Minor characters blaze into majority; major events are subordinated to asides; the tempo feels all wrong, the climax abrupt, the plot strands remain untied, are dropped, cut; love expends stretches of the narrative in perplexed clashes of feelings, owned, disowned, cauterized, and occasionally revealed to be false, but then true pages later. He saw that art is sometimes at odds with life, that to get at life, or to get at the impression of a life that is not art, beyond the art, the art needs to be scuttled, sacrificed, without regret or mourning.
George Eliot is the English novelist who sees the same–but she tells us she sees it, tells us that she won’t describe the characters in Deronda, tells us that all beginnings are fictions in Middlemarch, but then narrates the action more or less as if she were adhering to the old standards; Stendhal doesn’t announce or justify, he abolishes in doing.
Beyond English, the closest thing to Stendhal’s Le Rouge and Le Noir, not in achievement, but in the nature of distinct achievements, is a novel by Tolstoy, War and Peace especially. Historical consciousness, the compulsions of private life, the ambitions of worldly success, do not require mediation or reconciliation by narration. The novel that does not dampen or diminish time’s various accelerations, or the bizarre clashes between public time and private time, historical time and political time.
Like Tolstoy, Stendhal excels at those characters who defy a place on the major and minor spectrum because they are real, and not major or minor in themselves, but either happen to have a place in the story, or do not; moreover, a realization that sometimes people are nothing more than shadows, feeble performers, and that at other times, a person is unexpectedly irresistible, to desire or pity (Petya Rostov, for instance). Valenod at the story’s end is a caricature–even Madame de Renal, who exists in the final pages, more for Julien than for the reader; or the Bishop of Agde, tempting in splendid youth and power, in that early scene, and a cursory aside in the later, his power no longer accessible; or Prince Korassoff, comic and somehow pathetic, and as unexpected for us as he is for Julien in Strasbourg, and who proves a useless cog in the plot.
Nothing is quite like it in English, and the chief continuity between English translations is the sustained effort at getting right that bizarre style, the elusive quarry of critics.
Nabokov placed Stendhal on the naughty-list, and this, I imagine, because Stendhal decided that the stuff of the story needed to seem to come before the narration of it. Hence Gide—in a remark that I have by way of translation and gossip (appropriate for the writer at hand)—saying that in Stendhal each paragraph and sentence stands in an immediate relation to the thought and action of the situation, rather than, as in most writers, following on from the previous one. It is as if the narrator were viewing it all in his mind, and saying what he sees; the act of memory, of summoning the reel of events themselves, comes prior to the narration, and the narration is a second-hand report of that.
Rather than offer us the performance of a story, Stendhal offers us a performance. Since the events, the actions, the characters, are, of themselves, so real, so vivid, of such interest, telling us about them any which way will not make much of a difference: a supreme confidence in the subject itself, seen through the narration–no matter the flaws or distortions of the lens, we will watch.
But of course this is itself a calculated performance; a resistance to “style,” to the presumption that turning a fine phrase really helps in these matters, a skepticism as to whether we should claim any single performance. The story happens to have happened; these people happen to have lived; they can be told another time—and this may not be the first telling—in fact, the wary distance from characters, the sudden transitions, the interjected morality, suggests that it is old gossip, something that does not need the finished plan of a novel. Because of the implicit confidence, we can come to believe in the characters all the more, come to believe all the more that the narrator knows them, and that he does not and cannot know them authoritatively, definitively.
Stendhal, like Tolstoy again, is never cruel—cruelty is a vice of those haunted by civilization and refinement (Austen, Nabokov): he instead risks brutality. But brutality is a better risk to run, ethically, even if it makes for worse reading (indulging in the prose of, say, either Amis, thrills for the sharp turns and shallow digs). Brutality, unlike cruelty, is founded on honesty; when we tell someone that they are being brutal, it is not because they distort the truth, or even take pleasure in watching another suffer from the truth (both possibilities for those who cruelly purr over the tangled thread of another’s life), but because they want that truth to be known so much that they can allow themselves to feel no compunction in stating it.
But that would not be an accurate description of Stendhal’s narrator: he does not seem so driven by a passionate integrity. And he spares himself the callousness that may accompany it. Instead, he wants the truth because it is what happened, because without it, there is no story: it is a devotion to the characters that leads to it, coming as it does from compassion, and he delivers it because to understand these people, some of whom he loves, it is necessary. Some he hates–but he is not cruel to Valenod: he dismisses him from the novel with a dignified repugnance that would not truck with torture, even if it gives us an honest assessment of what the narrator sees (considers) him to be.
T.S. Eliot: Stendhal’s scenes, some of them, and some of his phrases, read like cutting one’s own throat; they are a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of human feelings and human illusions of feeling that they force upon the reader.
“Force upon”–“terrible humiliation”—testimonies to Stendhal’s brutality.
The brutality manifesting above all in the granular discontinuities of style that Gide observed: the narration bearing immediate relation only to the present because in the present a new feeling supersedes an old, without apparent cause, because the moment of self-deception is sudden, because feelings are always in sequence, without obvious continuity, the absurdly false interrupting the pathetically true unexpectedly, perhaps only brief, or pathetically false interrupting the absurdly true, and the notation that would be honest, cannot claim greater homogeneity or continuity than this.
Hence moments like this:
That day, Mathilde was unaffectedly tender, like some poor girl who lived high on the fifth story, but she could not get him to speak more straightforwardly. He did not realize it, but he was paying her back for the torments she had often inflicted.
Brutal pity, that.