Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Parma Ham of Stendhal

I've been reading Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma with surprise. I'd always thought of Stendhal as a sort of pre-Tolstoy figure - as in a way he is in this historical novel, but without the psychological sophistication and commitment to realism I had been expecting. It seems more similar to the Walter Scott it followed than the realists it prefigured.

Not that I'm not enjoying this absurd swashbuckler (that's what it is, with the endless coincidences and atrocious behaviour of the hero, Fabrizio). But Fabrizio is basically an aristocratic lout, mainly protected from the consequences of his actions by a series of deus ex machina and by his sexy aunt's ministerial lover. Whereas the later nineteenth-century realism I know and love is all about justice - morality conceived of in terms of consequences - this aspect of life barely arises in The Charterhouse of Parma except in the most flimsy way.

In fact the interest of Fabrizio's adventures seems to be not so much how they develop and become part of historical process (dramatic realism, as it were), but how his behaviour in a series of situations demonstrates his character. Thus the book is more interested in virtue ethics - what someone's character ought to be - than in justice - what one ought to do.

I suppose this shouldn't be surprising in a book written in 1839, at the arse end of romanticism proper. And it points towards a kind of realism that the book might have, even if in terms of the causes and consequences of events it is often absurd.

And then there is the passage two thirds of the way through the book when Fabrizio is imprisoned and can only see the window of the aviary, a distant area of landscape and part of a cornice on the prison wall. It is of course absurd that a prisoner should be able to see into the rooms of the governer's daughter, and even carve a little hatch in a wooden screen to do so (what about the bars?!). But the sudden reduction of Fabrizio's world - he can no longer trot off to Florence or Switzerland at the drop of a corpse - concentrates this sprawling novel temporarily on the relationship that develops cautiously between the two of them. It's a sudden miniature of aliveness in a jaunty, stylised canvas.


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