‘My faith, it it’s coquetry, I’m caught, if you can call it being caught to experience keen pleasure.’ This is the great womaniser and early French realist writer Stendhal confiding to his diary exactly 200 years ago today. According to Robert Sage, the editor and translator of his journals, Stendhal was an egotist with ‘a positive mania’ for recording his life and thoughts, for ‘putting black on white’.
Marie-Henri Beyle was born in Grenoble in 1783 but his mother died when he was only seven, and he disliked his father and his home life. He left at 16 for Paris where, in 1800, through the influence of a relative, he travelled to Italy and signed up with Napoleon’s army, and took part in the Italian Campaign. Within a couple of years, though, he was back in Paris determined to become a writer, and a playwright in particular. In 1806, when his father had stopped his allowance and a love affair with an actress had failed, he was again helped, by his influential relative, to a position in Napoleon’s administration. During the next few years, he travelled extensively in Germany, and was part of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign into Russia.
After Napoleon’s defeat, Beyle went to Milan where he met Byron among others, and published books on travel and painting, using the pen-name Stendhal, as well as biographies of Napoleon and Rossini. He was an inveterate womaniser, anxious to make sexual conquests and falling in love regularly; he was also considered something of a dandy. In 1820-1821, with prominent liberals being arrested, and suspicions that he was a French spy, Stendhal returned to Paris. The following year, he published his innovative psychological analysis of love, De L’Amour (On Love); but in 1827, critics panned his first novel Armance.
After the accession of King Louis-Philippe, Stendhal was appointed a consul in Trieste, but the Austrians refused to accept him, and he went to a lesser post at Cività Vecchia in the Papal States. In 1830 he published Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), and then, after a sojourn in Paris and some travelling in France, La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma). Both novels are considered among the earliest and foremost works of literary realism. He died in 1842. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Kirjasto, the International Napoleonic Society, and J J Haldane’s website Stendhal Forever.
Stendhal kept a private journal for much of his life. A selection of diary entries first appeared in French in 1888 as Journal de Stendhal, with further entries emerging in 1911. The full texts, edited and annotated by Henry Debraye and Louis Royer, were published in five volumes between 1923 and 1934. Then, in 1937, Henri Martineau published a further five volume edition of the complete text - taking up nearly two thousand pages. The diaries first appeared in English in 1954, thanks to Doubleday in New York - The Private Diaries of Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) - edited and translated by Robert Sage. A Victor Gollancz edition came out in London the following year.
In his introduction, Sage says: ‘[Beyle] had a positive mania for “putting black on white”: thinking and writing were almost synonymous. Immediately a thought came to his mind, the impulse was to jot it down somewhere, anywhere, on the margin of a book or manuscript if one were within reach, in the dust on the furniture if it were not; there were even occasions when he scratched notes on his bedroom slippers, his suspenders, or across the crystal of his watch. Throughout his youth the diaries served as the principal recipient for this torrent of egotism. Everything went into them: the most intimate details of his love affairs; his impressions - largely unfavourable - of plays, books, and his fellow men; his own rare triumphs and frequent blunders; his experiences in the army, as a functionary and dandy of the Empire; . . . his medical prescriptions and his amatory theories; his dreams and disgusts; his reflections on the manners and morals of his century; his everlasting pursuit of elusive womanhood; his extravagant ambitions and his humiliating setbacks - all the thousand and one things that held his attention a minute or a decade during the period when his destiny, like that of France, was linked to the fortunes of Napoleon.’
And here are two extracts from The Private Diaries of Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle).
13 December 1810
‘Outside the D of R (whom I sleep with once a week), I’m as chaste as the devil. As the result, I’m getting fatter. It seems to me that since I’ve been an Auditor I’ve forgotten my amorous disposition. Possibly it feeds the fire in my head. I believe I could easily lose the habit of women. I lack almost entirely the talent of possessing common women, otherwise I’d have struck up a conversation a hundred times with Mme Boucher (I believe), of the Buffa, and at the end of six days I’d have had her.
Yesterday, I wrote to the little Bereyter. I had some fun Tuesday with Amélie and Mimi. “You are very agreeable, I take great pleasure in seeing you.” The next thing is to pinch their thighs and be capable of giving myself up to all possible gaiety. I sang aloud a superb song, for I composed the words and music as I went along. . .
I wrote some letters to the terrible Probus, but I never speak to him and hardly ever see him. I haven’t spoken to him about business in his office since the day he railed at me a bit after a three-hour conference with M Six and M Costaz. The latter is a model of self-importance. That’s the only way to hold your own with a man of Probus’s kind, and all the mighty ones are somewhat alike in that respect. It makes me indignant to be obliged to put on the soporific mask of the most kill-joy silliness in order to succeed with the bores in power.’
18 December 1810
‘My faith, it it’s coquetry, I’m caught, if you can call it being caught to experience keen pleasure.
There were fifteen or twenty people present, they were about to start some games; she was beside the fireplace, two women kept me from approaching her. She came over to me with that decision given by a keen desire to which one yields, in order to come over to me she took four or five steps, and stopped to speak to me in the middle of the salon. I’m not very sure what she said to me, I didn’t pay much attention to it; in this salon I was like a prince who is vain and who finds himself among people to whom his ribbons, his orders and all his dignitaries are invisible. I happened to be near the sofa to the right of the door, I was playing with the children to give myself countenance. She suddenly came over, seated herself beside me and said: “Mama told me to ask you if it’s true that the louis is going to be demonetized the first of January etc. . .” (not altogether said in those terms).
I replied, and at once the conversation turned to what interested us. Her face, on which the expression of feeling is extremely rare, had such a look of loving me, and her eyes regarded me with so much happiness that I restrained myself just as I was about to take her hand. We happened to change places a moment later, and, while seated, she spoke to three ladies who were standing up, I at her side. A man was mentioned, and she asked, “Is he young? Is he amiable? Does he look intelligent?” with the liveliest and warmest expression of happy love. She congratulated herself on her choice and took pleasure in praising, in his presence, the lover to whom hasn’t yet confessed her love, and, as she talked, in urging him to be aggressive. Her face was animated and full of passion. Her soul seemed to be stirred. If, during the past year, she’d had a quarter of this expression in one of our languishing tete-a-tete, it would at once have become delightful. I looked at her fondly, and her soul being stirred, she must have read in mine.
Surely it was the fredetto that was beginning to take effect. Every time she told me that she’d be home she added a phrase begging me to come to see her.
In all the time I’ve known her, this was the day when I saw the most ardent expression of love in her. Things had reached a point where all would have been over at once if we’d been alone.’