Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stendhal – for in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different

Here’s Stendhal writing about crossing the Alps behind Napoleon, and seeing Italy for the first time:

“It was the hospice! There we were given, as the whole army was, half a glass of wine which seemed to me ice-cold like a red decoction. I have a memory only of the wine, but no doubt they added a piece of bread and cheese. I fancy we went in, or else the accounts of the interior of the hospice I was given produced a mental picture, which for the past thirty-six years has taken the place of the reality.

Which is where the risk of falsehood lies that I’ve been noticing in the three months I’ve had my mind on this veracious journal.

For example, I can picture the descent to myself very clearly. But I don’t wish to conceal the fact that five or six years later, I saw an engraving that I thought a very good likeness, and my memory is now nothing more than the engraving.” (p. 468)

Can you see why modern writers have become interested in The Life of Henry Brulard? The whole point of the book, the obsessive drawing and redrawing, the reworked timelines, are all designed to pin down the reality of Stendhal’s past. But here at the end of the book, at one of his life’s turning points, he finds that what he thinks are memories of events are actually memories of a description, or an engraving. Despite all the detail, all the dates, the entire project is fundamentally unstable.*

W. G. Sebald refers to this passage in his novel Vertigo. In fact he almost directly quotes it. The first, short, chapter of this unconventional** novel, which in general is about writers’ (Casanova, Kafka, Sebald) journeys to Italy, recounts Stendhal’s life from his entry to Italy to his death forty-two years later. Here is Sebald on Stendhal at the Marengo battlefield, fifteen months after the battle:

“The decisive turn in the battle, brought about by Kellermann’s ferocious cavalry charge, which tore open the flank of the main Austrian force at a time when the sun was setting and all already seemed lost, was familiar to him from many and various tellings, and he had himself pictured it in numerous forms and hues. Now, however, he gazed upon the plain, noted the few stark trees, and saw, scattered over a vast area, the bones of perhaps 16,000 men and 4,000 horses that had lost their lives there, already bleached and shining with dew. The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.” (Vertigo, p. 17)

Sebald interlarded all sorts of pictures into his novels - photographs, documents, drawings. There are 13 in the 28 pages of the chapter on Stendhal, seven drawn by Stendhal, one of him (just his eyes, actually), and five others more or less related to the story. Sebald’s use of illustrations is complicated, the pictures sometimes only tenuously connected to the text. When reading The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal must have seemed like a kindred spirit.

The quote I put in the header is a diversion. That’s Sebald (Vertigo, p. 7) writing about Henry Brulard, not Stendhal.

* Even aside from Stendhal’s fabrications and jokes. Am I supposed to take this seriously? “Around this time, I became friendly, I don’t know how, with François Bigillion (who later killed himself, I believe, out of boredom with his wife)” (p. 277). “I believe” is a comic touch of the highest caliber.

** And brilliant, essential, etc.

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