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The Charterhouse of Parma
by Stendhal
Synopsis:
Officer, diplomat, spy, journalist, and intermittent genius, Marie Henri Beyle employed more than 200 aliases in the course of his crowded career. His most famous moniker, however, was Stendhal, which he affixed to his greatest work, The Charterhouse of Parma. The author spent a mere seven weeks cranking out this marvel in 1838, setting the fictional equivalent of a land-speed record. To be honest, there are occasional signs of haste, during which he clearly bypassed le mot juste in favor of narrative zing. So what? Stendhal at his sloppiest is still wittier, and wiser about human behavior, than just about any writer you could name. No wonder so meticulous a stylist as Paul Valéry was happy to forgive his sins against French grammar: "We should never be finished with Stendhal. I can think of no greater praise than that." The plot of The Charterhouse of Parma suggests a run-of-the-mill potboiler, complete with court intrigue, military derring-do, and more romance than you can shake a saber at. But Stendhal had an amazing, pre-Freudian grasp of psychology (at least the Gallic variant). More than most of his contemporaries, he understood the incessant jostling of love, sex, fear, and ambition, not to mention our endless capacity for self-deception. No wonder his hero, Fabrizio de Dongo, seems to know everything and nothing about himself. Even under fire at the Battle of Waterloo, the young Fabrizio has a tendency to lose himself in Napoleonic reverie:
 
Suddenly everyone galloped off. A few moments later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead, a ploughed field that seemed to be strangely in motion; the furrows were filled with water, and the wet ground that formed their crests was exploding into tiny black fragments flung three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed this odd effect as he passed; then his mind returned to daydreams of the Marshal's glory. He heard a sharp cry beside him: two hussars had fallen, riddled by bullets; and when he turned to look at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort.
 
The quote above, a famous one, captures something of Stendhal's headlong style. Until now, most English-speaking readers have experienced it via C.K. Scott-Moncrieff's superb 1925 translation. But now Richard Howard has modernized his predecessor's period touches, streamlined some of the fussier locutions, and generally given Stendhal his high-velocity due. The result is a timely version of a timeless masterpiece, which shouldn't need to be updated again until, oh, 2050. Crammed with life, lust, and verbal fireworks, The Charterhouse of Parma demonstrates the real truth of its creator's self-composed epitaph: "He lived. He wrote. He loved." --James Marcus
 

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal

Done. At last. There were times when I thought that it might take me as long to read this 500 page book as it took Stendhal to write it. That, by the way, was a mere seven weeks.

There were aspects of this book that I enjoyed very much. Primarily I was attracted by Stendhal's wit, the characters of the Duchess and Mosca, and the interesting plot twists in the last third of the book. However, there were also times when the story really seemed to drag. And those, I am sorry to say, were the sections dealing almost exclusively with the books hero, Fabrice del Dongo. Fabrice was definitely a pretty face, but he seemed to lack substance. In short, he bored me. In contrast, whenever his lovely ""aunt"" Gina appeared on the scene, the story became much more compelling and it was difficult to put the book down. Gina showed true passion, courage, unpredictability, and great cleverness. If only she had been a man, she would have been running Parma. I also thoroughly enjoyed her lover, the competent and prudent Count Mosca.

For Barb, Ernie, Sherry and anyone else who has read this book, I have some questions.

Fabrice - dashing romantic hero or complete ninny?

Did the communication system between Fabrice and Clelia in prison or Fabrice's dramatic escape seem remotely feasible?

Who among these characters would you like as an acquaintance? As a friend?

One of the main themes of this book was ""true love"". Did any of the characters achieve this?

In Stendhal's world, what, if any, are the moral values?



THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
I finished Charterhouse a few days ago. I agree with you, Ann, some of it was wonderful, some of it bored me, and some of it really really irritated me, especially the ending.
(SPOILER: The baby and Clelia died so offhandedly, almost as an afterthought, as if Stendahl didn’t want to be accused of having a happy ending. )
NOT SPOILER ANY MORE: I read an edition that is wonderful though. I bought it at the used book store at the Milwaukee airport. It was published in 1955 and had some interesting drawings and also an introduction by Balzac who went gaga over this book, read it three times straight through in a few days. (We ought to tell this to some of today’s reviewers who often don’t get through the book even once.) He called Stendhal a “master of the literature of ideas.” “This school, to which we are already indebted for many beautiful works, recommends itself for its abundance of facts, for the sobriety of its imagery, for its conciseness, for its clarity, for its Voltairian phrases, for its fashion of telling a story that stems from the eighteenth century, for its sense of the comic throughout.”
In my edition, the “hero” was called Fabrizio. Fabrice sounds like a girl’s name to me. He seemed shallow and spoiled, but I found his search for “true love” comical. It seemed like he really just wanted to find an antidote to what he felt for Gina. When he finally “found” true love, who knew why? I thought both he and Clelia must have been geniuses at holding up big letters really really fast. And her singing conversation while she played the piano seemed like it should have been in a Monty Python routine. Like no one else could understand what she was saying? Why didn’t she just talk to him through the window? Beats the hell out of me.
The escape machinations were worthy of Mission Impossible. I could hear the theme music in the back of my head. But that part did keep me entertained.
One aspect I liked of the book was that very young men found middle aged women very attractive. Gina was a pistol and would have been running all of Italy, not just Parma, if she were a man. The Prince was a ninny, and the young prince only a notch above that. My favorite character, besides Gina (who almost seemed the real main character of the book) was Count Mosca. I liked his loyalty and smarts.
The whole book reminded me a bit of the movie Ridicule. Wasn’t that the movie about the ins and outs of court life and how the favorite of the ruler was the courtier who could insult people the best?
I’ll keep thinking about your other questions, Ann.


Sherry

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Sherry,
I loved your comments, particularly those about Fabrice and Clelia being geniuses at holding up big letters really fast and the Mission Impossible atmosphere of the final escape. I kept trying to picture all this as I was reading, and it was really beyond me. It all seemed so far fetched. But I do have to agree with you that the prison escape made enjoyable reading.

The translation that I read was by Margaret Mauldon, and it flowed very well. She comments in an introduction that she retained the original French names that Stendhal gave his characters, which I suppose explains ""Fabrice"", as opposed to ""Fabrizio."" I also read Balzac’s generous review. Unfortunately for Stendhal, Balzac was one of the few people enthusiastic about his work. Although today Stendhal is considered one of the greatest of French literature, he was a literary failure in his lifetime. When he died in 1842 three years after writing CHARTERHOUSE , only three people attended his funeral. According to the information in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Stendhal speculated that his work would be appreciated later, around 1880. Interestingly enough, that is just about the time he was finally recognized. His emphasis on self-analysis, romantic love, uncompromising individualism, and the pursuit of happiness finally became fashionable.

Stendhal’s obsession with ""love"" interests me. He never married, although he had many passionate, but generally brief, love affairs. The story of Fabrice and Clelia takes over the last part of the book. Like you, I found them both somewhat ridiculous. I wondered if by this stage of his life (he was 56 when he wrote Charterhouse), Stendhal had decided that love was a joke. In fact, if I had to assign a theme to this book it would be this: True love makes you miserable. Early in the novel, Farbrice obsesses about his inability to feel real love: ""I’ve done everything I could think of to know love, but it seems that nature has not granted me a heart that knows how to love and be melancholy; I cannot rise about common pleasure…"" (I do love Stendhal’s delicious sarcasm). By the end, one can only conclude Fabrice would have been a lot happier if he had stuck with those common pleasures.

As a formerly religious person (G), I was somewhat put off by Stendhal’s totally cynical portrayal of the Catholic clergy. I know that the higher echelons were very corrupt during the Renaissance, but I thought that their sexual morality had greatly improved by the 19th century. It did not surprise me to learn that he was an atheist. Some of the reviews that I read in Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism commented that Stendhal mixes up 19th century Italy with the Italy of Machiavelli.

Now about that ending, Sherry, -- I was relieved that it wasn’t any worse. At the end of The Red and the Black, which we also read here on CC, the hero is beheaded and the heroine spirits his head away in a basket. So, the death by natural causes of most of the main characters in this book did not disturb me too much. I was relieved it wasn’t any worse. (G)

I do agree with you, however, that the ending appeared to be tacked on. By twentieth century standards, this book could have used some tight editing. Think what a different book this would have been if Stendhal had spent more time revising it. But then, he wrote it hurriedly (in seven weeks) and with few revisions on purpose because he was striving for a more ""natural"" effect than the current literary style. I think we just have to accept that meandering, verbose style if we are to appreciate 19th century literature on its own terms. After all, Balzac managed to read it three times without complaint. (G)


THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Finally finished Charterhouse of Parma this morning and was relieved to find the notes still here. I loved reading them, as few as they were.

My edition was a Penguin Classic, with translation and an introduction done by Margaret Shaw. She makes one comment in the intro that explains the hurried ending. I'll just quote it here instead of paraphrasing it:

""The book was accepted by Ambroise Dupont, and appeared in a two-volume edition at the beginning of April 1839. The publisher, however, thinking the work too long, had insisted on Stendhal's making it shorter. Exhausted by his seven feverish weeks of labour, and already engaged on another novel, L'Abesse de Castro, Stendhal somewhat over-hastily agreed to shorten the end..., a concession which he afterwards regretted, and which, indeed, his readers may also regret. The conclusion of this novel is carried through too rapidly, and even perfunctorily, to maintain its proper proportions in a work in which, up till then, each succeeding incident is developed with infinite carefulness of detail.""

Wouldn't you love to see the original version with the ending unedited? As Ann told me elsewhere, the last 80 pages were probably the most readable for me and I was disappointed to find the ending swept together so hastily.

I must say that this book has been a tough one for me. I find my first note about it written on Nov. 14th after I read the first 100 pages and I'm just finishing it today on Dec. 13th. This has been an incredibly busy and stressful period in my life so I'm wondering if part of my problem with the book had to do with the fact that I haven't been able to read it in long stretches as I did the first 100 pages.

However, given that handicap in reading mode, I still find that I simply didn't care too much what happened to the characters. The blurb on the back cover of my edition says that ""Stendhal's achievement is to have created a great novel around a small hero."" Hmmm...I can see that this approach may have been somewhat revolutionary, that the main character was so unheroic in so many ways. He was so incredibly vapid, seeming to operate with about 10% of his intellect and driven by impulse and emotion. Stendhal was obviously disgusted by the machinations at Court and the political realities of the governmental beaurocracy in which he had to operate to make a living. Perhaps, Fabrizio's (or Fabrice) lack of depth is a reflection of that. Unfortunately, that doesn't change my reaction to it.

I did like Gina a bit. Again, we have another character whose impulses run amuck, but she seems a bit more intelligent and able to rise above them when required. Perhaps, her age and some acquired wisdom contributes to her level of interest.

My favorite was Conte Mosca. He was a fundamentally good, intelligent man who was required to balance the multiple personalities in the Court to survive and did it with aplomb, even when his existence is complicated by the impulsive Gina.

Barb


THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
I also wanted to comment on Ann's questions in the original note on this book. Obviously, I thought Fabrizio was a ninny--absolutely perfect descriptive word for him, Ann.

The communications system did seem a bit contrived. I loved Sherry's comments about Clelia's singing at the piano seeming like a Monty Python routine. Somehow, I did believe the escape. And, though, he seemed to be somewhat two-dimensional, I liked the poet who helped Gina engineer the escape.

Shaw, my translator, says that the germ of this story came from some Italian manuscripts that Stendhal found in which a Vandozza Farnese, with the aid of her lover Roderigo, furthered the fortunes of her nephew Alessandro. He was imprisoned for a long time in the Castel Sant'Angelo for having abducted a young Roman girl but succeeded in escaping and subsequently became a cardinal. ""He continued however to lead a life of dissipation until the day when he fell in love with a girl of noble birth, named Cleria, whom he treated as his wife and by whom he had several children. His affair with Cleria lasted a long time, but was so discreetly conducted that it created no scandal."" Shaw implies later that this same cardinal went on to become Pope Paul III, but that the authenticity of these manuscripts is doubtful. Part of my point in relating this (in addition to the fact that it is interesting) is that some of the escape may have been based on truth though it does seem a bit fantastic.

The only person I would definitely want for a friend in this novel was Conte Mosca. I loved his wisdom and savvy. You'd have to watch out for yourself if he fell in love with someone though...he'd definitely sacrifice you for her interests.

In fact, Mosca was the only character who made me think that Stendhal might have a clue regarding deep, long-term love as opposed to initial infatuation and physical attraction. I thought that Fabrizio and Clelia were more in love with the drama in which they were involved than anything else.

And, the morality system in Stenhal's world had to do with survival only as far as I could tell.

Well, judging from the length of my notes, the experience of reading Charterhouse was not entirely a waste. It definitely did make me think.

Barb




THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Barb,
Thanks so much for your notes. They were definitely worth waiting for. I agree that part of the problem with this novel is that there is almost no one whom the reader really cares about. For me, it certainly wasn't Fabrice or the insipid Clelia. I wouldn't have cared much if they had never gotten together. In fact, the real tragedy is probably that they were finally able to consummate their love affair, given the limitations Clelia put on it.

I would like to have Count Mosca for my friend, and I would like to know Gina and observe her from a bit of a distance. She would be a great party guest, but I would never trust her with any confidences. Still, for me she was by far the most interesting character in the novel, and I think that Stendhal would have been better off concentrating more on her than that ninny Fabrice who was no match for her intellectually or emotionally. I think that Stendhal made it pretty clear that Gina's brother was not really Fabrice's father, so a relationship between them would not really have been incestuous. Or would it? I suppose if you have an affair with someone you think is a relative, even if he is not, you are guilty of the sin.

Thank you for the information about the end of the novel. That certainly explains why it seems to be tacked on. I had also read about the manuscripts being the inspiration for this story, although I think that they were from a period a couple of hundred years earlier, when popes and cardinals lived truly scandalous lives.

As for morality, I think the message is that different rules apply to the rich and the well-born, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that they are allowed to make their own rules.

I am glad I read this book, and I genuinely did enjoy the irony and the episodes involving Gina and the count, but it is not a novel I would ever be tempted to reread. Thanks for hanging in there and giving us your opinions, Barb.

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Ann,
I must have missed something, because I was unaware that there was a possibility that Gina was not really Fabrizio's aunt. Can you elaborate? Sometimes I have trouble reading between the lines and take things at face value. With a novel such as this, full of intrigue and suspicion, I could miss a lot.
Sherry

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Sherry,
I thought that Stendhal stongly hinted hat Fabrice's real father was the French soldier Lieutenant Robert, who was billeted at the Milan home of Fabrice's mother, the Marquise del Dongo, while her husband pouted in the provinces. Fabrice had absolutely nothing in common with his legal father or brother and the strong antagonism between them seemed natural if Fabrice was not really del Dongo's son (not that the latter was smart enough to figure this out).

Lieutenant Robert shows up again in Chapter 3, Waterloo:
""...the general they were following was tall and spare, with a bony face and a terrifying gaze.

That general was none other than Count d'A***, the Lieutenant Robert of May 1796. What joy it would have given him to see Fabrice del Dongo!""

Perhaps I am guilty of reading too much into this, by I assumed that Lieutenant Robert was introduced by Stendhal for a purpose, maybe just to plant a doubt about Fabrice's paternity in the mind of suspicious readers like me.

What did you think, Barb and Ernie?

Ann


THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Sherry,
I thought that Stendhal stongly hinted that Fabrice's real father was the French soldier Lieutenant Robert, who was billeted at the Milan home of Fabrice's mother, the Marquise del Dongo, while her husband pouted in the provinces. Fabrice had absolutely nothing in common with his legal father or brother and the strong antagonism between them seemed natural if Fabrice was not really del Dongo's son (not that the latter was smart enough to figure this out).

Lieutenant Robert shows up again in Chapter 3, Waterloo:
""...the general they were following was tall and spare, with a bony face and a terrifying gaze.

That general was none other than Count d'A***, the Lieutenant Robert of May 1796. What joy it would have given him to see Fabrice del Dongo!""

Perhaps I am guilty of reading too much into this, by I assumed that Lieutenant Robert was introduced by Stendhal for a purpose, maybe just to plant a doubt about Fabrice's paternity in the mind of suspicious readers like me.

What did you think, Barb and Ernie?

Ann






THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendhal
Ann,

I'm actually glad that you reminded me of that. I remember some reference to the questionable parentage of Fabrizio, but forgot about it as the book went along. It certainly explains his differences from the rest of the family. del Dongo, I love that name!

Barb

 
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