Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839) is a very long novel that, somehow, manages to reach its titular destination only in the closing paragraph, and never does quite get around to explaining exactly what a Charterhouse is. His contemporaries were presumed to know already; the dictionary tells me that it’s a monastic retreat connected to the austere Carthusian order. For the modern reader, the title is above all a sort of shaggy dog, an indication that the telling of this story will be as important as anything in the story itself. I suspect that’s one reason the novel is a favorite of other novelists.
And for a long central portion, in which the hero, Fabrice del Dongo, is imprisoned in a tower, language becomes a central concern. He communicates with the two women he loves by signs, and often in code. With Clélia Conti, the daughter of the prison’s governor, he uses alphabet flashcards, he at his window and she at hers. They also sing to each other. Gina, his mentor and aunt, is forbidden to come near the prison, so she stands on a hilltop and flashes a light at him — all night. I could understand why semioticians would be drawn to these scenes. While Fabrice is imprisoned, written messages are conveyed in a basket of food, in a hollow metal ball, and like a gloss in the margins of a prayer book; when he’s in the Parmesan court, communications are even subtler. No gesture is insignificant, and Fabrice is lucky to know Count Mosca, his aunt’s lover, a brilliant tactician and analyst.
Fabrice doesn’t have the benefit of Mosca’s advice when it comes to Clélia, however, and Stendhal gives us to understand that interpreting the meaning of the words of a beautiful but pious girl is an especially difficult undertaking. But Fabrice is pretty clueless most of the time: the novel opens with his sneaking off to France to join Napoleon’s army, but when he gets to Waterloo, he can’t even be sure he’s taking part in the battle. So much for our hero’s heroism.
Fabrice’s admiration of Napoleon — and the troubles that admiration engenders — draws a parallel to Julien Sorel, hero of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, and very often the reader gets the impression that the author is reworking certain ideas. In both books, the hero joins the Roman Catholic clergy with a view to social advancement; neither fellow sees any reason to abstain from feminine charms. Both are imprisoned on charges pertaining to murder, and both sentences are unduly harsh for political reasons. It’s in prison that each man discovers true love, to the point that neither wants to leave captivity. That the same actor, Gérard Philipe, played both characters in classic film adaptations seems only just.
Yet La Chartreuse lacks many of the qualities that made Le Rouge et le Noir so entertaining to read. Julien is as clever as Fabrice is clueless, and much of the pleasure of Le Rouge et le Noir comes from seeing Julien develop and act on his schemes. Thanks to Gina and Mosca, La Chartreuse does afford us similar pleasures, but fewer of them, and court intrigues are seldom as much fun as boudoir conquests anyway.
Indeed, much of Stendhal’s goal here is to show just how unpleasant a despotic court can be, and the brilliant social and sexual satire the author unleashed in Le Rouge et le Noir is more narrowly channeled in La Chartreuse because, I think, he wanted French readers to be spooked, not amused. After the fall of Napoleon, France did restore the monarchy, clumsily but under a constitution. Writing during the reign of France’s Louis Philippe, Stendhal depicts an unconstitutional monarchy, in a foreign but nearby land, where destinies are dictated by petty whims. There, if the ruler feels horny, or slighted in some way, then prison is your reward. Even the very wealthy and titled aren’t free, as Fabrice learns: whether he’s in or out of prison, his actions are always constrained by politics. That Stendhal went back to medieval and Renaissance sources (including Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography) for details of politics and plot only suggests that, over the course of several centuries, nothing has changed for the better.
From time to time, Stendhal addresses the reader, as if he’s explaining particularly obscure Italian customs: “As a reasonable Frenchman, you probably don’t understand this,” he’ll say, then go on to describe behavior that is by no means exclusive to Italy. Stendhal’s message may be coded, yet it’s clear: This could happen in France, too. (It had happened, often, for centuries.) The desire to sound a similar warning may have impelled the filmmakers to adapt this story so soon after the fall of Nazi Germany, when France was yet again deeply divided as to what sort of government it needed.
“From all of this, one may draw this moral, that the man who comes near the court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and in any case, stakes his future on the intrigues of a chamber maid,” Stendhal writes. But non-European readers aren’t let off the hook. The author continues: “On another hand, in America, in the republic, one is required to bore oneself all the day long by paying court seriously to shopkeepers, and becoming as stupid as they are; and over there, there’s no Opera.”
How’s that for transition? My own, I mean. Because for this reader, the musical references were another pleasure. Stendhal was a tremendous opera fan and music critic, and friend of Rossini. A few scenes in the novel take place at La Scala, and toward the end, there’s even a cameo appearance by Giuditta Pasta, the original bel canto diva. Having enjoyed Stendhal’s novels, I’m eager now to tackle the Vie de Rossini. Imagine spending time in both these guys' company! If I can find a copy under 8 million Euros, I’ll post an update.