The Charterhouse of Parma

I felt I had to read The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), but as a duty, an obligation; — I failed to foresee the abundance of pleasure and delight it would bring me, how fully I would be absorbed by this lovely, capacious, courtly romance that Stendhal (1783-1842) dictated — if you can believe it — in just fifty-two days in the fall of 1838. It is not dense, it is sprawling and magnificent though, an intrepid work with a bit of everything. Love and nobility of the soul are its two great themes, but it is also packed with action, architectural musings, political intrigue, psychological interiority, cruelty, wit and humour, and one fantastic escape. It is Stendhal’s last novel, and it was brought into the world seemingly fully-formed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will enlarge your heart and your soul, to say nothing of your attention. Fabrizio del Dongo is the book’s hero, a noble and naive young man, a prisoner and ecclesiastic, a fugitive lover, of whom his aunt rightly remarks, “If he hadn’t been so lovable, he would be dead”!

Richard Howard’s translation, published by the Modern Library in 1999, reads in a fluidly and flawlessly, and also includes an afterword by Howard; Honoré de Balzac’s 1840 review of the book; Stendhal’s letter to Balzac; and Daniel Mendelsohn’s 1999 review of Howard’s translation, which appeared initially in The New York Times Book Review. From these supporting documents I glean the following: Stendhal wrote to Balzac that, “Whilst writing the Chartreuse, in order to acquire the correct tone I read every morning two or three pages of the Civil Code.” – ! Also: Henri Beyle (Stendhal) used over 200 pseudonyms in his lifetime. (Certainly makes me feel like less of a nut for occasionally assuming an alias…)

Put this one on your reading lists.

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