Friday, December 7, 2007

Stendahl at Waterloo - Ah, now we're being attacked!

Beginning any sort of discussion of Stendhal, as I did yesterday, with a question of style is probably a good way to confuse people. For this, I blame Stendhal. He's a really strange writer. A strange person.

The Charterhouse of Parma is probably most famous for its scenes set at Waterloo. They served as an important example for later battlefield novelists, especially Tolstoy.

What a surprise then, that Waterloo takes place in Chapters 3 and 4, at the very beginning of the novel, and that Fabrizio, the protagonist, is not even a soldier, but a 17-year old Italian with a purchased hussar uniform. This was a brilliant move by Stendhal. Because Fabrizio knows nothing, and barely speaks French, the battle can be depicted in a fresh and unusual way. We never leave Fabrizio's point of view, confused as it is. He's even drunk part of the time, after buying a bottle of brandy because he wants the other soldiers to like him.

We're back to style. Scott gets close to this sort of "objective" style in some of his battle scenes, but he is never this pure. He also wants us to know the terrain, the positions of the armies, all of the usual stuff. Stendhal throws all of that away. We just get drunk Fabrizio, who doesn't know how to load a rifle, hoping for a glimpse of Napoleon.

Any readers of War and Peace will find these two chapters interesting.

Any current readers of W&P who are reading this are thinking: Oh sure. I'll get right on that. Anything else I should read? Buddenbrooks? The Oxford English Dictionary? Thanks for the helpful suggestion.


  1. It's been so long since I read Stendhal. This makes me want to dive in again soon.

  2. I've only read him at all in the past year or so. He is so strange, so very strange.

  3. He is strange, hard to pin down exactly...The Waterloo scenes are wonderful. As Fabrizio wanders about earnestly trying to get to the center of the battle, he is taking in the fractured mass of detail and Stendhal is practically succeeding in doing what, for a writer, is really impossible, which is to give it all to us at once. Fabrizio lacks all frames of reference and can only keep the search for the center up; he never really realizes that- there is no center. I sometimes feel the exact same way as a reader of Stendhal's books...

    1. My word, I don't think I've ever used that "handle" don't even know where it came from. sorry for the confusion, the above comment was mine. - so very very sorry.

  4. Fabrizio at Waterloo as metaphor for the reader and Stendhal's novels - that's quite good.