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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