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The Cuttlebone

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA;\o7 By Stendhal; Translated from the French by Richard Howard; Illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker; (The Modern Library: 508 pp., $24.95)\f7

July 25, 1999|EDMUND WHITE | Edmund White is the author of the short biography, "Marcel Proust" and has just finished a novel, "The Married Man," which will be published next spring

"The Charterhouse of Parma" has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation. I would say that Howard has removed layers of grime from a masterpiece--except that the effect is more musical than visual. For Stendhal combines Mozart's brio with Mozart's tender pathos, and it is this range that Howard has so masterfully recreated in our language. French, compared to English, has a smaller vocabulary--for our full complement of "glower," "glance" and "glimpse," French has only regarder with an assortment of adverbs that follow it as limp afterthoughts. For our "glow," "glimmer" and "gleam" (I'm sticking just with words beginning in "gl-"), French has only briller. But where French gains in suppleness and elegance (if not always in concreteness) is in the language of courtliness and the complexity of word order and grammar, and it is this richness that Howard, a prizewinning poet, commands so fully in English and is able to work out with such aristocratic lightness of touch.

Admired by Proust and Gide ("He is the cuttlebone on which I sharpen my beak--what I envy in him is that he doesn't have to put on his track shoes before he starts running"), Stendhal wrote his last great novel in 52 days at the end of 1838, when the author (whose real name was Henri Beyle) was 53--roughly the age of the Conte Mosca, the Machiavellian but passionate minister of the state of Parma. The other two main characters are the Duchessa de Sanseverina, the beautiful and spirited heroine whom Mosca adores, and her much younger nephew, Fabrizio, a headstrong, handsome adolescent whom she adores. Although Stendhal obviously dotes on all three of his principal characters, their tragedy is that not one of their passionate loves is reciprocated. Fabrizio feels immense esteem for his aunt, just as she has a seasoned, worldly affection for Mosca, but the boy doesn't love the woman anymore than the woman loves the older man.

But this is not a sordid tale of frustrated longings and middle-class hypocrisy. In fact the author affords the reader none of the usual pleasure of condescending to his fictional characters, of knowing better than they what they are really feeling. No, Stendhal's three main characters may all be highly political and artful schemers, but only in order to promote their entirely irrational obsessions, which they acknowledge with complete candor, at least to themselves and usually to one another. They are never self-deceiving nor frightened. In fact, they live with operatic abandon and constant cunning. Typically, when Mosca realizes that the duchess is in love with Fabrizio, he reasons to himself: "Since I am blinded by excessive pain, let us follow that rule, approved of by all elderly men, which is called prudence. Moreover, once I have uttered the fatal word jealousy, my role is determined forever. On the contrary, by saying nothing today, I may speak tomorrow, and remain master of the whole situation."

Beyle's admiration of heroic virtues and his repudiation of every form of pettiness can be traced back to his early life. He was born in Grenoble, a somber, thoroughly bourgeois city, which he despised the whole of his life. His mother died when he was 7, and he was raised by a hated father, who was a lawyer, and a tyrannical Jesuit tutor. He ran away from home and had the good fortune to serve under Napoleon from 1800 to 1814 as an aide-de-camp during the emperor's campaigns in Germany, Austria and Russia. Despite Napoleon's political tyranny and military mistakes, Beyle ever after regarded those 14 years as a golden period and extended his enthusiasm backward in time to include the immediate aftermath of the revolution as well.

In the glorious opening hundred pages of "Charterhouse," Stendhal describes the "pleasure and happiness" that flowed into Northern Italy with the arrival of the extremely young French army, one that drove out the Austrians and their stifling, oppressive reign: "These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long, most were not yet 25, and at 28 their commanding general was accounted the oldest man in his army. Such youth, such gaiety, such free and easy ways offered a fine answer to the furious imprecations of the monks who for six months had preached that the French were monsters under orders, on pain of death, to burn down everything and cut off everyone's heads. . . ."

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