Next up on the essays shelf:
Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman
During Anne Fadiman’s reign as editor of The American Scholar (I had a subscription). During her reign, she instituted a regular feature called “Rereadings”, where she asked authors to go back and reread a book they loved when they were young and see how the experience had changed. What was the book to them originally and what was it to them now? This book is a collection of those essays.
Stendhal is another one I have missed, although, coincidentally, The Red and the Black is going to be my next fiction, once I finish Richard Burton’s diaries, Dolores Hart’s memoir, and Patti Smith’s book about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. At the rate I’ve been going these days, I should get to Stendhal by the first week in November. I already know I will like him. It’s a foregone conclusion. It’s just one of those gaps in my reading that show up from time to time. So I thrilled to read Phillip Lopate’s essay about the impact The Charterhouse of Parma had on him as a young man of twenty, and how it didn’t quite hold up under scrutiny when he read it in his fifties. But at twenty, it swept him away.
The essay starts with a beautiful memory. There used to be a program on local New York TV channels called Sunrise Semester, on (of course) early in the morning, hosted by a Dr. Floyd Zulli. He would discuss literature, almost like a television book club. Phillip Lopate describes how Sunrise Semester was beloved by his parents, two textile clerks with only a high school education. They read all the books recommended by Dr. Zulli. And that was how Stendhal came into Lopate’s life. The entire Lopate family read it together. It’s a beautiful memory. Then, once in Columbia, he had to read Charterhouse of Parma in a competitive colloquim course. It blew him away. It seemed to suggest to him that life was a cynical affair, that human beings were inherently fallible, flawed, that complexities were a given in the adult world. He also loved Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and he conflated the two books in his mind. Similar outlooks about human nature. He found that attractive as a sort of awkward bookish young guy. He thrilled to the adventures of the dashing Italian lead in Charterhouse, and dreamt his way into the stories. He wrote a paper for the colloquium course, which he shares in the essay (a bold choice – love him for it!) There it is, his earnest college-boy prose, analyzing the book and the characters. It was a book that gripped his imagination. You all know that feeling, when a book has you in its grip.
For him, much later in life, 50s, Charterhouse seems rushed. Indeed, it was written in a very short period, less than two months. Lopate could sense that in his second reading. He could see the flaws, flaws that other critics had been pointing out since the book came out, which he had missed on his first reading. He wonders how he could have missed these things. He still admires the book.
I am looking forward to my own experience of Stendhal!
Here’s an excerpt.
Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; “The Pursuit of Worldliness; The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal”, by Phillip Lopate
In Stendhal, I found the exemplar of a spasmodic, abrupt voice whose very impatience signaled vitality. Where another writer might take paragraphs to prepare an insight, Stendhal would polish the business off with a terse epigram (“Courtiers, who have nothing to examine in their souls, notice everything”). His mind was so generously stocked that he could throw away ideas the way Bob Hope did one-liners. His paragraphs lacked topic sentences; or rather, they were all topic sentences, one atop the other. He dispensed with transitional sentences whenever it suited him and, by doing so, “predicted” in prose the Godardian jump cut I loved. “Let us skip ten years of progress and happiness” was his typically brazen shortcut. To leave out plodding intermediate steps, you need sophistication about the deep structure of narrative, supreme confidence in yourself, and an unimaginable faith in the audience’s intelligence.
Stendhal wrote like a free man. Unconstrained by popular opinion, he wrote “to the happy few” (the oft-quoted final words of Charterhouse) and for an audience a hundred years hence who would appreciate him. I was that audience, I liked to think.
I was especially smitten with the early battle episodes, wherein Fabrizio, our Italian hero, voluntarily enlists in the French army. Barely seventeen years old, he runs away from home with a head full of romantic notions and an allegiance to his idol, Napoleon. As he scoots from one place to another, following dubious escorts, dodging bullets, having his horse stolen, trying to discover whether he has actually taken part in a battle, and encountering a pusillanimous army in full retreat (this is Waterloo, remember), Stendhal observes with comic regularity that Fabrizio does not understand in the least what is happening. Ah, to understand what is happening to you – the pattern underneath ephemeral events!
If I had to summarize in one word what I cherished in The Charterhouse of Parma and Stendhal, that word would be “worldliness”. There was a mystique about worldliness that attracted me at twenty. Not for me the adolescent pulings of The Catcher in the Rye: if the price of entering adulthood was loss of innocence and the residues of childlike wonderment, I could not pay up quickly enough. Disenchantment was my goal. So when the worldly diplomat Count Mosca advises his adored Gina to marry an elderly man who can give her wealth in return for her title, we may be shocked at this nobleman pimping his beloved, but then we appreciate his grasp of circumstances. In the same practical manner, Mosca advises Fabrizio to enter the priesthood with an eye to making bishop: a strange choice for a libidinous young man, requiring years of patient execution, but one that makes sense in the rouge et noir context of nineteenth-century ambition. He also advises Fabrizio to take a mistress from a conservative family and to read in public only the stupidest right wing newspapers. We are none of us romantic isolates; we are social animals, being watched by potential allies and enemies. Mosca is a realist: it does not bother him that he has been cuckolded by his wife, but it does bother him that she has embarrassed him by doing it with a political enemy.
To be worldly means to know that men and women are not angels, that they have vanities and vices that they seek to justify. Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les liaisons dangereuses, one of my favorite novels of the time (and still), certainly went further, depicting depravity as the common rule. The strategies that Valmont and Mme de Merteuil suggest for each other in Les Liaisons dangereuses invoke sex as a game of chess to ward off boredom. Stendhal was more interested in demonstrating the realpolitik of court life, but in both cases it was reason aligned with the recognition of appetite, that intrigued me. I found the same combination in the Marquis de Sade. Youth, being largely powerless, is often fascinated with evil forces. But the gothic never appealed to me, because, as much as wanting evidence of evil, I was listening for, craving, reasoned analysis – the sound of calm French logic – even when it took a hypertrophied form, as in Sade.
The Charterhouse of Parma and Les liaisons dangereuses swept through our family. They were read and discussed by me, my older brother Lenny; and my sister Betty Ann, who was a year younger than I (our youngest sister, Joan, was still playing with dolls). Betty Ann in particular – dark, attractive, moody – was drawn to portraits of strong, independent-minded, active women: in adolescence, she modeled herself on the Duchess Sanseverina, Mme de Merteuil, and Billie Holiday. For Lenny and me, the duchess (Gina) was a fantasy ideal, an older woman of worldliness, beauty, and intelligence who we dreamed would take us under her wing. I found myself identifying (as did, I suspect, Stendhal) with Count Mosca, whose impressive overview of life cannot win him first place in the heart of his beloved Gina. She is much more taken with her nephew, that gilded youth, that heedless naif, Fabrizio. Wherever he goes, women fall over themselves to please him. And even older men, like the bishop, are fond of him. Placing himself forever in danger, he is continually being rescued by the interventions of guardian angels, most notably his adoring aunt.
I did not begrudge Fabrizio his triumphs; but, though we were the same age, twenty, in no way did I identify with him. I was already seeing myself as the witty secondary, the one who would not get the girl, just as a few months later, when I read Sentimental Education for colloquium, I immediately identified not with the dreamy, aristocratic Fredric but with his resentful, lower-middle-class pal, Deslauriers. (Possibly, I think, so did Flaubert. I wonder if this is a professional deformation: the writer, stuck at his desk, avenges himself on his dreamboat protagonist by condescending to or otherwise undercutting him.)