Guide to The Charterhouse of Parma for the Use of New Readers

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Guide to The Charterhouse of Parma for the Use of New Readers

La Repubblica, September 8, 1982.

How many new readers will approach Stendhal’s novel thinking of the new filmed version of The Charterhouse of Parma that is shortly to appear on television? Perhaps very few in comparison with the number of viewers, or maybe a great number when matched against the statistics for readers of books in Italy. But no statistics will be able to provide us with the most important datum: how many young people will be overwhelmed from the very first pages, and be suddenly convinced that the most wonderful novel in the world could only be this one, and recognize it as the novel they have always wanted to read and one that will be a touchstone for all the novels they read in future. I am speaking chiefly of the first chapters. As one reads on, one finds a different novel—in fact several novels, all different from one another, and this demands adjustments in the way we participate in events. However, the power of the opening continues to make itself felt.

This is what happened to me, as to so many in successive generations over the last century. (The Charterhouse of Parma was published in 1839, but we must bear in mind the forty years that elapsed before Stendhal was understood—a phenomenon he had predicted with extraordinary precision, even though of all his books this one had the greatest immediate success, and to launch it had the advantage of an enthusiastic article from Balzac that went on for seventy-two pages!)

We have no means of knowing whether this miracle will continue, or for how long. The reasons a book catches the imagination—its powers of seduction which are a different thing from its value in an absolute sense—are made up of a great number of imponderable elements. (So is its absolute value, supposing that such a concept has any meaning.) But one thing for sure: if I pick up The Charterhouse of Parma even today, as in all the rereadings I have made at different times and through all the changes in taste and outlook, then I feel the impetus of its music, that allegro con brio that captivates me. It is in those first chapters, set in Milan under Napoleon, in which history with its rumble of cannon goes hand in hand with the rhythm of individual life. And the atmosphere of pure adventure that one enters with the sixteen-year-old Fabrice on the sopping battlefield of Waterloo, among the vivandiers’ wagons and the escaping horses, is the true novelistic spirit of adventure, made up of a mixture of peril and safety with a strong dose of candor. What is more, the corpses, with their staring eyes and rigid arms, are the first real corpses the literature of war ever used to explain what a war really is. And the atmosphere of woman’s love that enters from the very first pages, composed of protective trepidation and jealous intrigue, already reveals the real subject of the novel, which is destined to stay with Fabrice right through to the end (an atmosphere that in the long run does not fail to be somewhat oppressive).

Is it the fact of belonging to a generation that lived through wars and political disasters in its youth that has made me a reader of The Charterhouse of Parma for life? But in my personal memories, so much less serene and liberated, it is dissonances and clamor that dominate, and not that music that carries one away. Perhaps the very opposite is true, and we think of ourselves as children of an epoch because we project Stendhal’s adventures onto our own experience and transfigure it, as Don Quixote did.

I said that The Charterhouse of Parma is many novels rolled into one, and I dwelt on the beginning, a chronicle of history and of society, a picaresque adventure. Then one gets into the body of the novel—the world of the little court of Prince Ranuccio Ernesto IV (this apocryphal Parma can be historically identified with Modena, as is passionately claimed by such Modenese as Antonio Delfini, though Parmesans such as Gino Magnani remain attached to it as a sublimated personal myth).

At this point the novel becomes theatre, an enclosed space, the board for a game played by a limited number of characters, a gray motionless scene for a whole chain of emotions that do not coincide with one another: Count Mosca, a man of power who is slavishly in love with Gina Sanseverina; Gina herself, a woman who gets whatever she wants, who sees only through the eyes of her nephew Fabrice del Dongo; Fabrice, who at first loves only himself, then has a few quick adventures as a garnishing, and finally concentrates all the forces gravitating on and around him by falling hopelessly in love with the angelic, solicitous Clélia.

All this takes place within the shabby world of political and worldly intrigues of the court, with the prince obsessed with fear because he has had two patriots hanged, and Rassi the public prosecutor, who is perhaps the first character in any novel to incarnate bureaucratic mediocrity with all the cruelty that can go with it. The conflict here, according to Stendhal’s intentions, is between this image of the reactionary Europe of Metternich and the absoluteness of passions that spare themselves nothing, the ultimate refuge of the generous ideals of an age that has gone down in defeat.

The dramatic core is one of melodrama. The opera was the first key used by the music-loving Stendhal to get to understand Italy, but in The Charterhouse of Parma the climate (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as discovered by Paul Valéry) of operetta. Though tyranny is gloomy, it is at the same time timid and awkward (far worse had actually happened in Modena), while the passions are peremptory but have fairly simple mechanisms. Only one character, Count Mosca, has any real psychological complexity, composed of calculation but also desperation, of possessiveness but also a sense of the void.

But the “court-novel” aspect of the book does not end here. The transfiguration of the reactionary Italy of the Restoration is overlaid by the plot of a Renaissance story, one that Stendhal hunted down in libraries and in fact recounted in his Italian Chronicles. We are here concerned with the life of Alessandro Farnese, who was very much loved and protected by an aunt of his—a worldly, scheming woman—and had a glorious career in the church in spite of his libertine, adventurous youth (he had even killed a rival and ended up as a prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo), finally arriving at the point of becoming pope, by the name of Paul III. What has this bloody story of fourteenth-to-fifteenth-century Rome got to do with that of Fabrice in a society that was hypocritical and full of moral scruples? Abolutely nothing. Yet Stendhal’s project started precisely there, with the idea of transposing Farnese’s life into his own times, in the name of some continuity in Italy of the life force and passionate spontaneity that he never tired of believing in (though he also perceived other things in the Italians, and more subtle ones: distrust, anxiety, cautiousness).

Whatever the primary source of inspiration was, the beginning of the novel had such an impetus of its own that it could have gone ahead on its own, forgetting about the Renaissance chronicle. All the time, every so often Stendhal remembers it, and goes back to thinking of Farnese’s life as a sort of guide. The most obvious consequence is that Fabrice, as soon as he has doffed his Napoleonic uniform, enters a seminary and takes vows. For the whole of the rest of the novel we have to imagine him dressed as a monsignor, which was certainly uncomfortable for him and is also so for us, because it takes a certain effort to put the two ideas together, and his situation as a churchman has very little effect on his conduct as a character—and none whatever on his spirit.

Some years before, another hero of Stendhal’s, also youthful and inflamed with the glory of Napoleon, had decided to take the cloth in view of the fact that the Restoration had barred the way to a military career to anyone who was not a scion of a noble family. But in this antivocation of Julien Sorel’s is the central theme of Le Rouge et le noir, yielding a situation far more dramatic and detailed than that of Fabrice del Dongo. Fabrice is no Julien Sorel: he is not given the same psychological complexity. Nor is he Alessandro Farnese, destined to become pope, and as such the emblematic hero of a story that can be taken either as a scandalous anticlerical revelation or as the edifying account of a redemption. And who is Fabrice? Apart from the vestments he wears and the things he gets involved with, Fabrice is someone who tries to read the signs of his destiny, according to the science taught to him by Blanès, the abbot-astrologer who was his real instructor. He questions himself about the future and the past (was he or was he not at Waterloo, which was his battle?), but his whole reality is in the present, moment by moment.

The Charterhouse of Parma as a whole, like Fabrice, overcomes the contradictions of its composite nature by means of incessant movement. And when Fabrice winds up in prison, a new novel starts within the novel. This is the prison story of the tower and his love for Clélia, which is again different from all the rest, and even more difficult to define.

There is no more anguished human situation than that of a prisoner, but Stendhal is so refractory toward anguish that, even if he has to show us isolation in a cell in a tower (after an arrest that has taken place in mysterious and disturbing circumstances), the states of mind that he expresses are always hopeful and extroverted. “Comment! moi qui avait tant de peur de la prison, j’y suis, et je ne me souviens pas d’être triste!” “I don’t remember being sad!”; never was a rebuttal of Romantic self-pity ever uttered with more candor and sanity.

This Farnese tower, which never existed either in Parma or in Modena, has a particular shape. It is composed of two towers, the slenderer one being built on top of the broader one (more like a house on the ramparts surmounted by an aviary, in which a young girl—Clélia—appears among the birds). It is one of the enchanted places in the novel (Trompeo in this regard recalls Ariosto, and in other respects Tasso). Without doubt, it is a symbol, so much so that, as is the case with all true symbols, it is hard to decide what on earth it symbolizes. Isolation within oneself, that goes without saying; but also, and even more, getting outside oneself and communicating love, because never has Fabrice been so expansive and talkative as he is through the highly complicated and improbable systems of wireless telegraphy with which he manages to correspond from his cell, both with Clélia and with his ever-helpful aunt Gina.

The tower is the place where Fabrice’s first romantic love is born—for the unattainable Clélia, his jailer’s daughter—but it is also the gilded cage of his love for Gina, of which he is still a prisoner. So much so that when the tower first enters the picture (chapter XVIII), we have the story of a young Farnese thrown into prison because he became the lover of his stepmother. It is the mythical core of Stendhal’s novels, “hypergamy,” love of women of higher social status, or of older women (Julien and Madame de Rênal, Lucien and Madame de Chasteller, Fabrice and Gina Sanseverina).

The tower also represents height, and the ability to see a long way. The incredible view that Fabrice commands from up there includes the whole of the Alps, from Nice to Treviso, and the entire course of the Po from Monviso to Ferrara. But that is not all: he sees his own life as well, and the lives of others, and the network of intricate relationships that go to make up a destiny.

As from the tower his eyes embrace the whole of northern Italy, so from the summit of this novel written in 1839 the future history of Italy is already in view: Ranuccio Ernesto IV, prince of Parma, is an absolutist petty tyrant, but also a Carlo Alberto who foresees the next developments in the Risorgimento and nourishes the hope that he will one day be the constitutional king of Italy.

A historical and political reading of The Charterhouse of Parma has always been easy and virtually obligatory, starting with Balzac (who said this novel was like The Prince of a new Machiavelli!), and it has been equally easy to show that Stendhal’s attempt to exalt the ideals of liberty and progress suffocated by the Restoration is extremely superficial. But Stendhal’s very lightness of touch can give us a historical and political lesson, when he shows us how the ex-Jacobins or supporters of Bonaparte become (or remain) authoritative and zealous members of the legitimist establishment. That so many positions adopted, and so many actually risky actions that seemed to be motivated by the most absolute convictions, then turn out to have had very little behind them, is something we have seen again and again, in Milan and elsewhere, but the beauty of The Charterhouse of Parma is that this is stated without any fuss, as if it went without saying.

What makes The Charterhouse of Parma a great “Italian” novel is the feeling for politics as a calculated adjustment and a distribution of roles: on one side the prince who, while he persecutes the Jacobins, is concerned to establish a future understanding with them that will enable him to put himself at the head of the imminent movement of national unity; on the other Count Mosca, who ceases to be an officer in Napoleon’s army and becomes a reactionary minister and leader of the extremist party (but is prepared to encourage the real extremists only to give proof of his moderation by abandoning them), and all this without his being in any way personally touched by it.

As the novel proceeds, we get further and further away from Stendhal’s other image of Italy, as the country of generous sentiments and spontaneous living, that happy place that met the eyes of a young French officer on his arrival in Milan. In the Vie d’Henri Brulard, when he got to the moment of describing happiness, he broke off the story: “On échoue toujours à parler de ce qu’on aime.”

This phrase provided the theme and the title for the last essay of Roland Barthes, which he was to have read to the Stendhal conference in Milan in March 1980; but while he was writing it he was involved in the car accident that cost him his life. In the pages that remain, Barthes observes that in his autobiographical works Stendhal mentions the happiness of his youthful days in Italy several times, but never manages to make them felt.

And yet twenty years later, by a kind of après-coup that is still part of the contorted logic of love, Stendhal wrote about Italy in some triumphant pages, and these indeed fire a reader like myself (but I do not think I am the only one) with that jubilation, that radiance that the personal diary spoke of but did not manage to communicate. These are the admirable pages that make up the beginning of The Charterhouse of Parma. There is a sort of miraculous harmony between the mass of happiness and pleasure that burst upon Milan with the arrival of the French, and our joy as readers: the effect narrated coincides at last with the effect produced.