16 June 2011

Stendhal’s ‘Chroniques Italiennes’

Guido Reni’s portrait of a woman believed to be Beatrice Cenci,
heroine of one of Stendhal’s Chronicles
(among many other works)

Stendhal’s Chroniques Italiennes (Italian Chronicles, 1836–39) — a collection primarily comprised of short stories based in historical fact, translated from Renaissance-era documents purchased in Italy by the author “at great expense” while he was French consul at Civitavecchia — is actually a good deal looser and more complex than that description would lead a reader to believe. For starters, editors disagree over precisely which stories to include in the collection, and what to call it. The edition I read opted to lump all the rest under the title of the longest story, “L’Abbesse de Castro,” which hardly strikes me as an ideal solution, since that piece is heavy slogging indeed and delayed my reading by several weeks: is this really the one the editors wanted to place ahead of all the rest?

There’s also the matter of how much Stendhal merely translated and how much of his own language and storytelling power he added to his work. What’s inarguable, and quite exciting to anyone, like me, who is in the blissful process of discovering Stendhal, is that the Chroniques open a window onto the author’s tastes and preoccupations. We see what kind of story appealed to him (not least because there were presumably a number of other stories among the manuscripts that he did not translate), and what prose style he aimed at (one with as little Romantic folderol as possible, as he acknowledges in the text).*

Naturally, then, there’s an abundance of the passions we like best in Stendhal’s fiction: rape, incest, vengeance, brigandage, revolt, unjust imprisonment, daring escapes, political machinations, and lots and lots of blood. Best of all, Stendhal suggests, it’s all true.

The twisty intrigues that dominate La Chartreuse de Parme (itself heavily indebted to Renaissance histories) can be seen taking root in the Chroniques, one of which, like Chartreuse, is set in post-Napoleonic Italy, nearly contemporary to Stendhal. We can likewise see the gestation of his favored heroic type: handsome, passionate, and unlucky. Curiously, however, all the Chroniques take female characters as their protagonists. While they’re not much different from their lovers in these stories, they don’t much resemble Clélia in Chartreuse or either of Julien Sorel’s lady loves.

Stendhal writes admiringly of anyone who displays the Italian attribute of virtù, a word he insisted was untranslatable: in these stories, it’s a kind of poised yet passionate derring-do in the pursuit of duty or destiny, right or wrong. And I underscore that this conduct need be neither wise nor moral in order to win the author’s approval: even Francesco Cenci displays virtù by sleeping with his daughter, Beatrice, who in turn displays it by murdering her father. While Stendhal insists that French people don’t know the meaning of the idea, much less the word, and declares that his countrymen are far more inclined to do something merely because it will impress the neighbors, he nevertheless depicts Le Rouge et le Noir’s Julien as a paragon of this kind of virtù.

Stendhal — whose De l’amour (On Love) must now rise to the top of my must-read list — kept both Rouge et le Noir and Chartreuse hopping with sexual shenanigans. Yet what struck me about the Chroniques was the unexpected ambiguity of so many of the relations depicted. The titular Abbess and her beloved bandito, for example, spend so much time not going to bed that ultimately one wonders whether either of them really wants to: they talk about passion without acting on it. When the Abbess finally loses her virginity,** she’s motivated as much out of curiosity and spite as anything else; it’s unclear whether her boyfriend ever does get laid. The contemporary heroine, Vanina Vanini, falls for her man, a fugitive rebel, when he’s disguised as a girl; later, in attempting to rescue him, she disguises herself as a man. (The Abbess also dons drag, at one point.) Again and again, the characters in the Chroniques are less easily defined, sexually, than the lusty denizens of Stendhal’s better-known novels.

For those who are looking to dip a toe into the waters of Stendhal’s works, the Chroniques may be a good start: even the longest, “L’Abbesse,” is just over 100 pages, and the other stories are quite short; most zip along entertainingly to their climaxes. And for those who have already caught the Stendhal bug, there’s plenty here to help you understand the master’s longer works.

*NOTE: Stendhal snipes at French authors of his own day, who made a fad of writing bodice-rippers set in Italy, and who, from sheer laziness, in his estimation, attempted to convey passionate character through the use of Italian names. Accordingly, Stendhal gives his characters the French equivalents of their Italian names — and we can understand better why the hero of Chartreuse is Fabrice, not Fabrizio.

**When the Abbess finally loses her virginity, it’s to a bishop, and like the heroine of a TV soap opera, she immediately gets pregnant. Stendhal’s attitude toward the clergy — Napoleonic at heart, skeptical at best — is evident throughout these Chronicles, not only in matters sexual but also in frequent allusions to corruption in the Papal courts — which during Stendhal’s tenure in Civitavecchia considered him highly suspicious.

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