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Love Letters to Italy

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When André Gide was asked to name his favourite novel, he dithered over the merits of Stendhal’s works before plumping for The Charterhouse of Parma. Giuseppe di Lampedusa also hesitated, inclining towards Scarlet and Black before deciding that The Charterhouse was ‘the summit of all world fiction’. As a youth, I was puzzled by these judgements but relieved later to read Lampedusa’s view that ‘the summit’ had been ‘written by an old man for old people’ and that one had ‘to be over forty before one [could] understand it’.

Nevertheless, there was something about Stendhal’s spirit which suggested that even before I reached 40 I might appreciate some of his other books, particularly his travel writing and his autobiographies. The hunch proved to be accurate. His irrepressible nature, joyous, witty, bubbling and irreverent, sparkles throughout his delightful and impressionistic works of non-fiction. Indeed, he is so vividly and companionably alive that reading him in France and Italy used to give me the sense that he was with us on the road, gurgling with laughter as he mocked the vanity and foolishness of the human race.

In 1800 the young Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal’s real name) came over the Alps with a French army and within days encountered the three great passions of his life: music, love and Italy. One evening the 17-year-old youth saw Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto and was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘To live in Italy and hear such music’, he recalled in his autobiography, ‘became the basis of all my reasoning.’ When he was in Milan, the aspiring subaltern went to La Scala several times a week. Elsewhere in the Lombard capital he lost his virginity (and caught the clap), though in middle age he could not remember with whom. Perhaps he put this experience into the mouth of one of his characters, Lamiel, a girl from Normandy, who after her own sexual initiation asks, ‘Is that

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When André Gide was asked to name his favourite novel, he dithered over the merits of Stendhal’s works before plumping for The Charterhouse of Parma. Giuseppe di Lampedusa also hesitated, inclining towards Scarlet and Black before deciding that The Charterhouse was ‘the summit of all world fiction’. As a youth, I was puzzled by these judgements but relieved later to read Lampedusa’s view that ‘the summit’ had been ‘written by an old man for old people’ and that one had ‘to be over forty before one [could] understand it’.

Nevertheless, there was something about Stendhal’s spirit which suggested that even before I reached 40 I might appreciate some of his other books, particularly his travel writing and his autobiographies. The hunch proved to be accurate. His irrepressible nature, joyous, witty, bubbling and irreverent, sparkles throughout his delightful and impressionistic works of non-fiction. Indeed, he is so vividly and companionably alive that reading him in France and Italy used to give me the sense that he was with us on the road, gurgling with laughter as he mocked the vanity and foolishness of the human race. In 1800 the young Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal’s real name) came over the Alps with a French army and within days encountered the three great passions of his life: music, love and Italy. One evening the 17-year-old youth saw Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto and was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘To live in Italy and hear such music’, he recalled in his autobiography, ‘became the basis of all my reasoning.’ When he was in Milan, the aspiring subaltern went to La Scala several times a week. Elsewhere in the Lombard capital he lost his virginity (and caught the clap), though in middle age he could not remember with whom. Perhaps he put this experience into the mouth of one of his characters, Lamiel, a girl from Normandy, who after her own sexual initiation asks, ‘Is that all love amounts to?’ If that had also been Beyle’s reaction, it does not seem to have been one he experienced again. In Milan he became addicted to falling in love with difficult and sometimes unattainable women. Beyle spent Napoleon’s imperial years in the army, stationed in Brunswick and later serving on the quartermaster’s staff in the Russian campaign of 1812. He knew he was not a good soldier and admitted he had worn a sword all his life without knowing how to use it: ‘I have always been fat and quick to get out of breath,’ he explained; his sole tactic was to lunge. Throughout his military career, the soldier dreamed of Italy and of returning there as soon as possible. A print of Milan cathedral made him feel so nostalgic he could not bear to look at it; the smell of veal cutlets cooked in breadcrumbs alla milanese made his yearning still more desperate. The only epitaph he ever wanted was ‘Arrigo Beyle, milanese’. The future novelist was a lover of landscapes, which he likened to ‘a violin bow playing on [his] soul’, but his absence from Italy made him incapable of appreciating those he saw elsewhere. His reason told him that more beautiful scenery could be found near Dresden or around the Lake of Geneva, but his heart insisted that the Lombard landscape was superior. He was equally scathing about the French countryside, ‘the most unpleasant in the world’, though ‘noodles’ called it la belle France. In his moments of intermittent romanticism, he even condemned Paris for its lack of mountains and for having pruned trees in its gardens. After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the unemployed Beyle returned delightedly to Italy, where he lived for seven years, a period he described in his memoirs as ‘the flower of my life’. In a Milanese context he could again indulge his taste for music, which he described as his ‘strongest and most costly passion’, as well as his demands for love, which he simultaneously claimed was ‘the most important thing, or rather the only thing’. The ‘divine Cimarosa’ came first in his private pantheon alongside Mozart, whose loveliest operas have Italian librettos, followed by Paisiello and Rossini; he promised that he would spend days in prison or walk six leagues in the mud for the pleasure of seeing Don Giovanni. Yet although he wrote books about composers, he did not study music very closely: he loved it mainly because it put him in a mood for ‘tender reverie’. On his return to Milan, Beyle began an affair with Angela Pietragrua, with whom he had fallen in love more than a decade earlier. She was an outrageous tease – cruel, capricious and unfaithful – and seems to have deserved his description of her as ‘a sublime, Italian-style tart, like Lucrezia Borgia’. Beyle’s relationships with women were always passionate, sometimes unhappy, often frustrating and occasionally ridiculous. Self-conscious and self-deprecating by nature, he ascribed some of his amatory problems to personal defects such as occasional impotence – what he called le fiasco – and his physical lack of appeal: he had small eyes, frizzy hair and a podgy figure. On one bizarre occasion he travelled all the way to Volterra to see a virtuous lady who had ordered him not to come. Desperate to look at her without being recognized, he equipped himself with a pair of green spectacles but unfortunately removed them to talk to his innkeeper just as the lady walked past. Beyle liked to think that his mother, whom he adored and who died when he was 7, had had Italian ancestors. Yet he did not require bloodlines to convince himself that ‘my dear Italy’ was ‘my true country’ and ‘in harmony with my nature’. In the peninsula he succeeded in acquiring a second identity, one that was less cynical and more enthusiastic than the one he had left behind in Paris and Grenoble, his home town. French travellers were accustomed to despise Italy, especially the southern regions, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. One of Beyle’s contemporaries had announced that ‘Europe ends at Naples and ends there quite badly’. Another described an Italian journey as if he had been in a time machine going backwards: in Milan he felt he was in modern society, in Florence he was with the Medici, by the time he reached Rome he was in the Middle Ages, and in Naples he was back among the pagans. Beyle was quite different. He liked Italians, took them seriously and enjoyed comparing them favourably with his own countrymen. ‘The Tuscan peasant’, he declared in his book Rome, Naples and Florence (which is mainly about Milan and Bologna), was ‘infinitely more intelligent than his French equivalent’. Although he realized there was much wrong with contemporary Italy, he could not bring himself to be critical about the land even when he tried. The Charterhouse of Parma, apparently a novel about conspiracy, despotism and imprisonment, is really a love letter to Italy. Luigi Barzini, the politician and writer, once observed that, while thousands of foreigners had written books about Italy, ‘there was only one real authority, Stendhal’. Yet some Italians resented the French writer for his enthusiasms, for the way he adored what they detested, the Italy of love and music and hospitality, Italy the giant antique shop and innkeeper to the world, Italy the land of limitless ruins and the domicile of effete dilettanti. They were obsessed by the need to recover Italian dignity after the centuries of foreign domination and were convinced that this could only be achieved by a surge in masculinity and martial valour. Stendhal’s natural detractors were the kind of men who later became nationalists, futurists, colonialists and fascists. On his departure from Milan in 1821, Beyle’s Italian fortunes went downhill. For his travel books he had used the name Stendhal in the hope that the censors in Milan (which had been returned to Austria by the Congress of Vienna) would think of the Prussian town of Stendal (with no h), deduce that the author was a German and forgive his provocative opinions on liberalism, Napoleon and the Austrian Empire. The ploy failed. On arriving in Milan on the last day of 1827, he was quickly deported as a ‘dangerous alien’ who had ‘had the insolence to discourse in the most damnable manner against the Austrian government’. Another humiliation soon followed. Appointed in 1830 as France’s consul-general at Trieste, Austria’s chief port before 1918, he found himself declared persona non grata and was forced to leave. Dolefully, he accepted a lesser post at Civitavecchia, a lustreless port in the Papal States. Italy was good for the soul and the passions of Marie-Henri Beyle, but it was not good for the writing of the now infamous Stendhal. In the 1820s he had realized that he did like Paris after all and that it suited him to live and write in the city. The only three novels that he completed and published were written mainly or entirely in the French capital; it was there that in under two months he composed and dictated the whole of The Charterhouse, the book Balzac thought that Machiavelli would have written had he been a modern novelist. (This was a compliment.) Such haste was good for productivity but less so for style, which the author did not care about anyway. He read a few pages of Napoleon’s civil code early each morning which ensured that the style of his great Italian novel was plain and unromantic. Civitavecchia was inevitably a disappointment, ‘an abominable hole’ where, without music or company, he was ‘completely numbed by boredom’. He constantly grumbled about the tedium, loneliness and ‘perishing’ boredom of consular life; self-pityingly, he said he felt so cut off he might be living in Borneo. Yet he contrived to spend barely half the year at his post. He was sometimes on leave in France, he was often skiving in Rome, enjoying dinners and dances, and he visited Florence and Siena whenever he could to see Giulia Rinieri, who turned down his offer of marriage yet became, as a married woman, his mistress for many years. Stendhal was often silly. He disliked flowers, thought Goethe worthless and got himself thrown out of the Villa Medici in Rome for alleging that there were no tunes in Beethoven’s music. Yet it is difficult to get angry with someone so animated and full of life, a novelist so studious of the human heart, a man who insisted that our principal goal should be not money or fame or salvation but simply the pursuit of happiness. Stendhalians love him for his charm and sensibility, for his humour, candour and self-deprecation, for his liberal sagacity and his psychological understanding. His enthusiasms and outspokenness are so infectious that they can lighten our mood even when he is being ridiculous. Stendhal has been called ‘the greatest French Italian since Napoleon’, a judgement that may horrify some but which would not have dismayed a writer who admired Bonaparte and believed he had ‘rudely transformed’ Milan, turning a city ‘hitherto renowned for nothing save over-eating into the intellectual capital of Italy’. Yet the two men could hardly have differed more in the ways they liked Italy. ‘The charm of Italy’, wrote Stendhal, ‘is akin to that of being in love.’ Napoleon did not waste time on charm or on how it might feel to be in love. He liked Italy because it was a place where he could win battles, where he could make himself king and where he could turn his relations into subordinate kings, queens, princes, viceroys, duchesses and a governor-general.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © David Gilmour 2011


About the contributor

David Gilmour shares most of Stendhal’s enthusiasms but took slightly longer to discover them.

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