All of Stendhal’s full-length novels, without exception, are deeply rooted in the world that he observed about him—in Paris, in small French provincial towns, or in the cities and plains of northern Italy. Above all, his political and social depiction of the malaise of his time is penetratingly acute—one of the most profound analyses yet made of a society in a period of political reaction, in which the dominating emotion is that of fear. When the social order is so precarious and at the same time so disillusioned, then virtually every class, and every individual, lives in fear of every other: “We live,” he noted—and the phrase has become proverbial—“in an era of suspicion.” One of the forces that contributed to this suspicion was that newborn and newly powerful institution, the daily press; Stendhal was the first major novelist to take account of the power of the press in shaping the ideas, the prejudices, the opinions, and the destinies of ordinary people.

However precise this realism was within its own conventional limitations, Stendhal was constantly going beyond it. He was, he admitted, not only repelled but also bored by description. Faced with Balzac’s Pension Vauquer, he would have given up after the first three lines. Frequently, having embarked on a description, he tails off into “etc., etc.,” leaving the rest to his reader’s imagination. In the place of description, he preferred what he called le petit fait vrai: “the tiny, true fact,” the one minute detail of observation so singular that no fiction could have conceived it, yet so revealing that it conjures up a total picture of reality more vivid than could have been vouchsafed by a dozen pages of descriptive journalism. Thus, Fabrice, having strayed almost by accident onto the battlefield of Waterloo, observes his first corpse, already plundered by the still-living: “The corpse had dirty feet”—not the sublime magnificence of the cannonades, but the one “tiny, true fact,” evoking a whole panorama of the sordid realities of nineteenth century warfare. In this, Stendhal’s realism is at least halfway along the road to the techniques of the Symbolists: The significance of the phenomenon lies in what it reveals beyond itself.

Indeed, the Symbolists, beginning with Charles Baudelaire, recognized Stendhal as an ancestor—although, admittedly, more in the domain of aesthetic theory than in that of the novel. Even within the domain of the realistic novel, however, Stendhal formulated two further principles that are not without significance, even today. First, the novelist is not to be held morally responsible for the immorality of his characters: “A novel is a mirror trundled along beside a highroad”—the mirror is in no way responsible for what it reflects. Second, no person can be understood except in terms of the political conditions that alone explain his or her individuality: “Politics in a novel is like a pistol-shot fired during a concert; something crude, yet which nonetheless compels attention.” The shot would be awkward material, in fact, but material the novelist could ignore only at his peril.

Discussion Topics

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What is the significance of Stendahl’s Racine and Shakespeare?

What explanations of the significance of the title The Red and the Black seem most convincing?

Stendhal claims never to have thought about the writing of novels as a craft. Was he a craftsman who did not realize it?

What is the basis of Stendhal’s psychological knowledge?

Compare the characteristics of Stendhal’s two protagonists in his fiction, Julien and Fabrizzio.


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Adams, Robert M. Stendhal: Notes on a Novelist. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1959. Still one of the best critical introductions, written lucidly, with a biographical chapter and discussions of Stendhal’s major works. Adams includes an appendix identifying the “major slips, inconsistencies, oversights, and verbal faults” in Stendhal’s two major novels.

Alter, Robert. A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal. New York: Basic Books, 1979. A biography that well integrates an analysis of Stendhal’s fiction into the story of his life.

Bell, David F. Circumstances: Chance in the Literary Text. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Examines the realistic writing of Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Stendhal. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Essays by distinguished critics on women in Stendhal’s oeuvre, his use of autobiography, and his love plots. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Bolster, Richard. Stendhal: “Le Rouge et le noir.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1994. A critical guide to The Red and the Black.

Keates, Jonathan. Stendhal. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998. A lucid and shrewd biography, emphasizing the events of Stendhal’s life over exegesis of his works. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Richardson, Joanna. Stendhal. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1974. A sound narrative biography with excellent documentation. Includes a bibliography.

Talbot, Emile J. Stendhal Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. A revision of a useful introductory work, with a chapter on the man and the writer and separate chapters on Stendhal’s major novels. Contains a chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Wood, Michael. Stendhal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. A meticulous, scholarly study of Stendhal’s style and structure. Includes notes and brief bibliography. One of the standard works of Stendhal criticism in English.

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Critical Essays