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Stendhal was the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle, who adopted it from the name of a German town he had seen with Napoleon’s army. His 1839 novel of the Napoleonic era, La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), was welcomed by a favorable and important review by Honoré de Balzac, and André Gide, an astute critic, included it among his top ten “desert island” novels. Like Stendhal’s earlier Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black), La Chartreuse is a political and social novel, realistic, but with a romantic hero who cultivates his individualism, and who is a contrarian without realizing it.

La Chartreuse showcases Stendhal’s understanding of human nature. He is concerned both with social dynamics and the basic human qualities underlying them. Like Proust, who wrote 80 years later, Stendhal knew the mechanics of society were nearly constant, whether at the “court” of an old provincial hypochondriac who ruled from her bed, or at Versailles under Louis XIV. Political struggles and rivalries in Parma in the late 1790s and early 1800s were not unlike those in Washington, D.C. today. The aristocracy, weak and self-indulgent, and the arriviste bourgeoisie are governed by vanity and ambition, hence dishonesty and hypocrisy.

The young hero, Fabrice, a naïf, tells his aunt Gina’s protector, Count...

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