Skip to main content

Stendhal, portrait by Johan Olaf Sodermark (1790-1848) in the collection of the Chateau of Versailles


Fabrizio, Stendhal’s hero in The Charterhouse of Parma, has dashed off to France to meet up with his own idol, Napoleon, arriving just in time for the Battle of Waterloo—which, famously, he stumbles and sleeps through without ever quite knowing where he is or what’s going on. Now he’s been summoned home by his family, but the police in Milan are looking for him, and he’s forced to hole up in Geneva. At this point we’re given one of those scenes that justifies Balzac’s claim that a novel by Stendhal “often contains a whole book in a single page.”

Before leaving Geneva, in one of the dreary cafés of the place, he picked a fight with a young man who, he told himself, stared at him in a strange way. Which was indeed the case, since the phlegmatic young Genevan, a rational creature who thought only of money, believed him to be mad; Fabrizio, entering the café, had glared furiously around him, and then upset the cup of coffee he’d been brought all over his breeches. In this dispute, Fabrizio’s first impulse was right out of the sixteenth century: instead of challenging the young Genevan to a duel, he drew his dagger and flung himself upon him, attempting to stab him. In this moment of passion, Fabrizio had forgotten all he had ever learned about the rules of honour and fell back on his instincts, or, to put it more exactly, the memories of earliest childhood.

Stendhal, with Balzac, was “the creator of realism,” the man who first expressed the “modern consciousness of reality,” by grasping the concrete “circumstances of a perfectly definite historical moment.” Erich Auerbach develops his famous analysis of Stendhal by looking at The Red and the Black, but it’s just as applicable to Charterhouse. In the café, Fabrizio’s passionate individuality looks back to the Renaissance (perhaps Stendhal chose Parma as his setting because of his love for Corregio, who was born there), but it’s equally rooted in instinct and infancy, and is opposed by a rationality that is already mercenary and so immediately senses Fabrizio as mad. The young Genevan, ne songeant qu’à l’argent—“with only money on his mind,” as Richard Howard translates it—is presumably a banker wanting a little peace and quiet to mull over his bills of exchange.

This “modern consciousness” emerges from Stendhal’s biography. Of course his real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. Born in Grenoble in 1783, six years before the Revolution, his father was sufficiently Royalist to be suspected by the Terror, but after Stendhal’s mother died—he was seven—he spent a good deal of time with his grandfather, a Voltairean doctor who turned his grandson into a republican. Sent to Paris to study, a family connection found him a place in Napoleon’s entourage and most of his public career was spent in service to the Emperor—the only man, he claimed, he ever respected. There’s no doubt that his republicanism was genuine. In 1828, the Milan police called him a “dangerous foreigner” and he was forbidden to enter Lombardy again, and in 1831 the Austrians were still suspicious enough to deny him credentials as French Consul in Trieste. And yet he always had one foot in the world of the ancien regime. “I love the people, I hate their oppressors, but it would be a perpetual torture for me to live with the people…I have still the most aristocratic tastes. I would do everything for the happiness of the people, but I would sooner, I believe, pass two weeks every month in prison than live with shopkeepers.” So, despite his standing with the authorities, Stendhal was hardly a revolutionary. Indeed, as far as he was concerned, the revolution had already happened. After 1815 and Naopleon’s fall, the time when Stendhal began to write, he had only an uneasy place in society: as a republican-aristocrat he was doubly alienated from the Bourbon Restoration and then the regnum of Louis Phillipe. It is this stance that allows him his sharp, ironic, worldly objectivity.

With his “modern” consciousness, Stendhal saw the world in a new way, but the manner of his looking often obscures what he saw, and how it impressed itself on him. He had no interest in ideology, in developing or illustrating a “system.” As Auerbach puts it, he had “no preconceived rationalistic system concerning the general factors which determine social life.” Precisely because of this, Stendhal was open to the exceptional, concrete elements in the world he looked out on, filtering them through his remarkable sensibility. (And his sensibility was sufficiently remarkable to lend his name to the Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which a person is physically and emotionally overwhelmed before a work of art.) Some of these particulars were more important than others, defining and determining the new world and Stendhal’s view of it. Fabrizio’s encounter in the café highlights the most important of all: money.

Money was an important element in the writing of many nineteenth century novelists. Thomas Piketty’s Capital spends a good deal of time analyzing its role in Jane Austen and Balzac (especially Le Père Goriot), with nods to Henry James and Tolstoy. He never mentions Stendhal. I can see why. Balzac and Jane Austen are immersed in their worlds in a way Stendhal is never quite immersed in is—they can identify with the world in a way he never manages to, and his alienation necessarily gives him an exterior, analytical eye. As journalists, Balzac and Austen provide Piketty with usefully precise detail on the levels of capital and income required to maintain differing class positions: in both cases, a comfortable life required enough capital to generate an income 50 times the national average. To be sure, Stendhal occasionally does the same, as in this passage about Count Mosca, speculating about his fall and disgrace for defending Fabrizio:

He made a reckoning of his fortune: he had come to the Ministry with 80,000 francs to his name; greatly to his surprise, he found that, all told, his fortune at that moment did not amount to 500,000 francs: “that is an income of 20,000 lire at the most,” he said to himself. “I must admit that I am a great simpleton! There is not a citizen in Parma who does not suppose me to have an income of 150,000 lire, and the Prince, in that respect, is no less vulgar than any of them.”

As data, this is pretty much in line with Piketty. Count Mosca expected 4% on his capital and that’s what French rentes paid; British “consols” returned 3%. His wretched income of 20,000 lira was between 40 and 60 times what an average worker or laborer might earn, and the income he’d prefer—150,00 lira, roughly $350,000—required capital of close to 4 million lira. And Stendhal, of course, understands how important all this is; but not to him. Balzac and Austen are in their world as they record such details, but it isn’t his. It’s fundamentally alien, and doesn’t represent progress but something else. To Stendhal, money becomes the negative pole in every opposition, including the Italian and French national characters as he ironically presents them “To The Reader.” I confess that I have been so bold as to leave my [Italian] characters with their natural asperities…To what purpose should I give them the exalted morality and other graces of French characters, who love money above all things, and sin scarcely ever from motives of hatred or love? In a world devoid of sentiment, passion and honour, money is all that’s left, as Fabrizio’s aunt, the Duchess Sanseverina, explains to Parma’s Princess: “Ma’am,” went on the Duchessa, “except for my friend, the Marchese Crescenzi, who has an income of three or four hundred thousand lire, everyone here steals; and how should they not steal in a country where the recognition of the greatest services lasts for not quite a month? It means that there is nothing real, nothing that survives disgrace, save money.

To Stendhal, this world of money is a novelty, and though he understands how it works, his response holds a kind of fascination and wonder. Money, currency, pours over the book in splendid profusion, a dream of numismatic delight. We hear of the liard, franc, sou, napoleon, lievre, lira, centime, yellow-boy, scudo, oboi, soldi (soldus, solidus), louis, bajocchi, centismo—even the sequin, a tiny gold coin first struck at the end of the 13th century that continued unchanged in design to the Napoleonic era. It figures in Fabrizio’s escape from his tower prison. Some accounts suggest that Fabrizio, mad as ever, had the idea of acting the part of the devil, and that he flung these soldiers a handful of sequins… One thing certain is that he had scattered sequins upon the floor of his room, and that he scattered more on the platform on his way from the Torre Farnese to the parapet, so as to give himself the chance of distracting the attention of the soldiers who might come in pursuit of him.

For Stendhal, this money world is novel because his aristocratic sensibility recalls a time when family and name, title and inheritance, counted for more than coin. That world was passing away; had passed away. Remarkably, even this early in the nineteenth century, Stendhal is full of nostalgia. It was with ecstasy that the Contessa recaptured the memories of her earliest childhood and compared them with her present sensations. “The Lake of Como,” she said to herself, “is not surrounded, like the Lake of Geneva, by wide tracts of land enclosed and cultivated according to the most approved methods, which suggest money and speculation. Here, on every side, I see hills of irregular height covered with clumps of trees that have grown there at random, which the hand of man has never yet spoiled and forced to yield a return. Standing among these admirably shaped hills which run down to the lake at such curious angles, I can preserve all the illusions of Tasso’s and Ariosto’s descriptions. All is noble and tender, everything speaks of love, nothing recalls the ugliness of civilization”. Romanticism, full blown. Yes; but also very precise in the way “the ugliness of civilization” is linked to a specifically financial speculation. The opposite to Lake Como, note, is Lake Geneva—perhaps Fabrizio’s café, and the rational young man thinking only of money, overlooked it.

The Contessa’s reflections are possible because of her childhood memories; these vast changes have taken place within one lifetime. So it was with Stendhal. And recall that Fabrizio, in the café, falls back on his infancy. Preserved by individual memory, their response to a monetized world is already becoming atavistic. In our own world, where there are no other “values” but money, this response is kept very much alive. Our contraries to money are always “natural.” Popular imaginings of peace and paradise recall Ariosto even if no one knows who he is, and everyone at least thinks they believe in “love.” No doubt this is a problem. We cannot imagine a future beyond a monetized world—on the other side of it—without invoking a lost, ancient past that can hardly be revived. Of course, as Stendhal was writing his novel—it was published in 1839—the future of money already lay elsewhere, in the United States. The most prescient of novelists, who believed he’d only be understood long after his death, Stendhal had already been there, at least in his mind. Having dodged back into Italy after his French and Genevan adventures, Fabrizio “spoke of going to New York, of becoming an American citizen and soldier of the Republic.” His aunt, the Duchessa, won’t hear of it. “What a mistake you are making…Believe me, for you just as much as for myself, it would be a wretched existence there in America.” She explained to him the cult of the god Dollar, and the respect that had to be shown to the artisans in the street who by their vote decided everything… Later on, Stendhal offers a more general judgment on the new world of money his novel has described. From the whole business, one can derive this moral, that the man who mingles with a court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and, in any event, makes his future depend on the intrigues of a chambermaid. On the other hand, in America, in the Republic, one has to spend the whole weary day paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the street, and must become as stupid as they are; and there, one has no Opera… No opera? For this revolutionary-artistocrat, and lover of all things Italian, here was an end to the matter.