Books and Characters, by Lytton Strachey

Henri Beyle

In the whole of French literature it would be difficult to point to a figure at once so important, so remarkable, and so little known to English readers as Henri Beyle. Most of us are, no doubt, fairly familiar with his pseudonym of ‘Stendhal’; some of us have read Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme; but how many of us have any further knowledge of a man whose works are at the present moment appearing in Paris in all the pomp of an elaborate and complete edition, every scrap of whose manuscripts is being collected and deciphered with enthusiastic care, and in honour of whose genius the literary periodicals of the hour are filling entire numbers with exegesis and appreciation? The eminent critic, M. André Gide, when asked lately to name the novel which stands in his opinion first among the novels of France, declared that since, without a doubt, the place belongs to one or other of the novels of Stendhal, his only difficulty was in making his choice among these; and he finally decided upon La Chartreuse de Parme. According to this high authority, Henri Beyle was indisputably the creator of the greatest work of fiction in the French language, yet on this side of the Channel we have hardly more than heard of him! Nor is it merely as a writer that Beyle is admired in France. As a man, he seems to have come in, sixty or seventy years after his death, for a singular devotion. There are ‘Beylistes,’ or ‘Stendhaliens,’ who dwell with rapture upon every detail of the master’s private life, who extend with pious care the long catalogue of his amorous adventures, who discuss the shades of his character with the warmth of personal friendship, and register his opinions with a zeal which is hardly less than sectarian. But indeed it is precisely in these extremes of his French devotees that we shall find a clue to the explanation of our own indifference. Beyle’s mind contained, in a highly exaggerated form, most of the peculiarly distinctive elements of the French character. This does not mean that he was a typical Frenchman; far from it. He did not, like Voltaire or Hugo, strike a note to which the whole national genius vibrated in response. He has never been, it is unlikely that he ever will be, a popular writer. His literary reputation in France has been confined, until perhaps quite lately, to a small distinguished circle. ‘On me lira,’ he was fond of saying, ‘vers 1880’; and the ‘Beylistes’ point to the remark in triumph as one further proof of the almost divine prescience of the great man. But in truth Beyle was always read by the élite of French critics and writers —‘the happy few,’ as he used to call them; and among these he has never been without enthusiastic admirers. During his lifetime Balzac, in an enormous eulogy of La Chartreuse de Parme, paid him one of the most magnificent compliments ever received by a man of letters from a fellow craftsman. In the next generation Taine declared himself his disciple; a little later —‘vers 1880,’ in fact — we find Zola describing him as ‘notre père à tous,’ and M. Bourget followed with elaborate incense. To-day we have writers of such different tendencies as M. Barrès and M. Gide acclaiming him as a supreme master, and the fashionable idolatry of the ‘Beylistes.’ Yet, at the same time, running parallel to this stream of homage, it is easy to trace a line of opinion of a totally different kind. It is the opinion of the more solid, the more middle-class elements of French life. Thus Sainte–Beuve, in two characteristic ‘Lundis,’ poured a great deal of very tepid water upon Balzac’s flaming panegyric. Then Flaubert —‘vers 1880,’ too — confessed that he could see very little in Stendhal. And, only a few years ago, M. Chuquet, of the Institute, took the trouble to compose a thick book in which he has collected with scrupulous detail all the known facts concerning the life and writings of a man whom he forthwith proceeds to damn through five hundred pages of faint praise. These discrepancies are curious: how can we account for such odd differences of taste? How are we to reconcile the admiration of Balzac with the dislike of Flaubert, the raptures of M. Bourget and M. Barrès with the sniffs of Sainte–Beuve and M. Chuquet of the Institute? The explanation seems to be that Beyle occupies a position in France analogous to that of Shelley in England. Shelley is not a national hero, not because he lacked the distinctive qualities of an Englishman, but for the opposite reason — because he possessed so many of them in an extreme degree. The idealism, the daring, the imagination, and the unconventionality which give Shakespeare, Nelson, and Dr. Johnson their place in our pantheon — all these were Shelley’s, but they were his in too undiluted and intense a form, with the result that, while he will never fail of worshippers among us, there will also always be Englishmen unable to appreciate him at all. Such, mutatis mutandis— and in this case the proviso is a very large one — is the position of Beyle in France. After all, when Bunthorne asked for a not-too-French French bean he showed more commonsense than he intended. Beyle is a too-French French writer — too French even for the bulk of his own compatriots; and so for us it is only natural that he should be a little difficult. Yet this very fact is in itself no bad reason for giving him some attention. An understanding of this very Gallic individual might give us a new insight into the whole strange race. And besides, the curious creature is worth looking at for his own sake too.

But, when one tries to catch him and pin him down on the dissecting-table, he turns out to be exasperatingly elusive. Even his most fervent admirers cannot agree among themselves as to the true nature of his achievements. Balzac thought of him as an artist, Taine was captivated by his conception of history, M. Bourget adores him as a psychologist, M. Barrès lays stress upon his ‘sentiment d’honneur,’ and the ‘Beylistes’ see in him the embodiment of modernity. Certainly very few writers have had the good fortune to appeal at once so constantly and in so varied a manner to succeeding generations as Henri Beyle. The circumstances of his life no doubt in part account for the complexity of his genius. He was born in 1783, when the ancien régime was still in full swing; his early manhood was spent in the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars; he lived to see the Bourbon reaction, the Romantic revival, the revolution of 1830, and the establishment of Louis Philippe; and when he died, at the age of sixty, the nineteenth century was nearly half-way through. Thus his life exactly spans the interval between the old world and the new. His family, which belonged to the magistracy of Grenoble, preserved the living tradition of the eighteenth century. His grandfather was a polite, amiable, periwigged sceptic after the manner of Fontenelle, who always spoke of ‘M. de Voltaire’ with a smile ‘mélangé de respect et d’affection’; and when the Terror came, two representatives of the people were sent down to Grenoble, with the result that Beyle’s father was pronounced (with a hundred and fifty others) ‘notoirement suspect’ of disaffection to the Republic, and confined to his house. At the age of sixteen Beyle arrived in Paris, just after the coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire had made Bonaparte First Consul, and he immediately came under the influence of his cousin Daru, that extraordinary man to whose terrific energies was due the organisation of Napoleon’s greatest armies, and whose leisure moments — for apparently he had leisure moments — were devoted to the composition of idylls in the style of Tibullus and to an enormous correspondence on literary topics with the poetasters of the day. It was as a subordinate to this remarkable personage that Beyle spent nearly the whole of the next fifteen years of his life — in Paris, in Italy, in Germany, in Russia — wherever the whirling tempest of the Napoleonic policy might happen to carry him. His actual military experience was considerably slighter than what, in after years, he liked to give his friends to understand it had been. For hardly more than a year, during the Italian campaign, he was in the army as a lieutenant of dragoons: the rest of his public service was spent in the commissariat department. The descriptions which he afterwards delighted to give of his adventures at Marengo, at Jéna, at Wagram, or at the crossing of the Niémen have been shown by M. Chuquet’s unkind researches to have been imaginary. Beyle was present at only one great battle — Bautzen. ‘Nous voyons fort bien,’ he wrote in his journal on the following day, ‘de midi à trois heures, tout ce qu’on peut voir d’une bataille, c’est à dire rien.’ He was, however, at Moscow in 1812, and he accompanied the army through the horrors of the retreat. When the conflagration had broken out in the city he had abstracted from one of the deserted palaces a finely bound copy of the Facéties of Voltaire; the book helped to divert his mind as he lay crouched by the campfire through the terrible nights that followed; but, as his companions showed their disapproval of anyone who could smile over Akakia and Pompignan in such a situation, one day he left the red-morocco volume behind him in the snow.

The fall of Napoleon threw Beyle out of employment, and the period of his literary activity began. His books were not successful; his fortune gradually dwindled; and he drifted in Paris and Italy, and even in England, more and more disconsolately, with thoughts of suicide sometimes in his head. But in 1830 the tide of his fortunes turned. The revolution of July, by putting his friends into power, brought him a competence in the shape of an Italian consulate; and in the same year he gained for the first time some celebrity by the publication of Le Rouge et Le Noir. The rest of his life was spent in the easy discharge of his official duties at Civita Vecchia, alternating with periods of leave — one of them lasted for three years — spent in Paris among his friends, of whom the most distinguished was Prosper Mérimée. In 1839 appeared his last published work —La Chartreuse de Parme; and three years later he died suddenly in Paris. His epitaph, composed by himself with the utmost care, was as follows:

QUI GIACE ARRIGO BEYLE MILANESE VISSE, SCRISSE, AMO.

The words, read rightly, indicate many things — his adoration of Italy and Milan, his eccentricity, his scorn of the conventions of society and the limits of nationality, his adventurous life, his devotion to literature, and, lastly, the fact that, through all the varieties of his experience — in the earliest years of his childhood, in his agitated manhood, in his calm old age — there had never been a moment when he was not in love.

Beyle’s work falls into two distinct groups — the first consisting of his novels, and the second of his miscellaneous writings, which include several biographies, a dissertation on Love, some books of criticism and travel, his letters and various autobiographical fragments. The bulk of the latter group is large; much of it has only lately seen the light; and more of it, at present in MS. at the library of Grenoble, is promised us by the indefatigable editors of the new complete edition which is now appearing in Paris. The interest of this portion of Beyle’s writings is almost entirely personal: that of his novels is mainly artistic. It was as a novelist that Beyle first gained his celebrity, and it is still as a novelist — or rather as the author of Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme (for an earlier work, Armance, some short stories, and some later posthumous fragments may be left out of account)— that he is most widely known to-day. These two remarkable works lose none of their significance if we consider the time at which they were composed. It was in the full flood of the Romantic revival, that marvellous hour in the history of French literature when the tyranny of two centuries was shattered for ever, and a boundless wealth of inspirations, possibilities, and beauties before undreamt-of suddenly burst upon the view. It was the hour of Hugo, Vigny, Musset, Gautier, Balzac, with their new sonorities and golden cadences, their new lyric passion and dramatic stress, their new virtuosities, their new impulse towards the strange and the magnificent, their new desire for diversity and the manifold comprehension of life. But, if we turn to the contemporaneous pages of Stendhal, what do we find? We find a succession of colourless, unemphatic sentences; we find cold reasoning and exact narrative; we find polite irony and dry wit. The spirit of the eighteenth century is everywhere; and if the old gentleman with the perruque and the ‘M. de Voltaire’ could have taken a glance at his grandson’s novels, he would have rapped his snuff-box and approved. It is true that Beyle joined the ranks of the Romantics for a moment with a brochure attacking Racine at the expense of Shakespeare; but this was merely one of those contradictory changes of front which were inherent in his nature; and in reality the whole Romantic movement meant nothing to him. There is a story of a meeting in the house of a common friend between him and Hugo, in which the two men faced each other like a couple of cats with their backs up and their whiskers bristling. No wonder! But Beyle’s true attitude towards his great contemporaries was hardly even one of hostility: he simply could not open their books. As for Chateaubriand, the god of their idolatry, he loathed him like poison. He used to describe how, in his youth, he had been on the point of fighting a duel with an officer who had ventured to maintain that a phrase in Atala—‘la cime indéterminée des forêts’— was not intolerable. Probably he was romancing (M. Chuquet says so); but at any rate the story sums up symbolically Beyle’s attitude towards his art. To him the whole apparatus of ‘fine writing’— the emphatic phrase, the picturesque epithet, the rounded rhythm — was anathema. The charm that such ornaments might bring was in reality only a cloak for loose thinking and feeble observation. Even the style of the eighteenth century was not quite his ideal; it was too elegant; there was an artificial neatness about the form which imposed itself upon the substance, and degraded it. No, there was only one example of the perfect style, and that was the Code Napoléon; for there alone everything was subordinated to the exact and complete expression of what was to be said. A statement of law can have no place for irrelevant beauties, or the vagueness of personal feeling; by its very nature, it must resemble a sheet of plate glass through which every object may be seen with absolute distinctness, in its true shape. Beyle declared that he was in the habit of reading several paragraphs of the Code every morning after breakfast ‘pour prendre le ton.’ This again was for long supposed to be one of his little jokes; but quite lately the searchers among the MSS. at Grenoble have discovered page after page copied out from the Code in Beyle’s handwriting. No doubt, for that wayward lover of paradoxes, the real joke lay in everybody taking for a joke what he took quite seriously.

This attempt to reach the exactitude and the detachment of an official document was not limited to Beyle’s style; it runs through the whole tissue of his work. He wished to present life dispassionately and intellectually, and if he could have reduced his novels to a series of mathematical symbols, he would have been charmed. The contrast between his method and that of Balzac is remarkable. That wonderful art of materialisation, of the sensuous evocation of the forms, the qualities, the very stuff and substance of things, which was perhaps Balzac’s greatest discovery, Beyle neither possessed nor wished to possess. Such matters were to him of the most subordinate importance, which it was no small part of the novelist’s duty to keep very severely in their place. In the earlier chapters of Le Rouge et Le Noir, for instance, he is concerned with almost the same subject as Balzac in the opening of Les Illusions Perdues— the position of a young man in a provincial town, brought suddenly from the humblest surroundings into the midst of the leading society of the place through his intimate relations with a woman of refinement. But while in Balzac’s pages what emerges is the concrete vision of provincial life down to the last pimple on the nose of the lowest footman, Beyle concentrates his whole attention on the personal problem, hints in a few rapid strokes at what Balzac has spent all his genius in describing, and reveals to us instead, with the precision of a surgeon at an operation, the inmost fibres of his hero’s mind. In fact, Beyle’s method is the classical method — the method of selection, of omission, of unification, with the object of creating a central impression of supreme reality. Zola criticises him for disregarding ‘le milieu.’

Il y a [he says] un épisode célèbre dans ‘Le Rouge et Le Noir,’ la scène où Julien, assis un soir à côté de Mme. de Rénal, sous les branches noires d’un arbre, se fait un devoir de lui prendre la main, pendant qu’elle cause avec Mme. Derville. C’est un petit drame muet d’une grande puissance, et Stendhal y a analysé merveilleusement les états d’âme de ses deux personnages. Or, le milieu n’apparaît pas une seule fois. Nous pourrions être n’importe où dans n’importe quelles conditions, la scène resterait la même pourvu qu’il fit noir . . . Donnez l’épisode à un écrivain pour qui les milieux existent, et dans la défaite de cette femme, il fera entrer la nuit, avec ses odeurs, avec ses voix, avec ses voluptés molles. Et cet écrivain sera dans la vérité, son tableau sera plus complet.

More complete, perhaps; but would it be more convincing? Zola, with his statistical conception of art, could not understand that you could tell a story properly unless you described in detail every contingent fact. He could not see that Beyle was able, by simply using the symbol ‘nuit,’ to suggest the ‘milieu’ at once to the reader’s imagination. Everybody knows all about the night’s accessories —‘ses odeurs, ses voix, ses voluptés molles’; and what a relief it is to be spared, for once in a way, an elaborate expatiation upon them! And Beyle is perpetually evoking the gratitude of his readers in this way. ‘Comme il insiste peu!’ as M. Gide exclaims. Perhaps the best test of a man’s intelligence is his capacity for making a summary. Beyle knew this, and his novels are full of passages which read like nothing so much as extraordinarily able summaries of some enormous original narrative which has been lost.

It was not that he was lacking in observation, that he had no eye for detail, or no power of expressing it; on the contrary, his vision was of the sharpest, and his pen could call up pictorial images of startling vividness, when he wished. But he very rarely did wish: it was apt to involve a tiresome insistence. In his narratives he is like a brilliant talker in a sympathetic circle, skimming swiftly from point to point, taking for granted the intelligence of his audience, not afraid here and there to throw out a vague ‘etc.’ when the rest of the sentence is too obvious to state; always plain of speech, never self-assertive, and taking care above all things never to force the note. His famous description of the Battle of Waterloo in La Chartreuse de Parme is certainly the finest example of this side of his art. Here he produces an indelible impression by a series of light touches applied with unerring skill. Unlike Zola, unlike Tolstoi, he shows us neither the loathsomeness nor the devastation of a battlefield, but its insignificance, its irrelevant detail, its unmeaning grotesquenesses and indignities, its incoherence, and its empty weariness. Remembering his own experience at Bautzen, he has made his hero — a young Italian impelled by Napoleonic enthusiasm to join the French army as a volunteer on the eve of the battle — go through the great day in such a state of vague perplexity that in the end he can never feel quite certain that he really was at Waterloo. He experiences a succession of trivial and unpleasant incidents, culminating in his being hoisted off his horse by two of his comrades, in order that a general, who has had his own shot from under him, might be supplied with a mount; for the rest, he crosses and recrosses some fields, comes upon a dead body in a ditch, drinks brandy with a vivandière, gallops over a field covered with dying men, has an indefinite skirmish in a wood — and it is over. At one moment, having joined the escort of some generals, the young man allows his horse to splash into a stream, thereby covering one of the generals with muddy water from head to foot. The passage that follows is a good specimen of Beyle’s narrative style:

En arrivant sur l’autre rive, Fabrice y avait trouvé les généraux tout seuls; le bruit du canon lui sembla redoubler; ce fut à peine s’il entendit le général, par lui si bien mouillé, qui criait à son oreille:

Où as-tu pris ce cheval?

Fabrice était tellement troublé, qu’il répondit en Italien: l’ho comprato poco fa. (Je viens de l’acheter à l’instant.)

Que dis-tu? lui cria le général.

Mais le tapage devint tellement fort en ce moment, que Fabrice ne put lui répondre. Nous avouerons que notre héros était fort peu héros en ce moment. Toutefois, la peur ne venait chez lui qu’en seconde ligne; il était surtout scandalisé de ce bruit qui lui faisait mal aux oreilles. L’escorte prit le galop; on traversait une grande pièce de terre labourée, située au delà du canal, et ce champ était jonché de cadavres.

How unemphatic it all is! What a paucity of epithet, what a reticence in explanation! How a Romantic would have lingered over the facial expression of the general, and how a Naturalist would have analysed that ‘tapage’! And yet, with all their efforts, would they have succeeded in conveying that singular impression of disturbance, of cross-purposes, of hurry, and of ill-defined fear, which Beyle with his quiet terseness has produced?

It is, however, in his psychological studies that the detached and intellectual nature of Beyle’s method is most clearly seen. When he is describing, for instance, the development of Julien Sorel’s mind in Le Rouge et Le Noir, when he shows us the soul of the young peasant with its ignorance, its ambition, its pride, going step by step into the whirling vortex of life — then we seem to be witnessing not so much the presentment of a fiction as the unfolding of some scientific fact. The procedure is almost mathematical: a proposition is established, the inference is drawn, the next proposition follows, and so on until the demonstration is complete. Here the influence of the eighteenth century is very strongly marked. Beyle had drunk deeply of that fountain of syllogism and analysis that flows through the now forgotten pages of Helvétius and Condillac; he was an ardent votary of logic in its austerest form —‘la lo-gique’ he used to call it, dividing the syllables in a kind of awe-inspired emphasis; and he considered the ratiocinative style of Montesquieu almost as good as that of the Code Civil.

If this had been all, if we could sum him up simply as an acute and brilliant writer who displays the scientific and prosaic sides of the French genius in an extreme degree, Beyle’s position in literature would present very little difficulty. He would take his place at once as a late — an abnormally late — product of the eighteenth century. But he was not that. In his blood there was a virus which had never tingled in the veins of Voltaire. It was the virus of modern life — that new sensibility, that new passionateness, which Rousseau had first made known to the world, and which had won its way over Europe behind the thunder of Napoleon’s artillery. Beyle had passed his youth within earshot of that mighty roar, and his inmost spirit could never lose the echo of it. It was in vain that he studied Condillac and modelled his style on the Code; in vain that he sang the praises of la lo-gique, shrugged his shoulders at the Romantics, and turned the cold eye of a scientific investigator upon the phenomena of life; he remained essentially a man of feeling. His unending series of grandes passions was one unmistakable sign of this; another was his intense devotion to the Fine Arts. Though his taste in music and painting was the taste of his time — the literary and sentimental taste of the age of Rossini and Canova — he nevertheless brought to the appreciation of works of art a kind of intimate gusto which reveals the genuineness of his emotion. The ‘jouissances d’ange,’ with which at his first entrance into Italy he heard at Novara the Matrimonio Segreto of Cimarosa, marked an epoch in his life. He adored Mozart: ‘I can imagine nothing more distasteful to me,’ he said, ‘than a thirty-mile walk through the mud; but I would take one at this moment if I knew that I should hear a good performance of Don Giovanni at the end of it.’ The Virgins of Guido Reni sent him into ecstasies and the Goddesses of Correggio into raptures. In short, as he himself admitted, he never could resist ‘le Beau’ in whatever form he found it. Le Beau! The phrase is characteristic of the peculiar species of ingenuous sensibility which so oddly agitated this sceptical man of the world. His whole vision of life was coloured by it. His sense of values was impregnated with what he called his ‘espagnolisme’— his immense admiration for the noble and the high-sounding in speech or act or character — an admiration which landed him often enough in hysterics and absurdity. Yet this was the soil in which a temperament of caustic reasonableness had somehow implanted itself. The contrast is surprising, because it is so extreme. Other men have been by turns sensible and enthusiastic: but who before or since has combined the emotionalism of a schoolgirl with the cold penetration of a judge on the bench? Beyle, for instance, was capable of writing, in one of those queer epitaphs of himself which he was constantly composing, the high-falutin’ words ‘Il respecta un seul homme: Napoléon’; and yet, as he wrote them, he must have remembered well enough that when he met Napoleon face to face his unabashed scrutiny had detected swiftly that the man was a play-actor, and a vulgar one at that. Such were the contradictions of his double nature, in which the elements, instead of being mixed, came together, as it were, in layers, like superimposed strata of chalk and flint.

In his novels this cohabitation of opposites is responsible both for what is best and what is worst. When the two forces work in unison the result is sometimes of extraordinary value — a product of a kind which it would be difficult to parallel in any other author. An eye of icy gaze is turned upon the tumultuous secrets of passion, and the pangs of love are recorded in the language of Euclid. The image of the surgeon inevitably suggests itself — the hand with the iron nerve and the swift knife laying bare the trembling mysteries within. It is the intensity of Beyle’s observation, joined with such an exactitude of exposition, that makes his dry pages sometimes more thrilling than the wildest tale of adventure or all the marvels of high romance. The passage in La Chartreuse de Parme describing Count Mosca’s jealousy has this quality, which appears even more clearly in the chapters of Le Rouge et Le Noir concerning Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole. Here Beyle has a subject after his own heart. The loves of the peasant youth and the aristocratic girl, traversed and agitated by their overweening pride, and triumphing at last rather over themselves than over each other — these things make up a gladiatorial combat of ‘espagnolismes,’ which is displayed to the reader with a supreme incisiveness. The climax is reached when Mathilde at last gives way to her passion, and throws herself into the arms of Julien, who forces himself to make no response:

Ses bras se roidirent, tant l’effort imposé par la politique était pénible. Je ne dois pas même me permettre de presser contre mon coeur ce corps souple et charmant; ou elle me méprise, ou elle me maltraite. Quel affreux caractère!

Et en maudissant le caractère de Mathilde, il l’en aimait cent fois plus; il lui semblait avoir dans ses bras une reine.

L’impassible froideur de Julien redoubla le malheur de Mademoiselle de la Mole. Elle était loin d’avoir le sang-froid nécessaire pour chercher à deviner dans ses yeux ce qu’il sentait pour elle en cet instant. Elle ne put se résoudre à le regarder; elle tremblait de rencontrer l’expression du mépris.

Assise sur le divan de la bibliothèque, immobile et la tête tournée du côté opposé à Julien, elle était en proie aux plus vives douleurs que l’orgueil et l’amour puissent faire éprouver à une âme humaine. Dans quelle atroce démarche elle venait de tomber!

Il m’était réservé, malheureuse que je suis! de voir repoussées les avances les plus indécentes! Et repoussées par qui? ajoutait l’orgueil fou de douleur, repoussées par un domestique de mon père.

C’est ce que je ne souffrirai pas, dit-elle à haute voix.

At that moment she suddenly sees some unopened letters addressed to Julien by another woman.

— Ainsi, s’écria-t-elle hors d’elle-même, non seulement vous êtes bien avec elle, mais encore vous la méprisez. Vous, un homme de rien, mépriser Madame la Maréchale de Fervaques!

— Ah! pardon, mon ami, ajouta-t-elle en se jetant à ses genoux, méprise-moi si tu veux, mais aime-moi, je ne puis plus vivre privée de ton amour. Et elle tomba tout à fait évanouie.

— La voilà donc, cette orgueilleuse, à mes pieds! se dit Julien.

Such is the opening of this wonderful scene, which contains the concentrated essence of Beyle’s genius, and which, in its combination of high passion, intellectual intensity, and dramatic force, may claim comparison with the great dialogues of Corneille.

‘Je fais tous les efforts possibles pour être sec,’ he says of himself. ‘Je veux imposer silence à mon coeur, qui croit avoir beaucoup à dire. Je tremble toujours de n’avoir écrit qu’un soupir, quand je crois avoir noté une vérité.’ Often he succeeds, but not always. At times his desire for dryness becomes a mannerism and fills whole pages with tedious and obscure argumentation. And, at other times, his sensibility gets the upper hand, throws off all control, and revels in an orgy of melodrama and ‘espagnolisme.’ Do what he will, he cannot keep up a consistently critical attitude towards the creatures of his imagination: he depreciates his heroes with extreme care, but in the end they get the better of him and sweep him off his feet. When, in La Chartreuse de Parme, Fabrice kills a man in a duel, his first action is to rush to a looking-glass to see whether his beauty has been injured by a cut in the face; and Beyle does not laugh at this; he is impressed by it. In the same book he lavishes all his art on the creation of the brilliant, worldly, sceptical Duchesse de Sanseverina, and then, not quite satisfied, he makes her concoct and carry out the murder of the reigning Prince in order to satisfy a desire for amorous revenge. This really makes her perfect. But the most striking example of Beyle’s inability to resist the temptation of sacrificing his head to his heart is in the conclusion of Le Rouge et Le Noir, where Julien, to be revenged on a former mistress who defames him, deliberately goes down into the country, buys a pistol, and shoots the lady in church. Not only is Beyle entranced by the bravura of this senseless piece of brutality, but he destroys at a blow the whole atmosphere of impartial observation which fills the rest of the book, lavishes upon his hero the blindest admiration, and at last, at the moment of Julien’s execution, even forgets himself so far as to write a sentence in the romantic style: ‘Jamais cette tête n’avait été aussi poétique qu’au moment où elle allait tomber.’ Just as Beyle, in his contrary mood, carries to an extreme the French love of logical precision, so in these rhapsodies he expresses in an exaggerated form a very different but an equally characteristic quality of his compatriots — their instinctive responsiveness to fine poses. It is a quality that Englishmen in particular find it hard to sympathise with. They remain stolidily unmoved when their neighbours are in ecstasies. They are repelled by the ‘noble’ rhetoric of the French Classical Drama; they find the tirades of Napoleon, which animated the armies of France to victory, pieces of nauseous clap-trap. And just now it is this side — to us the obviously weak side — of Beyle’s genius that seems to be most in favour with French critics. To judge from M. Barrès, writing dithyrambically of Beyle’s ‘sentiment d’honneur,’ that is his true claim to greatness. The sentiment of honour is all very well, one is inclined to mutter on this side of the Channel; but oh, for a little sentiment of humour too!

The view of Beyle’s personality which his novels give us may be seen with far greater detail in his miscellaneous writings. It is to these that his most modern admirers devote their main attention — particularly to his letters and his autobiographies; but they are all of them highly characteristic of their author, and — whatever the subject may be, from a guide to Rome to a life of Napoleon — one gathers in them, scattered up and down through their pages, a curious, dimly adumbrated philosophy — an ill-defined and yet intensely personal point of view —le Beylisme. It is in fact almost entirely in this secondary quality that their interest lies; their ostensible subject-matter is unimportant. An apparent exception is the book in which Beyle has embodied his reflections upon Love. The volume, with its meticulous apparatus of analysis, definition, and classification, which gives it the air of being a parody of L’Esprit des Lois, is yet full of originality, of lively anecdote and keen observation. Nobody but Beyle could have written it; nobody but Beyle could have managed to be at once so stimulating and so jejune, so clear-sighted and so exasperating. But here again, in reality, it is not the question at issue that is interesting — one learns more of the true nature of Love in one or two of La Bruyère’s short sentences than in all Beyle’s three hundred pages of disquisition; but what is absorbing is the sense that comes to one, as one reads it, of the presence, running through it all, of a restless and problematical spirit. ‘Le Beylisme’ is certainly not susceptible of any exact definition; its author was too capricious, too unmethodical, in spite of his lo-gique, ever to have framed a coherent philosophy; it is essentially a thing of shreds and patches, of hints, suggestions, and quick visions of flying thoughts. M. Barrès says that what lies at the bottom of it is a ‘passion de collectionner les belles énergies.’ But there are many kinds of ‘belles énergies,’ and some of them certainly do not fit into the framework of ‘le Beylisme.’ ‘Quand je suis arrêté par des voleurs, ou qu’on me tire des coups de fusil, je me sens une grande colère contre le gouvernement et le curé de l’endroit. Quand au voleur, il me plaît, s’il est énergique, car il m’amuse.’ It was the energy of self-assertiveness that pleased Beyle; that of self-restraint did not interest him. The immorality of the point of view is patent, and at times it appears to be simply based upon the common selfishness of an egotist. But in reality it was something more significant than that. The ‘chasse au bonheur’ which Beyle was always advocating was no respectable epicureanism; it had about it a touch of the fanatical. There was anarchy in it — a hatred of authority, an impatience with custom, above all a scorn for the commonplace dictates of ordinary morality. Writing his memoirs at the age of fifty-two, Beyle looked back with pride on the joy that he had felt, as a child of ten, amid his royalist family at Grenoble, when the news came of the execution of Louis XVI. His father announced it:

— C’en est fait, dit-il avec un gros soupir, ils l’ont assassiné.

Je fus saisi d’un des plus vifs mouvements de joie que j’ai éprouvé en ma vie. Le lecteur pensera peut-être que je suis cruel, mais tel j’étais à 5 X 2, tel je suis à 10 X 5 + 2 . . . Je puis dire que l’approbation des êtres, que je regarde comme faibles, m’est absolument indifférente.

These are the words of a born rebel, and such sentiments are constantly recurring in his books. He is always discharging his shafts against some established authority; and, of course, he reserved his bitterest hatred for the proudest and most insidious of all authorities — the Roman Catholic Church. It is odd to find some of the ‘Beylistes’ solemnly hailing the man whom the power of the Jesuits haunted like a nightmare, and whose account of the seminary in Le Rouge et Le Noir is one of the most scathing pictures of religious tyranny ever drawn, as a prophet of the present Catholic movement in France. For in truth, if Beyle was a prophet of anything he was a prophet of that spirit of revolt in modern thought which first reached a complete expression in the pages of Nietzsche. His love of power and self-will, his aristocratic outlook, his scorn of the Christian virtues, his admiration of the Italians of the Renaissance, his repudiation of the herd and the morality of the herd — these qualities, flashing strangely among his observations on Rossini and the Coliseum, his reflections on the memories of the past and his musings on the ladies of the present, certainly give a surprising foretaste of the fiery potion of Zarathustra. The creator of the Duchesse de Sanseverina had caught more than a glimpse of the transvaluation of all values. Characteristically enough, the appearance of this new potentiality was only observed by two contemporary forces in European society — Goethe and the Austrian police. It is clear that Goethe alone among the critics of the time understood that Beyle was something more than a novelist, and discerned an uncanny significance in his pages. ‘I do not like reading M. de Stendhal,’ he observed to Winckelmann, ‘but I cannot help doing so. He is extremely free and extremely impertinent, and . . . I recommend you to buy all his books.’ As for the Austrian police, they had no doubt about the matter. Beyle’s book of travel, Rome, Naples et Florence, was, they decided, pernicious and dangerous in the highest degree; and the poor man was hunted out of Milan in consequence.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Beyle displayed in his private life the qualities of the superman. Neither his virtues nor his vices were on the grand scale. In his own person he never seems to have committed an ‘espagnolisme.’ Perhaps his worst sin was that of plagiarism: his earliest book, a life of Haydn, was almost entirely ‘lifted’ from the work of a learned German; and in his next he embodied several choice extracts culled from the Edinburgh Review. On this occasion he was particularly delighted, since the Edinburgh, in reviewing the book, innocently selected for special approbation the very passages which he had stolen. It is singular that so original a writer should have descended to pilfering. But Beyle was nothing if not inconsistent. With all his Classicism he detested Racine; with all his love of music he could see nothing in Beethoven; he adored Italy, and, so soon as he was given his Italian consulate, he was usually to be found in Paris. As his life advanced he grew more and more wayward, capricious, and eccentric. He indulged in queer mystifications, covering his papers with false names and anagrams — for the police, he said, were on his track, and he must be careful. His love-affairs became less and less fortunate; but he was still sometimes successful, and when he was he registered the fact — upon his braces. He dreamed and drifted a great deal. He went up to San Pietro in Montorio, and looking over Rome, wrote the initials of his past mistresses in the dust. He tried to make up his mind whether Napoleon after all was the only being he respected; no — there was also Mademoiselle de Lespinasse. He went to the opera at Naples and noted that ‘la musique parfaite, comme la pantomime parfaite, me fait songer à ce qui forme actuellement l’objet de mes rêveries et me fait venir des idées excellentes: . . . or, ce soir, je ne puis me dissimuler que j’ai le malheur of being too great an admirer of Lady L. . . . ’ He abandoned himself to ‘les charmantes visions du Beau qui souvent encore remplissent ma tête à l’âge de fifty-two.’ He wondered whether Montesquieu would have thought his writings worthless. He sat scribbling his reminiscences by the fire till the night drew on and the fire went out, and still he scribbled, more and more illegibly, until at last the paper was covered with hieroglyphics undecipherable even by M. Chuquet himself. He wandered among the ruins of ancient Rome, playing to perfection the part of cicerone to such travellers as were lucky enough to fall in with him; and often his stout and jovial form, with the satyric look in the sharp eyes and the compressed lips, might be seen by the wayside in the Campagna, as he stood and jested with the reapers or the vine-dressers or with the girls coming out, as they had come since the days of Horace, to draw water from the fountains of Tivoli. In more cultivated society he was apt to be nervous; for his philosophy was never proof against the terror of being laughed at. But sometimes, late at night, when the surroundings were really sympathetic, he could be very happy among his friends. ‘Un salon de huit ou dix personnes,’ he said, ‘dont toutes les femmes ont eu des amants, où la conversation est gaie, anecdotique, et où l’on prend du punch léger à minuit et demie, est l’endroit du monde où je me trouve le mieux.’

And in such a Paradise of Frenchmen we may leave Henri Beyle.

1914

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31