“Her decision, painful as it was, was taken: to pretend to forget Fabrizio; after this effort, everything was a matter of indifference to her.”
– The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
I regularly peruse the book shelves of one of the women I work for when I have nothing better to do. We must have similar taste because I’ve read a fair amount of them, but it is good for inspiration. She had a pretty copy of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma that I coveted. I requested it from my library. The translation by Richard Howard was published in 1999.
Stendhal’s books (granted, I’ve only read this and Scarlet and Black, but from what I have read…) are very densely packed with all the intensely unimportant twist and turns of the bourgeoisie. It is highly amusing to get sucked into the minutiae of his worlds. It’s the blah blah blah made vivid and comic. Stendhal keeps a cool distance from the the heart of the book, his voice is there, mocking, but he never gets swept away by the story. I am never sure whether or not I should completely believe in the love story until the very end when it is too late for me and for the lovers.
In this book,the main character, Fabrizio, is an Italian version of Julien from Scarlett and Black – the same ingenuous simplicity envelopes their character. The questions they are always asking themselves are: Am I in love? How will I know? I am. I’m not. Why not? and so on, until finally a passion of previous unknown depth and breadth is their ultimate downfall.
Fabrizio spends much of the novel being loved by his young aunt, she spends most of the novel pretending she is not in love with him. He loves her but then falls passionately in love with Clélia who is also in love with him:
“Her intention was to avoid any compromising avowal, but the logic of passion is urgent; its burning interest in learning the truth forbids all vain pretense, while at the same time its extreme devotion to its object allays any fear of giving offense.”
But, compromising avowals will of course transpire, despite best efforts:
“She was so lovely just then, her gown slipping off her shoulders and in such a state of extreme passion, that Fabrizio could not resist an almost involuntary movement. Which met with no resistance…”
Stendhal has a unique ability to express with complete sincerity all the burning passion of love, and yet his tone always leaves a smile on the reader’s face.
While everyone is busy pretending to live lives of upright but basically meaningless conformity and advancement, plots and intrigue keep the boredom away, but to a few, possibly a very few, true happiness is possible. Unfortunately in Stendhal’s books it is the possible made impossible that is the cause and ruination of his characters.
“The kind of misery which a frustrated love creates in the soul makes a cruel burden of whatever requires action or attention.”
But he is deeply sympathetic. Stendhal reaches out a hand of commiseration. There is a slight bitterness in his humor and one sense that his obsessive interest in understanding the subject of love stems from his own experience and frustrations. He wants to work through it somehow. His grudging wish at the end of his novels is pointed and yet, poignant:
“TO THE HAPPY FEW”