Doris Lessing on Pain and passion of Stendhal
Opening a Stendhal after - you have to think - a far too long interval, there is, at least for me, a rush of exhilaration, as if you have turned a corner and look! - there's an old friend you haven't seen for a time and you have forgotten what an extraordinary being he is.
Stendhal said he didn't expect readers who would understand him until 1890; but this was a movable rendezvous with the future. At any rate they were still children or even unborn. This select few are now spread everywhere, but the nature of our fond addiction is perhaps not so simple, nor even entirely blame-free. A clue is in his remark that when he wrote this memoir he was not 38 but more like 20. And it is true that we may easily recognise our adolescent selves in his prickly self-regard. I was in my 20s when I found The Red and the Black - and a friend.
The ideal lover of Stendhal comes, as he did, from a family of conventional people in a provincial town - in his case Grenoble - which is snug, complacent and reactionary, both politically and socially. His family took their social obduracy to an extreme. His beloved mother died when he was seven, and he was brought up by three people he hated. One was a maiden aunt who tormented him; one a despotic Jesuit, who tutored him, and taught him to loathe the church and all its works; and then there was his father, a lawyer, who "had all the prejudices of religion and aristocracy, [and] vehemently prevented me from studying music."
Without the interventions of his mother's father, a kindly and intelligent man, there would have been no softer influences on his young life. He was not allowed to play with children considered his social inferiors, was treated more like a recalcitrant animal than a child, was harried by injunctions and prohibitions he could never see the sense of. I do not think it irrelevant that at the end of The Red and the Black, when Julien Sorel is about to be put to death, the father visits him and complains that Julien has not repaid him the money spent on him for his food and his keep as a child. Monstrous parents and figures of authority abound in his work. Never can there have been anyone more thankful that he has finally grown up and is able to leave home.
He did not keep the snobbishness they tried to teach him, but he remained as sensitive to a different crudeness: the coarseness he hated was not social, but the bruising blunderings of the unkind heart.
"I had an almost rabid fear of any coarse person. The conversation of some coarse fat provincial merchant would stupefy me and make me unhappy for the rest of the entire day."
Oh yes, the provinces - or, in my case, small-town colonial society - "...the most tedious despotism. It is what is behind this nasty word that makes residence in small towns impossible for those who have lived in that great republic, Paris" (The Red and the Black).
His Memoirs of an Egotist describes a stay in Paris from 1821 to 1830. He wrote imagining it would be read by someone dear to him, "a person such as Mme Roland or M. Gros, the geometrician". Here, in a few words, are his passion for mathematics and his need for a sympathetic woman, but in this case she was dead, by the guillotine, whose shadow had to lie across his life and mind and those of his contemporaries, for good or ill: it is hard to sympathise with his enthusiasm for some of its operations. Inevitable, I suppose, that, brought up by tyrants, he applauded the instrument that had brought some tyrants low. The man was a mass of contradictions - and he knew it.
He writes to find out what kind of a being he is. "What kind of man am I? Do I have common sense, do I have common sense and profundity too? Am I remarkably witty? Truth to tell, I haven't the slightest idea."
The lens of his intelligence is focused on himself with a concentration that amounts to ferocity. He lists his absurd characteristics as well as his good ones, and never spares himself the description of a moment of humiliation or silliness. He had Rousseau as an admired model, but I think that self-confessor did not come near Stendhal for honest clear-sightedness, which quality is a compensatory gift to a child who has spent years observing, with satirical and unforgiving eyes, the hypocrisies and injustices of grown-ups; who has had, in order to survive, to learn watchfulness, which is the first qualification for a writer. The close observation of their enemies - mother, father, authority figures - teaches these unhappy children how to dissemble or keep silent... and see everything.
Stendhal left Milan, left his beloved Italy, because the Milanese police thought he was a spy. He left behind a love affair - no, a grand passion - that had made him very unhappy, and was unconsummated, though there are hints this might have been his fault. But if he had been happy we would not have had his book On Love, which he was to finish and get published in Paris: a cool dissection of the stages and processes of love, that is to say, romantic love.
It is a little book which is a more useful guide to the follies of the heart than any I know. It has the wit that is the result of an absolute and unsentimental truthfulness. But this man who had such a talent for tender emotions reported as many failures as victories, and perhaps we should remember that his hero Fabrizio del Dongo (The Charterhouse of Parma) shared with other elect souls his belief that the condition of being in love was superior to the cruder pleasures of consummation.
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