STENDHAL: EGOTIST, PORTRAITIST AND IRONIST - A PERSONAL VIEW

Introduced by Gerard Bellaart and Victor Suchar on 17 March 1998

Stendhal was one of 15O pseudonyms used by Henri Marie Beyle, the nineteenth- century writer who is best known for his novels ‘The Red and the Black’ and ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’. This lecture focused on four other of his works as a means to reveal both the personal view, and a little more of the nature of the man .
Gerard Bellaart took the first half of the lecture and illustrated Stendhal the egotist.
The two texts used were ‘The Life of Henry Brulard’ and ‘Souvenirs of an Egotist’, and the picture painted of Stendhal was that of a deeply passionate man, whose hatred of boredom took him on numerous adventures both of action and of the heart.
A swift journey through Stendhal’s chronology revealed him as a young man to be fiercely rebellious of his Royalist bourgeois father and the Jesuit tutoring that he was subjected to; as an ardent admirer of Napoleon, he took advantage of family connections to secure an army and later a governmental career. His mentor in his early life had been his much loved literary grandfather, and his career guide later was his cousin Pierre Daru, a man only a few steps behind Napoleon's command.
His aspirations to write gave rise to many works of both non-fiction and fiction. Finally, after abandoning his desire to be a playwright like Moliére, the novel became his genre and the one for which he gained posthumous fame. These works are linked by one common thread, they are all largely autobiographical, often inspired by the many consuming but unfulfilling love affairs.
Stendhal as portraitist and ironist was then taken up by Victor Suchar using ‘Life of Napoleon’ and ‘Lucien Leuwen’ as examples. Napoleon was Stendhal's hero, and he felt compelled to preserve in words what his compatriots thought of him lest it be forgotten or misrepresented. In explaining why Napoleon managed to inspire such a faithful following, Stendhal drew on the man’s Corsican origins and the influence of Paoli. Pascal Paoli had led the passionate, revengeful Corsicans into battle against the French, thus was Napoleon’s childhood steeped in stories of heroic leadership which were to form his character and provide him with those same powerful dualities.
Stendhal’s accurate description continues with an account of the aftermath of Napoleon. After Waterloo the anti-Bonapartist reaction forced the Republicans underground, where they strove to fight the Bourbon regime, be it the ultra-legitimist Charles X or the Justemilieu government of Louis Philippe, with the adopted principles of Saint Simonism. Following this came a description of the book ‘Lucien Leuwen’, a lesser known book in two volumes: it is a prognostication of where France will end up. The title character reflects the potential Stendhal, one noticeable exception is that Leuwen is handsome! The second volume, ‘The Telegraph’, is set around the Semaphoric Telegraph, which is described as the ghost in the machine of the Louis Philippe epic. As a decommissioned military tool it is put to civil use under governmental control, and is instrumental in the amassing of huge fortunes by bankers and ministers. Also contained within Leuwen is a detailed description of the system of Agents Provocateurs. This book was ahead of its time, and as such it was very apt that it was lost and not recovered until after Stendhal’s death; it was only published in 1885, a time when it could be understood.
In summing up this charismatic and complex man, attention was drawn to the five regimes that Stendhal’s life spanned, his egalitarian nature, his honesty, his enormous energy and his comic spirit. Above all, he was an outsider, a man who would not have clicked his heels even if his calves had not been so fat!
Siobhan Tucker