Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  Though Stendhal’s travel books are lively and can still be read with pleasure, if only for what they tell you of their author’s singular character, his fame rests on two novels and on a few passages in De 1’Amour. One of these was not original: early in 1817 he was at Bologna, and at a party a certain Madame Gherardi, ‘the prettiest woman that Brescia, the land of fine eyes, ever produced’, said to him:

  ‘There are four different kinds of love:

  (1) Physical love, that of beasts, savages and degraded Europeans.

  (2) Passionate love, that of Héloise for Abelard, of Julie d’Étange for Saint-Preux.

  (3) L’Amour Goût, which during the eighteenth century amused the French, and which Marivaux, Crébillon, Duclos, Madame D’Epinay have described with such grace. (I have left l’amour goût in French, because I do not know how to translate it. I think it means the kind of love you feel for a person to whom you have taken a fancy, and, if the word were in the Oxford Dictionary, I should prefer to call it ‘lech’ rather than love.)

  (4) Love from Vanity, that which made your Duchesse de Chaulnes say when she was about to marry M. de Gial: “For a commoner, a duchess is always thirty.”’

  Then Stendhal adds: ‘the act of folly which makes one see every perfection in the object of one’s love, is called crystallisation in Madame Gherardi’s circle.’ It would have been unlike him not to seize upon the fruitful idea that was thus presented to him; but it was not till months later that, on what he called ‘a day of genius’, the analogy occurred to him which has since become famous. Here it is: ‘At the salt mines of Salzburg you throw into the depths of a disused shaft a leafless branch; two or three months afterwards you take it out covered with brilliant crystallisation: the smallest twigs, no bigger than a titmouse’s foot, are adorned with an infinity of scintillating diamonds. One can no longer recognise the original branch.

  ‘What I call crystallisation is the operation of the mind that draws from everything around it the discovery that the beloved object has new perfections.’

  Everyone who has fallen in, and fallen out of, love must recognise the aptness of the illustration.

  (5)

  Of the two great novels, La Chartreuse de Parme is the more agreeable to read. I do not think Sainte-Beuve was right when he called the characters lifeless puppets. It is true that Fabrice, the hero, and Clelia Conti, the heroine, are shadowy, and for the most part play a somewhat passive role in the story; but Count Mosca and the Duchess Sanseverino are intensely alive. The gay, licentious, unscrupulous duchess is a masterpiece of characterisation. But Le Rouge et le Noir is by far the more striking, the more original, and the more significant performance. It is because of it that Zola called Stendhal the father of the naturalistic school, and that Bourget and André Gide have claimed him (not quite accurately) as the originator of the psychological novel.

  Unlike most authors, Stendhal accepted criticism, however damning, with good humour; but what is even more remarkable, when he sent manuscripts of his books to friends whose opinions he wanted, he adopted without hesitation the revisions, often ample, which they recommended. Mérimée states that though he constantly rewrote, he never corrected. I am not sure that this is a fact. In a manuscript of his that I have seen he put a little cross over a number of words that he was not satisfied with, and did this surely with the intention of altering them when he came to revise. He hated the flowery manner of writing made fashionable by Chateaubriand, and which a hundred lesser authors had sedulously aped. Stendhal’s aim was to set down whatever he had to say as plainly and exactly as he could, without frills, rhetorical flourishes or picturesque verbiage. He said (probably not quite truly) that before starting to write he read a page of the Code Napoléon in order to chasten his language. He eschewed description of scenery and the abundant metaphors which were popular in his day. The cold, lucid, self-controlled style he adopted admirably increases the horror of the story he has to tell in Le Rouge et le Noir, and adds to its enthralling interest.

  It is to Le Rouge et le Noir that Taine in his famous essay gave most of his attention; but being an historian and a philosopher, he was chiefly interested in Stendhal’s psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives, and the freshness and originality of his opinions. He pointed out with justice that Stendhal was concerned not with action for its own sake, but only in so far as it was occasioned by the emotions of his personages, the singularities of their character and the vicissitudes of their passions. This made him avoid describing dramatic incidents in a dramatic manner. As an illustration of this, Taine quoted Stendhal’s description of his hero’s execution, and very truly remarked that most authors would have looked upon this as an event on which they could expatiate. This is how Stendhal treated it:

  ‘The bad air of the cell was becoming intolerable to Julien; happily, on the day on which they told him he was to die, a lovely sun enlivened nature, and Julien was in a courageous mood. To walk in the open air was to him a delicious sensation, as to walk on land might be to a sailor who has been long at sea. Well, everything is going well, he told himself, I don’t lack courage. Never had that head been so poetic as when it was about to fall. The sweet moments he had passed in the woods of Vergy crowded upon his memory with the utmost force. Everything took place simply, decently, and on his side without affectation.’

  But Taine was apparently not interested in the novel as a work of art. His aim in writing was to awaken interest in a neglected author, and it was a panegyric he wrote rather than a critical study. The reader who is induced by Taine’s essay to acquaint himself with Le Rouge et le Noir may well be a trifle disappointed. For as a work of art it is sadly imperfect.

  Stendhal was more interested in himself than in anyone else, and he was always the hero of his novels, Octave in Armance, Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, and Lucien Leuwen in the unfinished novel of that name. Julien Sorel, the hero of Le Rouge et le Noir, is the kind of man Stendhal would have liked to be. He made him attractive to women and successful in winning their love, as he himself would have given everything to be, and too seldom was. He made him achieve his ends with them by just those methods that he had concocted for his own use, and that had consistently failed. He made him as brilliant a talker as he was himself; he was wise enough, however, never to give an example of his brilliance, but only affirmed it, since he knew that when a novelist has told his reader that a character is witty, and then gives examples of his wit, they are apt not to come up to the reader’s expectation. He gave him his own astonishing memory, his own courage, his own timidity, his own ambition, sensitiveness, calculating brain, his own suspiciousness and vanity and quickness to take offence, his own unscrupulousness and his own ingratitude. The pleasantest trait he gives him, again one that he found in himself, is Julien’s faculty of being moved to tears when he meets with disinterestedness and loving-kindness: it suggests that if the circumstances of his life had been different, he would not have been so vile.

  As I have said, Stendhal had no gift for making up a story out of his own head, and he took the plot of Le Rouge et le Noir from newspaper reports of a trial that at the time had excited great interest. A young seminarist called Antoine Berthet was tutor in the house of a M. Michoud, then in that of a M. de Cordon; he tried to seduce, or did seduce, the wife of the first and the daughter of the second. He was discharged. He attempted then to resume his studies for the priesthood, but owing to his bad reputation no seminary would receive him. He took it into his head that the Michouds were responsible for this, and in revenge shot Madame Michoud while she was in church, and then himself. The wound was not fatal and he was tried; he sought to save himself at the expense of the unfortunate woman, but was condemned to death.

  This ugly, sordid story appealed to Stendhal. He regarded Berthet’s crime as the reaction of a strong, rebellious nature against the social order, and as the expression of the natural man, untrammelled by the conventions of an artificial society. He held his fellow-Frenchmen in scor
n because they had lost the energy which they had had in the Middle Ages, and were becoming law-abiding, respectable, prosaic, commonplace and incapable of passion. It might, perhaps, have occurred to him that after the horrors of the Terror, after the catastrophic wars of Napoleon, it was natural that they should welcome peace and quiet. Stendhal prized energy above all other qualities of man, and if he adored Italy, and sooner lived there than in his native land, it was because he persuaded himself that it was the ‘country of love and hate’. There men loved with frenzy and for love’s sake died. There men and women surrendered to their passions, careless of the disaster that might ensue. There men, in a sudden attack of blind rage, killed, and killing, dared to be themselves. This is pure romanticism, and it is plain that what Stendhal called energy is what most people call violence. And condemn.

  ‘The people alone,’ he wrote, ‘nowadays have some remnants of energy. There is none of it in the upper classes’; so, when he came to write Le rouge et le Noir, he made Julien a working-class boy; but he furnished him with a better brain, more strength of will, and greater courage than were possessed by his wretched model. The character he drew with consummate skill is of perennial interest; he is devoured with envy and hatred of those born in a more privileged class, and well represents a type that occurs in every generation, and will presumably continue to do so until there is a classless society. Then human nature will doubtless have changed, and the less intelligent, the less competent, the less enterprising will no longer resent it if the more enterprising, the more competent and the more intelligent enjoy advantages that are denied them. Here, when we catch our first glimpse of Julien, is how Stendhal describes him: ‘He was a small young man of eighteen or nineteen, weakly to look at, with irregular, delicate features and an aquiline nose. His large black eyes, which in moments of tranquility suggested reflection and fire, were lit up at that instant with an expression of the fiercest hate. His dark chestnut hair, growing very low, gave him a small forehead and in moments of anger a look of wickedness…. His slender, well-set figure suggested lightness rather than vigour.’ Not an attractive portrait, but a good one, because it does not predispose the reader in Julien’s favour. The principal character in a novel, as I have said, naturally enlists the reader’s sympathy, and Stendhal, having chosen a villain for his hero, had to take care from the start that his readers should not sympathise with him overmuch. On the other hand, he had to interest them in him. He could not afford to make him too repulsive, so he modified his first description by dwelling repeatedly on his fine eyes, his graceful figure and his delicate hands. On occasion, he describes him as positively beautiful. But he does not forget from time to time to call your attention to the malaise he arouses in persons who came in contact with him, and to the suspicion with which he is regarded by all save those who have most cause to be on their guard against him.

  Madame de Rênal, the mother of the children Julien is engaged to teach, is an admirably drawn character of a kind most difficult to depict. She is a good woman. Most novelists at one time have tried to create one, but have only succeeded in producing a goose. I suppose the reason is that there is only one way of being good, whereas there are dozens of being bad. This obviously gives the novelist greater scope. Madame de Rênal is charming, virtuous, sincere; and the narrative of her growing love for Julien, with its fears and hesitations, and the flaming passion which it becomes, is told in a masterly fashion. She is one of the most touching creatures of fiction. Julien, feeling that it is a duty he owes himself, decides that if one evening he does not hold her hand he will take his own life; just as Stendhal, wearing his best trousers, vowed that if, on reaching a certain point, he did not declare his love to Countess Daru, he would blow his brains out. Julien eventually seduces Madam de Rênal, not because he is in love with her, but partly to revenge himself on the class she belongs to, and partly to satisfy his own pride; but he does fall in love with her and, for a while, his baser instincts are dormant. For the first time in his life he is happy, and you begin to feel sympathy for him. But the imprudence of Madame de Rênal gives rise to gossip, and it is arranged that Julien should enter a seminary to study for the priesthood. I don’t see how the parts that deal with Julien’s life with the Rênal and at the seminary could be better; there is no need to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief, the truth of what Stendhal tells you is manifest; it is when the scene is changed to Paris that I, for my part, find myself incredulous. When Julien has finished his course at the seminary, the principal secures him a post as secretary to the Marquis de la Môle, and he finds himself admitted to the most aristocratic circle in the capital. The picture Stendhal draws of it does not carry conviction. He had never moved in good society; he was familiar chiefly with the bourgeoise, which the Revolution and the Empire had brought into prominence; and he did not know how well-bred people behave. He had never encountered pride of birth. Stendhal was at heart a realist, but no one, however hard he tries, can fail to be influenced by the psychic atmosphere of his time. Romanticism was rampant. Stendhal, notwithstanding his appreciation of the good sense and urbane culture of the eighteenth century, was deeply affected by it. As I have indicated, he was fascinated by the ruthless men of the Italian Renaissance who were troubled neither by scruple nor remorse, and hesitated at no crime to satisfy their ambition, gratify their lust, or avenge their honour. He prized their energy, their disregard of consequences, their scorn of convention and their freedom of soul. It is because of this romantic predilection that the last half of Le Rouge et le Noir is unsatisfactory. You are asked to accept improbabilities that you cannot swallow, and to interest yourself in episodes that are pointless.

  M. de la Môle had a daughter. Her name was Mathilde. She was beautiful, but haughty and wilful; she was intensely conscious of her high descent, and proud of those ancestors of hers who, risking their lives for a great prize, had been executed, one under Charles IX and another under Louis XIII. By a natural coincidence, she attached the same high value to ‘energy’ as Stendhal did, and she despised the commonplace young nobles who sought her hand. Now, Emile Faguet in an interesting essay has pointed out that Stendhal in his enumeration of the kinds of love left out l’amour de tête. That is the love that starts in the imagination, grows and thrives in the imagination and is apt to perish when it is consummated in sexual congress. That is the love that little by little stole upon Mlle de la Môle for her father’s secretary, and its stages have been described by Stendhal with the utmost subtlety. She was both attracted and repelled by Julien. She fell in love with him because he was unlike the young aristocrats who surrounded her, because he despised them as much as she did, because of his humble origins, because of his pride which was equal with her own, because she sensed his ambition, his ruthlessness, his lack of scruple, his depravity; and because she was afraid of him.

  Eventually Mathilde sends Julien a note, and bids him take a ladder and come up to her room when everyone is asleep. Since we learn later that he could just as well have walked quietly up the stairs, she asked him to do this presumably to test his courage. Clémentine de Curial had used a ladder to come down to the cellar in which she had hidden Stendhal, and this had evidently fired his romantic imagination; for he made Julien, on his way to Paris, stop off at Verrières, the town in which Madame de Rênal lived, get hold of a ladder, and in the middle of the night climb up to her bedroom. It may be that Stendhal felt it awkward to let his hero use this means of access to a lady’s chamber twice in one novel, for on receiving Mathilde’s note he makes Julien, referring to the ladder, say with irony: ‘It is an instrument I am fated to use.’ But no irony suffices to conceal the fact that here Stendhal’s inventiveness failed him. What happens after the seduction is again admirably described. Those two self-centred, irritable, moody creatures scarcely know if they love with passion, or hate with frenzy. Each tries to dominate the other; each seeks to anger, wound and humiliate the other. At length Julien, by means of a banal trick, brings the proud girl to his
feet. Presently she finds herself pregnant, and tells her father that she intends to marry her lover. M. de la Môle is obliged to consent. But now, when Julien, by dissimulation, diplomacy and self-restraint, is in sight of achieving all his ambition craved, he commits a foolish error. From then on the book goes to pieces.

  We are told that Julien is clever and immensely cunning; and yet, to recommend himself to his future father-in-law, he asks him to write to Madame de Rênal for a certificate of character. He knew that she sincerely repented the sin of adultery that she had committed, and might bitterly blame him, as women all over the world are accustomed to do, for her own weakness; he knew, also, that she loved him passionately, and it should have occurred to him that she might not welcome the prospect of his marrying another woman. On the direction of her confessor, she wrote a letter to the Marquis in which she told him that it was Julien’s practice to insinuate himself into a family in order to destroy its peace, and that his great and sole object was by a show of disinterestedness to contrive to secure control of the master of the house, and over his fortune. She had no reason whatever to make either of these charges. She said he was a hypocrite and a vile intriguer: Stendhal does not seem to have noticed that though we readers, to whom every movement of Julien’s mind has been exposed, know that indeed he was, Madam de Rênal did not; she knew only that he had performed his duties as tutor to her children in an exemplary manner, and had won their affection; and that he loved her so much that on the last occasion on which she had seen him he had risked his career, and even his life, to pass a few hours with her. She was a conscientious woman, and it is hard to believe that, whatever pressure her confessor brought to bear, she would have consented to write things which she had no reason to think were true. Anyhow, when M. de la Môle receives the letter, he is horrified and refuses absolutely to let the marriage proceed. Why did not Julien say that the letter was a tissue of lies and merely the hysterical outburst of a madly jealous woman? He might have admitted that he had been Madame de Rênal’s lover; but she was thirty and he was nineteen: was it not more probable that it was she who had seduced him? It was not a fact, as we know, but it was uncommonly plausible. M. de la Môle was a man of the world. The man of the world has an inclination to think the worst of his fellow-creatures, a mild cynicism which leads him to believe that where there is smoke there is fire; and, at the same time, an easy tolerance of human frailty. It would surely have seemed to M. de la Môle amusing, rather than shocking, that his secretary should have had an affair with the wife of a provincial gentleman of no social consequence.

 
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