Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Stendhal – it’s cold, the pens are malfunctioning

On the back cover of the NYRB edition of The Life of Henry Brulard (written 1835-6, published 1883), which is, oddly, an autobiographical work by someone not named Henry Brulard, there is a small portrait of a young Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The portrait can be seen at the Musée Stendhal in Grenoble, Stendhal’s childhood home. If I ever find myself in Grenoble, I will be sure to go. Let’s see what Stendhal himself has to say about his hometown:

“Truth to tell, when I think hard about it, I haven’t been cured of my unreasonable revulsion for Grenoble: in the true sense of the word I have forgotten it. My magnificent memories of Italy, or Milan, have erased everything... If I may be permitted an image as distasteful as the sensation, it is like the smell of oysters to a man who has had a terrible indigestion from oysters.” (pp. 106-7)

Stendhal/ Beyle lost his mother when he was six years old. His family was devastated. Both his father and his grandfather essentially withdrew from society. Over and over, Stendhal laments that he never he spent his childhood without knowing children his own age. He was instead tutored at home for years, tyrannized by his cruel Séraphie and capricious father, his beloved grandfather supportive but passive. Beyle finally escaped, first to a different set of tyrants at school (but at least alongside other boys) and then to Paris, which, being the soul of perversity, he despised. The memoir climaxes with a 17 year old Beyle crossing the Alps to Italy with Napoleon’s army, Napoleon about to achieve his first great triumph at Marengo, Beyle about to fall in love with Italian mountains, Italian music, and Italian women.

Straightforward enough – a great writer’s childhood memoir, his miseries and escape into another life. But who, then, is Henry Brulard? And what is this, a marginal note on p. 247: “Rapidity. Bad handwriting (reason for). 1 Jan 1836. It’s only two o’clock, I have already written sixteen pages; it’s cold, the pens are malfunctioning. Instead of getting into a temper, I keep gong ahead, writing as best I can”? And what on earth is that thing to the right – one of the hundreds of drawings that are an integral part of the book?

The rest of the week, I’ll see if I can explain. No guarantees.


  1. Lydia Davis writes the preface to this book. I interviewed her last year about her translation of Proust. If you are interested you can listen here: http://nigelbeale.com/?p=526

    I'm interested to learn from you if The Life of Henry Brulard sheds any light on the character of Julien Sorel.

  2. First, the Lydia Davis preface is excellent. Recommended to anyone interested in Stendhal, whether or not they want to read Henry Brulard. Unfortunately it's not available at the NYRB website.

    Second, I'll definitely get to your interview.

    Third, the connection between Henry Brulard and Julien Sorel, I'm thinkning about it. I may not have much to say. Regardless, don't let a certain Experienced Reader know - he's forbidden this sort of thing.

  3. Mum's the word...not that they influence anything of course...