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The Charterhouse of Parma [Hardcover]

Stendhal , Robert A. Parker , Richard Howard
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Officer, diplomat, spy, journalist, and intermittent genius, Marie Henri Beyle employed more than 200 aliases in the course of his crowded career. His most famous moniker, however, was Stendhal, which he affixed to his greatest work, The Charterhouse of Parma. The author spent a mere seven weeks cranking out this marvel in 1838, setting the fictional equivalent of a land-speed record. To be honest, there are occasional signs of haste, during which he clearly bypassed le mot juste in favor of narrative zing. So what? Stendhal at his sloppiest is still wittier, and wiser about human behavior, than just about any writer you could name. No wonder so meticulous a stylist as Paul Valéry was happy to forgive his sins against French grammar: "We should never be finished with Stendhal. I can think of no greater praise than that."

The plot of The Charterhouse of Parma suggests a run-of-the-mill potboiler, complete with court intrigue, military derring-do, and more romance than you can shake a saber at. But Stendhal had an amazing, pre-Freudian grasp of psychology (at least the Gallic variant). More than most of his contemporaries, he understood the incessant jostling of love, sex, fear, and ambition, not to mention our endless capacity for self-deception. No wonder his hero, Fabrizio de Dongo, seems to know everything and nothing about himself. Even under fire at the Battle of Waterloo, the young Fabrizio has a tendency to lose himself in Napoleonic reverie:

Suddenly everyone galloped off. A few moments later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead, a ploughed field that seemed to be strangely in motion; the furrows were filled with water, and the wet ground that formed their crests was exploding into tiny black fragments flung three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed this odd effect as he passed; then his mind returned to daydreams of the Marshal's glory. He heard a sharp cry beside him: two hussars had fallen, riddled by bullets; and when he turned to look at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort.
The quote above, a famous one, captures something of Stendhal's headlong style. Until now, most English-speaking readers have experienced it via C.K. Scott-Moncrieff's superb 1925 translation. But now Richard Howard has modernized his predecessor's period touches, streamlined some of the fussier locutions, and generally given Stendhal his high-velocity due. The result is a timely version of a timeless masterpiece, which shouldn't need to be updated again until, oh, 2050. Crammed with life, lust, and verbal fireworks, The Charterhouse of Parma demonstrates the real truth of its creator's self-composed epitaph: "He lived. He wrote. He loved." --James Marcus

Review

"The Charterhouse of Parma has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation."
--Edmund White

"[A] superb new translation."
--Bernard Knox, The New York Review of Books

"An epic tale of war, love, sex, politics, and religion...an action-packed narrative."
--The New Yorker


From the Trade Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

"The Charterhouse of Parma has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation."
--Edmund White

"[A] superb new translation."
--Bernard Knox, The New York Review of Books

"An epic tale of war, love, sex, politics, and religion...an action-packed narrative."
--The New Yorker


From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

The Modern Library has played a significant role in American cultural life for the better part of a century. The series was founded in 1917 by the publishers Boni and Liveright and eight years later acquired by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer. It provided the foundation for their next publishing venture, Random House. The Modern Library has been a staple of the American book trade, providing readers with affordable hardbound editions of important works of literature and thought. For the Modern Library's seventy-fifth anniversary, Random House rede-signed the series, restoring as its emblem the running torchbearer created by Lucian Bernhard in 1925 and refurbishing jackets, bindings, and type, as well as inaugurating a new program of selecting titles. The Modern Library continues to provide the world's best books, at the best prices.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Milan in 1796

On May 15, 1796, General Bonaparte entered Milan at the head of that young army which had lately crossed the Lodi bridge and taught the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor. The miracles of valor and genius Italy had witnessed in a few months wakened a slumbering nation: just eight days before the French arrived, the Milanese still regarded them as no more than a band of brigands who habitually fled before the troops of His Imperial and Royal Majesty: at least so they were told three times a week by a little news-sheet the size of a man's hand, printed on dirty paper.

In the Middle Ages, republican Lombards had displayed a valor equal to that of the French, and were entitled to see their city utterly razed by the German emperors. Since they had become loyal subjects, their chief concern was to print sonnets on tiny pink taffeta handkerchiefs for the weddings of a young lady belonging to some rich or noble family. Two or three years after that great event in her life, the same young lady would take a cavaliere servente: sometimes the name of the cicisbeo chosen by the husband's family occupied an honorable place in the marriage contract. It was a far cry from such effeminate manners to the deep emotions produced by the French army's unexpected arrival. Soon new and impassioned standards of behavior were observed. On May 15, 1796, a whole nation realized that whatever it had hitherto respected was sovereignly absurd and on occasion odious. The departure of the last Austrian regiment marked the fall of the old ideas: risking one's life became fashionable; happiness depended, after centuries of insipidity, upon loving one's country with a passion, upon seeking out heroic actions to perform. People had been plunged into darkness by the persistence of the jealous despotism of Charles V and Philip II; they pulled down their statues and were forthwith flooded with light. For the last fifty years, even as the Encyclopédie and Voltaire were exploding in France, the monks had adjured the good people of Milan that learning to read, or learning anything at all, was a worthless effort, and that by promptly paying one's tithe to the curé and by offering him a faithful account of all one's petty sins, a fine place in paradise was virtually assured. To complete the enfeeblement of this people once so argumentative and so bold, Austria had sold them cheap the privilege of not supplying recruits to her army.

In 1796 the Milanese army consisted of twenty-four wretches in red uniforms who guarded the city with the help of four magnificent regiments of Hungarian grenadiers. Moral freedom was extreme, but passion extremely rare; moreover, aside from the nuisance of having to tell one's curé everything (or be ruined even in this world), the good people of Milan were still subject to certain minor monarchical restrictions which continued to vex them. For instance the Archduke, who resided in Milan and governed in the name of his cousin the Emperor, had conceived the lucrative notion of speculating in wheat. Consequently, no peasant could sell his crop until His Highness's granaries were full.

In May 1796, three days after the entry of the French, a young miniaturist named Gros, slightly mad and subsequently famous, arrived with the army and overheard talk in the great Caffè dei Servi (fashionable at the time) of the exploits of the Archduke, who happened to be extremely fat. Snatching up the list of ices stamped on a sheet of coarse yellow paper, he drew on the back a French soldier thrusting his bayonet into the obese Archduke's belly: instead of blood out poured an incredible quantity of grain. The idea of caricature or cartoon was unknown in this nation of wary despotism. The sketch Gros had left on the table of the Caffé dei Servi seemed a miracle from Heaven; it was printed overnight, and twenty thousand copies were sold the next day.

That same day, notices were posted of a war-tax of six million levied for the needs of the French army, which, having just won six battles and conquered twenty provinces, lacked only shoes, jackets, caps, and trousers.

So much pleasure and happiness poured into Lombardy with these Frenchmen, however ill-dressed, that only the priests and certain noblemen remarked this burden of six million, soon followed by many others. These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; most were not yet twenty-five, and at twenty-eight 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 head; to which end, each regiment marched with a guillotine in its front ranks.

Throughout the countryside French soldiers could be seen dandling babies at farmhouse doors, and almost every evening some drummer scraping his fiddle would improvise a ball. Since French contredanses were far too intricate for the soldiers, who scarcely knew them themselves, to teach the local girls, it was the latter who showed the young Frenchmen the monferrina, the saltarello, and other Italian dances.

The officers had been billeted on the rich as often as possible; they were in great need of recuperation. For instance, a certain Lieutenant Robert was assigned to the Marchesa del Dongo's palace, which this unscrupulous young conscript entered with one scudo (worth six francs) as his sole wealth, having just received his pay at Piacenza. After crossing the Lodi bridge, he had stripped a handsome Austrian officer killed by a cannonball of a magnificent pair of brand-new nankeen trousers, and never had a garment been so timely. His officer's epaulettes were of wool, and the ragged fabric of his jacket was patched with the lining from its sleeves to hold the pieces together; sadder still, the soles of his shoes consisted of scraps of visors, similarly gleaned from the battlefield the other side of Lodi bridge. These extempore soles were quite visibly tied to the uppers of his shoes with bits of string, so that when the major-domo appeared in Lieutenant Robert's bedroom to invite him to dine with the Signora Marchesa, the officer was mortally embarrassed. He and his orderly spent the two hours until this fatal dinner attempting to patch the jacket and to conceal the lamentable pieces of string with black ink. At last the dreadful moment arrived. "I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life," Lieutenant Robert told me; "the ladies expected me to terrify them, and I was trembling much more than they. I glanced at my shoes and could not imagine how to walk gracefully. The Marchesa del Dongo," he added, "was then in the prime of her beauty: you have seen her yourself--those fine eyes of an angelic sweetness, that lovely dark-blond hair which so perfectly framed the oval of her charming face. In my bedroom hung a Salomé after da Vinci which seemed her portrait. Thank God I was so overcome by this divine beauty that I forgot how I was dressed. For two years I had seen nothing but ugliness and misery in the mountains around Genoa: I ventured to mention my rapture to her.

"But I had too much sense to waste my time on compliments. Even as I was turning my phrases, I noticed that the marble dining-hall was filled with lackeys and footmen dressed in what then seemed to me the height of magnificence. You realize, these wretches wore not only fine shoes, but silver buckles! Out of the corner of my eye I saw them all staring stupidly at my jacket, and perhaps at my shoes as well, which stabbed me to the heart. I might have terrorized every one of them with a word, but how to put them in their place without running the risk of alarming the ladies? For the Marchesa, to bolster her own courage (as she has told me a hundred times since), had summoned from the convent, where she was still at boarding-school, her husband's sister Gina del Dongo, who was later to become the charming Countess of Pietranera: in good times no one surpassed her in gaiety and sweetness of temper, just as no one surpassed her in courage and serenity of soul in adversity.

"Gina, who might have then been thirteen though she looked eighteen, vivacious and frank as you know her to be, was so afraid of bursting into laughter at the sight of my outfit that she dared not eat; the Marchesa, on the contrary, overwhelmed me with reserved attentions, having recognized hints of impatience in my expression. In a word, I cut a foolish figure as I swallowed my ration of scorn, a thing said to be impossible for a Frenchman. At last I was inspired by a Heaven-sent idea; I began describing my wretchedness to these ladies, and all we had suffered the last two years in the mountains around Genoa where we had been stationed by imbecilic old generals. There, I remarked, we were paid by promissory notes which had no currency in the region, and three ounces of bread a day. I had not spoken two minutes before the Marchesa had tears in her eyes, and Gina had become serious.

"`What, Signor Lieutenant,' she exclaimed, `three ounces of bread!'

"`Yes, Signorina; but even so the supply failed three rimes a week, and since the peasants we were billeted on were even poorer than ourselves, we gave some of our bread to them.'

"Leaving the table, I offered the Marchesa my arm as far as the dining-hall door, then, swiftly retracing my steps, I gave the lackey who had served me that single scudo on whose expenditure I had built so many castles in Spain.

"Eight days later," Lieutenant Robert continued, "when it was widely acknowledged that the French were guillotining no one, the Marchese del Dongo returned from Grianta, his castle on Lake Como, where he had valiantly taken refuge at the French army's approach, abandoning his sister and his lovely young wife to the chances of war. The Marchese's hatred of us was equal to his fear, which is to say,...
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