Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stendhal - What patience you will require, oh my reader!

Today, the strange features of the memoir of the childhood of Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal. From one of the numerous title pages:

Life of Henry Brulard, written by himself. Novel of details, imitated from The Vicar of Wakefield. To Messieurs of the police. Nothing political in this novel. The scheme is a hothead of every kind who grows weary and slowly sees the light and ends by devoting himself to the cult of luxurious town-houses.” (p. xl)

Stendhal traveled a lot and worked in a French consular office in the Papal States, so the misdirection aimed at the police may have been in part utilitarian. Possibly. Mostly, it’s a gag. Not a true word in it. The cult of luxurious town-houses!

The drawings, Stendhal’s maps and diagrams and scrawls, are the memoir’s unique feature. The one above is typical, a luxurious town-house, the floorplan of one story of his grandfather’s house. Here’s part of the scribbling:

“Winding staircase – Large, cheerless courtyard – Magnificent inlaid chest-of-drawers surmounted by a clock: Mars offering France his arm; France wore a cloak decorated with fleur-des-lis, which later on caused great anxiety – Solitary window with panes of magnificent Bohemian glass. One of them, top left, was cracked and stayed that way for ten years.” (p. 113)

There's a drawing on, more or less, every third page. A lot of them are floorplans, sometimes repeated over and over with minor variations, often including a dot labeled "Moi". Sometimes Stendhal draws maps of Grenoble or the countryside, or gives us side views of a piece of terrain. There must be a dozen different versions of the city square in front of his grandfather's house, each with slightly different labels. There are almost no people, although the drawing of himself at the blackboard, a source of enormous trauma, from yesterday's post, is included four times. Once, Stendhal draws a tiny rat.

What are the drawings for? Stendahl insists that his memory is faulty, that he is remembering details of his past only as he writes them. He often admits that he is unsure of when an event took place, even his age at the time. He says he will look things up in the Genoble archives, like when he went to school(!). The drawings are stimulants to his memory, a way of trying to pin down the truth. This is why obsessively redraws parts of his grandfather's house - he wants not just the basic layout, which anyway he might have gotten wrong last time, but also where the furniture was, where people were sitting. Every scene is a little different.

The scene on the left is a unique one, a picnic with his relatives, an escape from his oppressive home. Here's what the handwriting says:
“From B to C slope of eight or ten feet on which all the ladies were sitting. They were laughing, drinking ratafia from Teisseire (Grenoble), there were no glasses, out of the lids of tortoiseshell snuff-boxes.” (p. 148)

And here's the narrative. Stendhal is "seven or eight":

“After my jealousy-inspired rebellion, I threw stones at these ladies from point A. The big Corbeau (an officer on six months’ leave) took me and set me in an apple or mulberry tree at M, at point O, between two branches from which I didn’t dare climb down. I jumped, I hurt myself, I ran off toward Z.” pp. 148-9

The detail about drinking out of snuff-box lids is worthy of Flaubert.

One more drawing, a famous one. The list of letters to the left are the initials of all Stendhal's lovers, in order. I think he slept with the numbered ones. "I pondered deeply on these names, and on the astonishing follies and stupidities they made me do (I say astonishing for me, not for the reader, and anyway, I don't repent of them)". The list is on p. 19 of the NYRB edition, but I've cheated here and reproduced p. 27 of W. G. Sebald's first novel, Vertigo. More on that later.

The quote in the title is from p. 23. Stendhal is right, his book requires patience. The Life of Henry Brulard has a number of tedious passages, and others that are barely comprehensible. Then some parts use a single detail or incident in a psychologically penetrating way, a little burst of insight. Much like his novels.

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