Sunday, January 23, 2011

Notes on Notes on Stendhal

Proust, in his Notes on Stendhal, is appreciative of Stendhal's 'eighteenth-century style of irony', 'pessimistic morality', and 'Voltairean elegance' (even as he points out that Beyle disliked Voltaire). He notes also:

Rejection of all but spiritual emotions, renewed vitality of the past, indifference to ambitions, and tedium of scheming either when near to death (Julien in prison; no longer ambitious. Love for Mme. de Rênal, for nature, for reveries) or consequent on indifference caused by being in love (Fabrice in prison, though here the prison represents, not death, but love for Clélia).

He describes too a third reason for this indifference to ambition in Stendhal's work: 'emotion at the sight of nature and almost always on heights'; and yet Proust can't help observing that these 'feelings are straightforward, in keeping with picturesquely situated places' as already, here, he is anticipating his own preoccupations in In Search of Lost Time: the emotional responses that can arise, unexpectedly, from more ordinary, unpicturesque experiences, such as the smell of petrol, a biscuit dipped in tea or the feel of uneven paving stones underfoot.

Proust writes that Stendhal's maxim is 'never repent', which the latter evidently shares with his character Gina, the Duchessa of Sanseverina:

There were two salient points in the Duchessa's character: she always wished what she had once wished; she never gave any further consideration to what had once been decided. She used to quote in this connection a saying of her first husband, the charming General Pietranera. 'What insolence to myself!' he used to say; 'Why should I suppose that I have more sense today than when I made up my mind?' (The Charterhouse of Parma, Part 2, chapter 8)

This very un-Proustian determination to move forwards without looking back that allowed Stendhal to write The Charterhouse of Parma, supposedly, between 4 November and 26 December in 1839 -- a César Aira ahead of his time -- leads to the insouciance of sentences such as:

We have forgotten to mention in the proper place that the Duchessa had taken a house at Belgirate, a charming village and one that contains everything which its name promises (to wit a beautiful bend in the lake). (Part 2, ch 10)

In his long essay Contra Sainte-Beuve, Proust writes about how Sainte-Beuve, a well known literary critic in Stendhal's day, preferred to judge a writer's worth by analysing the writer's character via interviews with friends and anecdotal accounts -- a practice, for all its absurdities, not so very different to much current literary journalism, where the exotic details of an author or the biographical or historical subject often attracts more interest that the writing itself. By this method Sainte-Beuve pronounced that Stendhal's novels were 'makeshifts' and 'detestable', and as for the man himself:

Beyle had a fundamental rightness and sure-handedness in his treatment of intimate relationships which one must never fail to acknowledge, the more so when one has spoken out one's mind about him.

As Proust immediately adds: 'All things considered, a good fellow, that Beyle!' Not quick to anger, luckily for Sainte-Beuve.

It is Sainte-Beuve's signal failure to appreciate the literary worth of writers like Stendhal through this method that seems to have set Proust writing, via Contra Sainte-Beuve, in the direction of his great novel of extended ironic complexities, In Search of Lost Time, where nobody is how they seem and great art is made by weak, even laughable little men like Vinteuil because, as Proust writes in Contra Sainte-Beuve:

a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.

Even to write at all is to subject yourself to its ironic possibilities.


  1. Hi jen. I just came across Nietzsche's thoughts on Sainte-Beuve in "Twilight of the Idols". Unluckily for Sainte-Beuve, quick to anger: "Nothing manly about him; full of petty rage against all manly spirits. Roves around, delicate, curious, bored, sounding things out - fundamentally womanly, with a woman's vindictiveness and a woman's sensuality. As a psychologist a genius at médisance (scandalmongering); inexhaustibly rich in ways of being so; no one understands better how to lace praise with poison..." The jovial rumination continues. On the next page it goes on about George Eliot, who he doesn't address, just a name to attach to a condition: "In England, after every little emancipation from theology people have to regain their respectability in a terrifying manner, as moral fanatics." Which of course doesn't apply to himself. "This morality is VERY far from self-evident: this point needs highlighting time and again, English fat-heads notwithstanding..."

  2. Ah yes, Sainte-Beuve, the genius at scandalmongering! Curious: an aspect of this description brings to mind Proust on the Baron de Charlus...