Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Life of Henri Brulard

The Life of Henri Brulard is an unfinished autobiography that was written between 1835 and 1836 by Marie-Henri Bayle, better known as Stendhal. He began writing it when he was fifty-two years old but only got as far as age seventeen before giving up. It covers the period from his birth in Grenoble in 1783 to his arrival in Milan in 1800. Several aspects of it are interesting. First, he did not write it with the intention of publication during his lifetime, and it was in fact not published until 1890, 48 years after his death in 1842; this freed him from the constraints of pleasing editors and the public. Second, he was an unusually honest writer and took a closer look at himself and his environment than most writers are willing or able to do. Finally, from a historical standpoint, anyone interested in French literature would find Stendhal's observations about his times illuminating.

The major event of his childhood was the death of his mother when he was seven. He had been close to her and apparently she had an artistic temperament. His father was a conservative, social-climbing lawyer who took pains to appear more aristocratic than he actually was, and he had no rapport whatsoever with his son, who seems to have been a daydreamer from an early age. His father's aristocratic pretensions could not have occurred at a worse time – during the French Revolution – and his name appeared on a list when The Terror reached Grenoble. Luckily for him the revolutionary turmoil had become subdued by then. Henri's mother's sister, Séraphie, became his substitute mother, and he detested her. Somehow she and his father decided that Henri should lead a strictly controlled life consisting of studying Latin with Jesuit tutors and avoiding contact with other children. He was not allowed to engage in sports or go outside alone and was forced to walk under the accompaniment of adults. Séraphie was a religious fanatic, and in hindsight Henri speculates that she was mentally ill.

All was not bad, though, because his mother's aunt Elizabeth looked out for him. He came to associate her with "Castilianism," which he thought of as a kind of nobility and innocence that was incompatible with bourgeois society and nonexistent in his father. His mother's father, M. Gagnon, who was Elizabeth's brother, lived in the same house and had an even greater influence on him. M. Gagnon was a physician with literary interests, and he discussed literature with Henri throughout his childhood. However, M. Gagnon had a timid personality and did not intervene on Henri's behalf even when it became obvious that he was being severely repressed by his father and Séraphie.

Eventually Henri entered school, where he excelled at math. At the age of sixteen he moved in with relatives in Paris with the expectation that he would study for the entrance exam to the École Polytechnique. Henri is quite good at describing and summing up people, and here is what he says about his Parisian relatives:

M. Daru was a tall, rather fine-looking old man, with a big nose, which was rather uncommon in Dauphiné; he had a slight cast in one eye, and a rather false manner. He had with him a little shriveled old woman, thoroughly provincial, who was his wife; he had married her in past days for the sake of her fortune, which was considerable, and, in spite of this, she hardly dared to breathe in his presence.

Mme Daru was good-natured at heart, and very polite, with a dignified little manner which would have suited the wife of a sous-préfet in the provinces. For the rest, I have never met a creature more devoid of the divine fire. Nothing in the world could have stirred her soul in favor of anything noble or generous. In souls of that kind, an utterly selfish prudence, which is their boast, takes the place of all choleric or generous emotion.

This prudent, wise, but hardly admirable disposition formed the character of her elder son, the Comte Daru, Minister and Secretary of State to Napoleon, who had so much influence on my life; of Mlle Sophie, afterward Mme de Baure, who was deaf; and of Mme Le Brun, now Marquise de Graves.

The second son, Martial Daru, had neither judgment not intelligence, but a good heart; it was impossible for him to do a bad turn to anyone.

Perhaps Mme Cambon, the eldest daughter of M. and Mme Daru, had a noble character, but I only caught a glimpse of it; she died a few months after my arrival in Paris.

Despite having fantasized for years about escaping from Grenoble to Paris, Henri disliked Paris immediately. He lost interest in gaining admission to the École and preoccupied himself with implausible ideas such as that of becoming a comedic playwright in the manner of Molière or that of composing operas – even though he had no training at all in music. Before long, M. Daru confronted him about his idleness, and arrangements were made by Comte Daru to place Henri in a job at the War Office. Soon he was off to Milan, where the book ends.

Obviously, in this early stage of his life, Henri could have benefited from some good advice, but he never got it. I particularly liked this passage:

Ah! How much good a good piece of advice would have done me at that time! How much good the same advice would have done me in 1821! But devil take me if anyone ever gave it to me. I saw it for myself about 1826, but it was almost too late, and, besides, it was too upsetting to my habits. I have since seen clearly that it is the sine qua non in Paris; but I should also have had less truth and originality in my literary ideas.

What a difference it would have made if M. Daru or Mme Cambon had said to me in January 1800:
"My dear cousin, if you wish to have any standing in society, it is necessary that twenty people should be interested in speaking well of you. Consequently, choose a salon, do not fail to go there every Tuesday (if that is the right day); make it your business to be charming, or at least very polite, to all the people who frequent this salon. You will be somebody in society; you may hope to win the favor of a charming woman when you are supported by two or three salons. By the end of ten years of perseverance, these salons, if you choose them in our rank of society, will bring you all you want. The essential thing is to persevere, and be one of the faithful few who call every Tuesday."

While my knowledge of French literature is limited, Stendhal seems to me to occupy an important position in it. He was not famous during his lifetime, but his influence was significant. I place him between Rousseau and Balzac. This particular work seems to have been loosely based on Rousseau's Confessions, though, more accurately, the two writers had little in common. Rousseau's lasting influence has been in Enlightenment ideas, whereas Stendhal's has been more purely literary. Balzac acknowledges Stendhal as an influence, and you can see it in his sharp, caricature-like characters. I haven't read any other works by Stendhal, but would guess that he portrays people more precisely than Balzac. Thus, Stendhal fills the position of an early realist, a style that blossomed under Flaubert and still exists in a somewhat degraded form in modern fiction. By the time Proust and Kafka came along, fiction had become so stylized that basic perceptions had already taken a back seat to uncritical descriptions of the status quo. Though there is something to be said for Proust's linguistic elegance, his jarring vacuity on the psychological make-ups of his characters makes him almost unreadable to me. Oddly, basic psychological and sociological insights are almost nowhere to be found in modern fiction – thus my lack of interest in it.

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