Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Only in opera buffa can I be moved to tears

Although Stendhal's autobiographical fragment, The Life of Henry Brulard, was eventually published in 1890, I haven't yet been able to ascertain whether Proust ever read it. Had he been aware, for instance, that Stendhal compares a novel to 'a fiddle-bow, the reader's soul is like the violin which yields the sound' -- and this in a context where he writes about the extraordinary effect on his 'crazy' soul of 'Séthos (a dull novel by the Abbé Terrasson)'? In these memoirs, the effect is everything:

I cannot see things as they really were, I only have my childish memories. I see pictures, I remember their effects on my heart, but the causes and the shape of these things are a blank. It's still just like the frescoes of the [Campo Santo] at Pisa, where you can clearly make out an arm, but the piece of fresco beside it, which showed the head, has fallen off. I see a sequence of very clear pictures, but I only know what things were like in so far as they affected myself. And even this aspect of things I remember only through the recollection of the effect it produced on me. (p. 138)
We have a sense that Stendhal as a man was often overwhelmed by his reactions to things and people. For many years he considered himself as someone who hated 'Nature' for no other reason than the disingenuous praise heaped on it by his father and his hated aunt, Séraphie. Grenoble, where he grew up, provokes an almost physical disgust:

Everything that is mean in vulgar in the bourgeois way reminds me of Grenoble, everything that reminds me of Gr[enoble] fills me with horror, no, horror is too noble a word, with nausea. (p. 70)
He has strong reactions to certain writers: 'I loathe almost equally descriptions in the manner of Walter Scott and the bombast of Rousseau' -- reactions he might even, later, come to regret, as when he writes that 'the rhythmic and pretentious phrases of MM. Chateaubriand and Salvandy made me write Le Rouge et le Noir in too clipped a style.' And yet this very antipathy also enlivens him:

I am neither timid nor melancholy when I write, and run the risk of being hissed; I feel full of courage and pride when I am writing a phrase which will be spurned by one of those two giants of 1835, MM. Chateaubriand or Villemain. (p. 187)

He was writing these memoirs, it must be remembered, at the end of 1835 and into the early months of 1836.

And yet for someone so seemingly led by his passions -- or perhaps because of it -- he intensely dislikes the emotional manipulation of certain kinds of writing or even 'real life' experience:

Only in opera buffa can I be moved to tears. Opera seria, by deliberately setting out to arouse emotion, promptly prevents me from feeling any. Even in real life a beggar who asks for alms with piteous cries, far from arousing my compassion, makes me consider, with the utmost philosophical severity, the advantages of a penitentiary.

A poor man who does not say a word to me, who does not utter lamentable and tragic cries as they do in Rome, and who crawls along the ground eating an apple, like the cripple I saw a week ago, touches me immediately, almost to the point of tears. (p. 307)
Perhaps the moment that, for me, most anticipates Proust in la Recherche is where he writes about his obsession with the actress Mlle Kubly and the poor quality posted bills that advertise her appearances:

What transports of pure, tender and triumphant joy when I read her name on the bill! I can still see that bill, the shape of it, the paper, the printed letters.

I went to read that beloved name in three or four of the places where it was billed, one after the other: at the Jacobins' Gate, under the vault of the Garden, at the corner of my grandfather's house. I did not merely read her name, I gave myself the pleasure of re-reading the whole bill. The somewhat battered type used by the bad printer who produced this bill became precious and holy to me, and for many long years I loved it more than finer lettering. (p. 188 - 189)

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