Monday, May 23, 2011

I regard, and have always regarded my works as lottery tickets

Next month it will be 179 years since Stendhal began his Memoirs of an Egotist (Souvenirs d'Egotisme, the last a word he borrowed from English) when he was 49 years old and yet it reads as fresh as if he'd just posted it on the internet thirty minutes ago. He wrote it twenty or thirty pages at a time in order to force a spontaneity that might push past the kind of self-aggrandising narrator he despised. In the first chapter he writes:

I am profoundly convinced that the only antidote which can make the reader forget the everlasting 'I's' the author is going to write, is perfect sincerity. Will I have the courage to recount what is humiliating without salvaging my self-esteem with an infinite series of prefatory remarks? I hope so. (p. 33: mine is the 1975 Chattus and Windus edition, translated by David Ellis)
The reader doesn't forget these 'I's', but grows fond of him. This is no rare, fragile, poetic sensibility, but a narrator who cheerfully describes himself as fat, short and ugly and yet worries about the swirling vacancy inside his head when he attempts to examine it:

I don't know myself and it's this which distresses me sometimes when I think about it at night. Am I good or bad, clever or stupid? (p. 33)

The project of writing the memoirs hinges on this candour, although it also could well be undone by it:

What I am writing seems very boring; if it carries on like this it won't be a book but an examination of conscience. I've hardly any precise memories of this stormy, passionate period. (p. 49)

This is a narrator whose memories, as he admits, aren't clear, who changes his characters' names as he writes, who stops every now and then with remarks such as this:

Where was I?... Good God, how badly written this is! (p. 58)
And yet it is the assuredness of the voice, or perhaps of the project itself -- his quest for self understanding as he writes -- that draws the reader along with it. He trusts his instinct over and against the fashion of the day:

I had long arguments with Lussinge. I maintained that a good third of Sir Walter Scott's talent was attributable to a secretary who went to the country and roughed out for him descriptions of the countryside on the spot. I found him then, as I find him now, weak in his depiction of passion, in knowledge of the human heart. Will posterity confirm the judgement of contemporaries who place the Tory baronet immediately after Shakespeare? (p. 140)
This instinct that drives the narrative forwards in the way he wants, omitting what bores him, extemporising on what doesn't, is an approach not too different from what the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabel calls 'palavering':

I have forgotten to describe this salon, Sir Walter Scott and his imitators would have been prudent and begun with the kind of description of physical surroundings I loathe. I find them so tedious to do, it stops me writing novels. (p. 69)

And yet he did write novels, as we know. Gabriel Josipovici, whose own novel writing evolved from a similar irritation with the conventions of description writing, claims in The Mirror of Criticism that the 'birth of the novel is coterminous with the birth of the extemporal vein' -- a suggestion that the novel might actually rely on this palavering, this following of the instinct and eschewing of those conventional expectations that stultify, for the writer, the work of the writing.

When Stendhal in his forties at last turned from his abortive attempts to write drama to writing novels instead, he seemed to have found his metier. And yet, for all his confidence in his literary instinct -- or perhaps because of it -- in Memoirs of an Egotist he appears insouciant of the immediate and even medium term reception of everything he wrote:

Quite often in society I used to come across people who would congratulate me on one of my works: I'd written very few then. The compliment and my reply done with, we didn't know what to say to each other. These Parisians, who expected some frivolously pat reply must have thought me very gauche, and perhaps proud. I'm accustomed to seeming the opposite of what I am. I regard, and have always regarded my works as lottery tickets. I don't expect to be reprinted before 1900. ( p. 90)

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