Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma: A Review

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

I found Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma to be tedious in stretches. I also found it to be brilliantly different from any other novel I have ever read, in its view of many aspects of life. Balzac, no slouch himself in the writing department, considered it the greatest novel ever written. While I’m not sure I would totally agree with that statement, I can certainly see why Balzac might have held that opinion.

Stendhal’s real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. Since (as is my custom) I don’t do much research till after my review is done, I as yet don’t know why he adopted this single-name pseudonym. His most famous novel is perhaps The Red and the Black and I am actually not sure if I’ve ever read this or not. Stendhal was a French writer, but he spent much time in Italy, as he would have had to to write a book such as Charterhouse of Parma.

Charterhouse of Parma (published 1839) is set in Italy, but this is in the early 19th century, before Italy became “Italy”. While a country such as France, with its late-18th-century Revolution, had of course much nationalistic feeling and was a political entity, Italy still retained the medieval character of a host of tiny “principalities” (an area ruled by a Prince) and such. Parma, in northern “Italy”, was one of these mini-countries.

When we first meet the Prince of Parma, Stendhal draws a portrait of … well, not what you would expect of royalty:

…he frequently sought to impress his interlocutor; then he grew embarrassed himself and would begin shifting from one foot to the other almost continually.

Like many of Stendhal’s nobility, the Prince tries to model himself on other, more celebrated rulers:

…now and again the Prince’s imitation of Louis XIV ws a little too marked; for instance, in his manner of smiling benevolently, tipping back his head.

We also learn that

he … became grim when he supposed that others were having a good time; the appearance of happiness enraged him.

The Prince would see his wife, the Princess, for only 30 minutes a day, at dinner, and would go weeks without saying a word to her! (This is part of the alienation of social and sexual life from conventional ties, that is a major theme running through Charterhouse of Parma.) I might add that when, owing to the intervention of the Duchess (of whom more below), the Prince finally spends 20 minutes *speaking* to his wife, she weeps for joy!

Below the station of the Royal Couple, there are, as can be imagined, a host of nobles and hangers-on. Stendhal has a field day describing some of these, for instance a fellow named Gonzo, who (like many of Stendhal’s courtiers) has a deep streak of masochism:

he was only at his ease and happy when he found himself in the salon of some great personage who would snap at him from time to time: “Hold your tongue, Gonzo, you’re nothing but a fool.”

Gonzo’s reputation in Parma rested most on his distinctive head-gear:

a magnificent “tricorne”, embellished with a rather moth-eaten black plume … you had to have seen the way he carried that plume, either on his head or in his hand; here was his talent, and his whole importance.

Against this background, we have the major characters of the novel, of whom there are three. There is Count Mosca, who becomes an influential official at the Princes’s court, and who for most of the novel is enamored of the beautiful Countess Pietranera. Before too long, the Countess becomes the Duchess Sanseverina as a result of a scheme which, in the moral (or amoral!) context of this novel, seems quite to be expected: The Count makes a deal with the elderly Duke Sanseverina-Taxis to the effect that the Duke will receive a long-sought honor (the Grand Cordon!) if he will agree to marry the Countess. The marriage will be in name only; the Countess, (and Duchess-to-be) will become fabulously wealthy, and will all along continue her liaison with the Count.

The Duchess is as capable of amoral behavior as anyone else at the Court of Parma: at one point she agrees to sleep with the Prince if he will release Fabrizio from prison.

The Duchess, although paired with the Count, spends much of her time sighing for Fabrizio del Dongo, who is the third major character, and in some senses the leading character of the novel. I say “in some senses”, for Fabrizio is a rather odd main personage for a novel. He is, at the outset of the story, 17 years old, and although of great physical beauty, is also marked by a great simplicity and innocence. He reminds me much of Fielding’s Tom Jones (Tom Jones review on my website!). Everything somehow revolves around Fabrizio — the book is in a sense an account of his adventures — but he himself is without guile or ambition, and doesn’t participate in the intrigues that are brewing all around him. Like Tom Jones, Fabrizio is very attractive to women, and has many of them without the experience actually meaning anything. (The difference is that Jones is from the outset fixated upon the unattainable Sophia as his be-all and end-all, whereas Fabrizio for most of the story has not found any woman who matters to him.)

Fabrizio’s centrality to the story is underlined by the fact that he plays the main role in what are for me the two best parts of the novel: the early war scenes and the later prison scenes. In the war section, the young Fabrizio decides to go to France to join Napoleon. He actually particpates in the Battle of Waterloo, but the view of war through Stendhal’s pen is radically different from any that I have ever read before! Fab’s initiation into the craft of warfare comes not from some officer or soldier, but … from a “canteen-woman” that he happens to meet near the field of battle. A bit later, Fab. is mounted on a fresh horse, and when the beast heads off somewhere, Fab. just decides to let it take him where it may. He sees some “action”, but (through his eyes) it is so haphazard and chaotic that one does not know what it means. This almost surrealistic atmosphere is, I suspect, what a real battle must often possess when one is actually inside it … and before the historians come along later to make “sense” of it. And Fabrizio, in his unique approach (lack of approach?) is — as Richard Howard so well puts it in his “Afterword” — “a soldier and yet not a soldier”.

The prison episode happens much later in the book. For killing a rival in a fight over a woman (though, as you might suspect from knowing Fabrizio’s nature, the rival instigated the fight), Fab. is incarcerated in a cell way at the top of a fortified tower in Parma. Here, as in the battle scenes, Stendhal once again defies the reader’s normal expectations. The jailer shows up with a vicious guard dog, but instead of being intimidated by the beast, Fab. watches merrily as the dog hunts down a whole troop of rats that have been occupying his lodgings. Of greater importance, Fab. falls in love with the jailer’s daughter … which leads to the paradoxical state of affairs that he becomes happy to be in his prison cell, and does not want to leave. When Clelia (the girl in the case) finds out that there is a plot to poison Fab., she urges him to live on only water, and the chocolate that she will supply him with … a fairy-tale touch which I liked.

Stendhal likes to compare the Italian temperament with the French. He seems to feel that the Italians are more serious when it comes to affairs of the heart: “In Milan, a man may still be driven to despair by love.” In a similar vein, he depicts revenge as a distinctively Italian characteristic:

I am inclined to think that the immoral delight Italians experience in taking revenge is a consequence of their power of imagination; people of other countries do not, strictly speaking, forgive; they forget.

Although this may sound strange in view of what we normally think of the French, Stendhal is of the opinion that in his home country, love has been supplanted by other concerns:

a country [France] where the sole passion surviving all the rest is for money, the means of vanity.

Stendhal also contrasts Catholicism to Protestantism, in their effect on personal decision-making. The Count has decided (for political and expedient reasons) that Fabrizio should eventually become Archbishop of Parma. Fab. (as is so typical of him) has no sense whatsoever of a “calling” for this position. But despite this rather serious deficiency, he allows the plan to go forward. This, according to Stendahl, because Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, does not favor an individual’s “personal examination” of themselves. For a Catholic, “to know what it is of which one is guilty, one must question one’s priest …”

Actually, Fabrizio shows quite clearly how little meaning his religious position really has for him. (“A cleric and yet not a cleric”, as Richard Howard says.) Near the end of the book, desperately in love with Clelia, his suffering over this affair is misinterpreted, by the public, as a sign of great piety, a la Rev. Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter(review on my website!). Fab’s sermons reduce everyone to tears, but he engages in them merely as a way of communicating with his lady love. (I suppose one could say that he has finally acquired a modicum of guile by this point.)

Charterhoues of Parma is very much a book concerned with the Old versus the New. Parma is, as mentioned, a tiny prinicipality in the medieval tradition, as things existed before nations were unified. The Court intrigues and arbitrary imprisonments are the very opposite of democracy. One of the important characters, the Abbe Blanes, is an astrologer! Omens are important, as when the sight of an eagle inspires Fabrizio to go to France to join up with Napoleon. On the other side of this coin, we see the French Revolution (the Prince of Parma views democracy as a transient heresy), and the America of the early 19th century. This was around the Jacksonian era, and around the time that de Tocqueville visited and wrote the monumental Democracy in America … a time during which some believe America was at its most “American”. When the young Fabrizio at first declines entering the priesthood, and speaks of going to New York to become an American citizen, the Dutchess advises him:

“What a mistake you’re making! There will be no war for you to wage, and you’ll fall back into cafe life, only without elegance, without music, without love affairs. … Believe me, for you as for me, an American life would be a sad business.” She explained to him the cult of the god dollar, and the respect that must be paid to merchants and artisans in the street, who by their votes determine everything.

Stendhal, clearly was a novelist who had an unusually developed interest in other arts: painting, music, poetry. Regarding music, some early scenes in Charterhouse of Parma take place in Milan, and we witness opera performances at La Scala. Well actually, we see more of the intrigues between the novel’s characters which take place in the “boxes”; often it seems as if the opera itself was the last thing on their minds! But at least in the case of one foreign composer, perhaps it is better not to listen: Stendahl refers to “a Mozart symphony, dreadfully mangled, as is the custom in Italy”.

As far as poetry is concerned, Stendahl shows us how much it has permeated Italian life. There is Ludovic, a lowly retired coachman, who now spends his leisure time writing “sonnets in the vernacular”. Actually, poetry also seemed to serve a political function, since apparently a satirical sonnet would not be subject to condemnation by the censor. The character who most embodies poetry is Ferrante Palla. We first meet this “great poet” (who is treated as an actual historical figure, although I don’t know if he in fact is) under very unexpected circumstances: the Duchess comes upon him and he relates how he has had to become a highway robber on the Genoa-Piacenza road! When the Duchess asks him how he reconciles robbery with his Liberal principles, Palla replies that “I keep track of the people I rob, and if I ever have any money, I return what I have taken from them.” As a Liberal, Palla also apparently got himself involved in subversive activity; later in the story he is a wanted man, living in France under a false name.

My edition of Charterhouse of Parma was the new Modern Library translation by Richard Howard. My hardbound copy was, to the publisher’s credit, sewn in signatures and printed on acid-free paper. While I was not struck by any special brilliance of the translation, I feel that Howard does a very creditable job. What did not please me, however, were the numerous typographical errors; you would think that in this age of spelling checkers, we could at least be spared those! The illustrations are by Robert Andrew Parker, and I could not say that I was impressed with them. Perhaps a future edition will take a cue from Stendhal’s own taste in painting, and especially Sten’s love for Correggio, who was perhaps his favorite painter, and who is associated with Parma — this may in fact have been why Stendhal chose Parma as the locale for his novel. It his letter thanking Balzac for his praises of Charterhouse of Parma, he writes (and notice how he puts this):

The entire character of the Duchess Sanseverina is copied from Correggio (that is, produces on my soul the same effect as Correggio).

In this regard, I would like to point out Correggio’s painting of “Jupiter and Io”, available for example at:

Io is enraptured by the un-earthly love of the god Jupiter (Zeus), just as the Duchess, although in fact partnered with the Count, is always longing for the love of her ideal … Fabrizio.

To sum up: If you can put up with what are perhaps extended passages describing rather obscure political intrigues (although the boredom might at least in part arise from not reading in the original language) … you will be rewarded by having read what I feel is a masterpiece. And I hope that from the taste I’ve given you, you will see what a fresh, unconventional view of the world it has.

And … what, in fact, is this place, this “Charterhouse of Parma”? If you read the novel (which I hope you do), you will find out … but not until the end … and no peeking allowed!

©17 july 2001, Tom Frenkel