“Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” — Italo Calvino

“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!)

Whether this miracle will happen again and for how long, we cannot be sure: the reasons why a book fascinates us (that it is to say, its powers of seduction, which is something very distinct from its absolute worth) are composed of so many imponderable elements. (As is a book’s absolute worth, presuming that that phrase means anything at all.) Certainly, if I open The Charterhouse again even today, as on every occasion I have reread the book in different periods and throughout all the changes in tastes and expectations, what I find is that the charge of its music, that Allegro Con Brio, immediately recaptures me: those opening chapters in Napoleonic Milan in which history with the rumble of its cannons marches side by side with and at the same pace as the rhythm of the individual life. And the atmosphere of pure adventure which you enter, as the sixteen-year-old Fabrizio wanders around the damp battlefield of Waterloo amidst the victuallers’ carts and fleeing horses, is the archetypal novelistic adventure, full of a deliberately calibrated amount of danger and safety and not without a strong dose of youthful candour. And the open-eyed corpses with outstretched arms are the first real corpses exploited by literature to try to explain what a war really is. And that amorous female atmosphere which starts to circulate from the very first pages, full of protective trepidation and jealous intrigue, already reveals the novel’s real theme, which will accompany Fabrizio right to the end (an atmosphere which cannot but become oppressive in the long run).

Perhaps it was because I belonged to a generation which in its youth lived through wars and huge political upheavals that I have become a lifelong reader of The Charterhouse. Yet in my personal memories, which are so much less free and serene, what dominates are discords and stridency, not that seductive music. Perhaps the exact opposite is true: we consider ourselves children of a particular epoch because we project Stendhalian adventures onto our own experiences in order to transform them., just as Don Quixote did.

I said that The Charterhouse contains many different novels and I concentrated on the opening: it starts as a chronicle about history and society, and a picaresque adventure. Then we enter into the heart of the novel, in other words into the world of the small court of Prince Ranuccio Ernesto IV (this apocryphal Parma is historically identifiable with Modena, as is passionately claimed by the Modenese, such as Antonio Delfini, but even Parma people like Gino Magnani remain happy with this account, as though it were a sublimated version of their own history).

At this point the novel becomes a kind of theatre, a closed space, a chessboard for a game involving a finite number of players, a grey, fixed place in which a whole chain of mismatched passions develops: Count Mosca, a powerful man who is the love slave of Gina Sanseverina; Sanseverina who obtains what she wants but who only has eyes for her nephew Fabrizio; Fabrizio who loves himself first and foremost, enjoys a few, quick adventures as sideshows, and finally concentrates all these energies gravitating around him into his hopeless passion for the angelic and pensive Clelia.

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

But the element of ‘court novel’ does not end here. On top of the novelistic transformation of Italy into a nation espousing the Bourbon Restoration there is the Renaissance chronicle plot, from one of those historical sagas which Stendhal had hunted out in the libraries to draw on for his own Chroniques italiennes (Italian Chronicles). This one dealt with the life of Alessandro Farnese. Being very much loved and protected by one of his aunts, a gallant and scheming noblewoman, Alessandro enjoyed a glorious ecclesiastical career despite having spent his youth in libertine adventures (he had also killed a rival and had been imprisoned for it in Castel Sant’Angelo) before becoming Pope Paul III. What has this violent tale of Rome in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries got to do with that of Fabrizio in a society riddled with hypocrisy and scruples of conscience? Nothing at all, and yet Stendhal’s projected novel had begun as just that, a transposition of Farnese’s life into the contemporary age, demonstrating an Italian continuity of vital energy and passionate spontaneity in which he never tired of believing (though he was also able to discern less obvious things in Italians: their lack of confidence, their anxiety, their caution).

Whatever the original source of inspiration, the opening of the novel contains such autonomous drive that it could easily continue under its own steam, ignoring the Renaissance chronicle. Instead, Stendhal goes back to it every so often and resorts to Farnese again as his model. The most incongruous result of following this source is that as soon as Fabrizio removes his Napoleonic soldier’s uniform, he enters a seminary and takes his vows. For the rest of the novel we have to imagine him dressed as a monsignor, a rather uncomfortable notion both for him and for us, because we need to make a considerable effort to reconcile the two images, and his ecclesiastical condition impinges only on his external behaviour and not at all on his spirit.

Already some years previously another Stendhalian hero, he too a young man thirsty for Napoleonic glory, had decided to don the cassock, seeing that the Restoration had blocked a military career to all except the scions of the nobility. But in The Red and the Black, Julien Sorel’s alternative vocation is the novel’s central theme, a situation with much more serious and dramatic consequences for Julien than for Fabrizio del Dongo. Fabrizio is not Julien inasmuch as he lacks his psychological complexity, but nor is he Alessandro Farnese who was destined to end up as Pope, and as such is the emblematic hero of a tale which can be interpreted as much as a scandalous anticlerical revelation as an edifying legend about a sinner’s redemption. Well then, who is Fabrizio? Leaving aside the clothes he wears and the events in which he lets himself become embroiled, Fabrizio is someone who tries to read the signs of his destiny, guided by the science that he has been taught by the abbé-astrologer Blanès, his real teacher. He asks himself about the future and the past (was Waterloo his battle or not?), but his whole reality is in the present, moment by moment.

Like Fabrizio, the whole of The Charterhouse overcomes the contradictions of its composite nature thanks to constant motion. When Fabrizio ends up in prison, a new novel opens up within the novel: the novel about the prison, the tower and his love for Clelia, which is something completely different from the rest of the book, and even more difficult to define.

There is no human condition more anguished than that of the prisoner, but Stendhal is so refractory to anguish that even when he has to represent isolation in a cell inside a tower (after an arrest in mysterious and distressing circumstances) the mental attitudes he conveys are always extrovert and full of hope: ‘ Comment! moi qui avait tant de peur de la prison, j’y suis, et je ne me souviens pas d’être triste!’ (‘What? I who was so afraid of it, am now in prison and I have forgotten that I should be sad!’) I have forgotten that I should be sad! Never was a refutation of romantic self-pity uttered so blithely and lustily.

This Farnese Tower, which never existed either in Parma or Modena, has a very precise shape: actually composed of two towers, a thinner one built on top of the thicker one (in addition there is a house built on the terrace which sticks out, with an aviary on top, where the young girl Clelia appears). This is one of the magic spaces in the novel (in some respects it reminded Trompeo of Ariosto, in others of Tasso), a symbol, clearly: so much so that, as happens with all true symbols, one can never decide what on earth it symbolises. Isolation within one’s own self, obviously; but also, and perhaps even more, coming out of oneself, and amorous communication; for never has Fabrizio been so expansive and loquacious as when using the improbable, highly complicated wireless-telegraph systems with which he manages to correspond from his cell both with Clelia and with his ever resourceful aunt Gina.

The tower is the place where Fabrizio’s first romantic love flowers, his passion for the unattainable Clelia, daughter of his gaoler, but it is also the gilded cage of Sanseverina’s love which has held Fabrizio prisoner from the outset. So much so that the origin of the tower (chapter 18) goes back to the story of a young Farnese imprisoned in it because he had become his step-mother’s lover: this is the mythical core behind Stendhal’s novels, the ‘hypergamy’ or love for women of superior age or social standing (Julien and Madame Renal, Lucien and Madame de Chasteller, Fabrizio and Gina Sanseverina).

The tower is also height, the ability to see into the distance: the incredible view on which Fabrizio gazes from up there embraces the whole range of the Alps from Nice to Treviso, and the whole course of the river Po from Monviso to Ferrara. But that is not all; he can also see his own life, and that of others, as well as the network of intricate relations which make up a human destiny.

Just as the outlook from the tower covers the whole of Northern Italy, so from the height of this novel written in 1839 the future of Italian history is already in view: Prince Ranuccio Ernesto IV is an absolutist petty tyrant, but at the same time he is also a Carlo Alberto able to foresee the future developments of the Risorgimento, and in his heart he cultivates the hope of one day becoming a constitutional king of Italy.

An historical and political reading of The Charterhouse has always been a predictable and even obligatory approach, starting with Balzac (who defined this novel as the new Machiavelli’s Prince!). Similarly it has always been both easy and essential to show that Stendhal’s claim to exalt the ideals of liberty and progress which were suffocated by the Restoration is extremely superficial. But this very lightness of Stendhal can teach us a historical and political lesson not to be underestimated, when he shows us with what ease the ex-Jacobins or ex-Bonapartists become (and remain) authoritative and zealous members of the legitimist establishment. That such risky stances and actions, which appeared dictated by the most powerful convictions, could show that what lay behind them was very little indeed, is something that we have seen time and time again, in the Milan of those days and elsewhere, but the beauty of The Charterhouse is that this is stated without crying scandal, and accepted like something that is taken for granted.

What makes The Charterhouse of Parma a great ‘Italian’ novel is that sense of politics as a calculated readjustment and redistribution of roles: there is the prince who while he persecutes the Jacobins worries about establishing future balances of power with them, which will allow him to put himself at the head of the imminent movement of national unity; and there is Count Mosca, who having been a Napoleonic officer becomes a hard-line minister and head of a reactionary party (but only ready to encourage a faction of reactionary extremists in order to show himself up as a moderate by distancing himself from them), and all this without becoming in the least way involved in his inner essence.

As we read further into the novel, the other Stendhalian image of Italy recedes further into the distance, that of the country of generous sentiments and spontaneity, that locus of happiness which opened up to the young French officer on his arrival in Milan. In La Vie de Henri Brulard, once he reaches this moment and is about to describe his happiness, he interrupts his account with the words: ‘On échoue toujours à parler de ce qu’on aime’ (Any attempt to talk about the object of our love is always doomed to failure).

This sentence provided both the subject and the title of Roland Barthes’ last paper, which he was to have read at the Stendhal conference in Milan in 1980 (but it was while he was writing it that he was involved in the road accident that cost him his life). In the pages that he completed, Barthes observes that in his autobiographical works Stendhal emphasises on several occasions the happiness of his time in Italy as a young man, but he never manages to describe it.

And yet twenty years later, in a kind of après-coup which also forms part of the contorted logic of love, Stendhal writes magisterial pages on Italy: yes, those pages enkindle in the reader like me (but I am sure I am not the only one) that ecstasy, that radiance that his intimate diary mentioned but could not communicate. There is a sort of miraculous empathy between the mass of happiness and pleasure which broke out in Milan with the arrival of the French and our joy in reading: at last the effect narrated coincides with the effect produced.



9 thoughts on ““Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” — Italo Calvino”

  1. Reading ‘Charterhouse’ at the moment. Calvino could not be more correct on his view of the opening chapters.

    Sadly, my translation is from Moncrieff, which is supposedly disastrous. Oh well, it’s been great so far.


  2. I quote from John Stahle’s Amazon review:

    “C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s disastrous translations of Stendhal are still available in Everyman’s Library and you should avoid them like the plague. What Moncrieff did to Proust was bad enough, but his Stendhal was even worse. Stendhal should read like dry champagne in a crystal flute, but Montcrief turns him into cheap cough syrup. This Edwardian queen made all his defenseless authors read like him. The translators of choice here are Raffel for Red & Black and Howard for Parma. Consign Moncrieff to the dustbin of translators!”

    I’m just under 200 pages in. Occasionally dry, but stoically thrilling. Stendhal is like a magician with narrative reveals. Can’t imagine giving it a worthy review though.


  3. […] When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse“: […]


  4. […] How I found it:I only read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in high school and didn’t understand it at all, or remember any of it. But I knew his were some of the many French books I need to catch up on and it was Italo Calvino’s known essay that made me pay attention to this particular novel. You should absolutely read this essay as a companion to the novel, by the way. It’s here. […]


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