“Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” by Italo Calvino (Collected in Why Read the Classics?)
How many new readers will be attracted to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by the new film version of the novel, shortly to be broadcast on television? Perhaps very few when compared to the total number of the TV audience, or perhaps very many when compared to the statistics for the number of books Italians read. But no data can ever supply us with the most important figure, and that is how many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)
This is what happened to me and to so many others in the various generations that have read the work in the last hundred years. (The Charterhouse came out in 1839, but you have to exclude the forty years that it had to wait before Stendhal was understood, a period he himself had foreseen with extraordinary precision; even although of all his works this was the most instantly successful, and could count for its launch on a lengthy and enthusiastic essay by Balzac, a good 72 pages long!)
I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to find a big ole biography of Paul Cézanne on my doorstep. I probably won’t get to Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life anytime soon (at least not until I finish Robert Hughes’s Goya bio), but it looks like a pretty solid read—with lovely glossy pictures to boot:
In the meantime, check out Evan McMurry’s full, in depth review at Bookslut.
Or, if you’re too busy, here’s the Kirkus write up in full:
A formidable biography of the Father of Modern Art bound for the annals of academia.
Danchev . . . has researched every facet and nuance of Paul Cézanne’s life (1839–1906). His comfortable childhood in Provence, his years in Paris, where he was influenced by the Impressionists, and his dependence on the allowance from his father created the artist some suggested was “not all there.” There is a wealth of information in the correspondence between the artist and his childhood friend, Émile Zola, in which they parodied Virgil, joked in Latin and discussed Stendhal. Zola knew that Cézanne’s art was a corner of nature seen through his own curious temmpérammennte. The artist didn’t paint things; he painted the effect they had on him. He saw colors as he read a book or looked at a person, understood the inner life of an object and let his brain rework that object, sometimes illuminating it, sometimes distorting it. Danchev rightly subscribes to the theory that understanding the man is important to understanding his work, and he attempts to parse Cézanne’s psyche, digging into the background of nearly every author he discussed in his letters, quoting every writer who based a character on the man. Cézanne’s work will influence artists and confuse patrons for decades to come, especially those who have the patience to study Danchev’s comprehensive, occasionally ponderous tome.
A fairly impressive achievement of a Sisyphean task—definitely a book to keep in your library.