Stendahlby Jonathan Keates
Stendhal, slave to love and the pursuit of happiness, an elusively attractive figure, is here reanimated in all his triumphs and contradictions. This intelligent, exceptionally well-written biography presents the full operatic flow of a life of lasting accomplishment. See more details below
Stendhal, slave to love and the pursuit of happiness, an elusively attractive figure, is here reanimated in all his triumphs and contradictions. This intelligent, exceptionally well-written biography presents the full operatic flow of a life of lasting accomplishment.
- Da Capo Press
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THE CHILDHOOD OF H.B.
`I have written the life of several great men,' Stendhal once scribbled on the flyleaf of a copy of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe. `This was the kind of work which I enjoyed best. I no longer have the patience to search for materials and to weigh up contradictory opinions. It has occurred to me that I might embark on a life all of whose incidents I know extremely well. Unfortunately the subject, myself, is entirely unknown. I was born at Grenoble on the 23rd Janurary, 1783...'
Stendhal bitterly loathed his home town, `the capital of pettiness', but clung affectionately to memories of its surrounding countryside. The Dauphine is the name given to the mountainous region of south-eastern France which lies between the Rhone and the Savoyard passes leading into Italy. Its landscape of Alpine crags, fir forests, swift-flowing rivers and wooded vales dotted with farms and little manor houses appeals alike to the romantic paysagiste and to more restless travellers, ready to scramble up the beetling rock faces of the Deux-Soeurs in the Massif du Vercors, to tramp across the Gresivaudan valley towards the banks of the Isere, which cuts a slick line through the plain, or to walk the shuttered Gothic cloister of the Grande Chartreuse, where Thomas Gray in 1742 left a Latin poem in the monks' album, and where Matthew Arnold a century later seized on the monastery as a potent image of intellectual dislocation from the modern world.
If it is true that environment determines the temper of a people, then this terrain is the perfect mirror of regional history andcharacter. A long habit of rebellious independence among the dauphinois lies rooted in the singular political dispensation confirmed at the end of the thirteenth century, whereby the entire territory, including the city of Vienne and the counties of Die and Valence, became a principality, administered by the successive Dauphins, or Crown Princes, of France. By this arrangement, freedoms of a kind not enjoyed elsewhere in the kingdom were guaranteed. A local parliament upheld rights and privileges, protested regularly against unjust taxation and enjoyed the continued support of landowners and magistrates by its gestures of autonomy in the face of royal coercion. The loyalty of the humblest peasant, sharpened by the sense of aggressive wariness derived from living in a frontier zone, was first of all to the Estates of the Dauphine and some way afterwards to the King of France. Not for nothing was banishment to a neighbouring province such as Bresse or Provence considered the worst doom that the parliament could possibly pronounce.
By temperament, the dauphinois were seen as coarse-mannered, boastful spendthrifts, noted for both their dogged patience and extreme secretiveness. In addition to the two last qualities, Stendhal himself was proud to inherit the stubborn integrity and absolute scorn for hypocrisy which he saw as crucial to the local character. `The nature of the dauphinois,' he wrote, `is distinguished by a tenacity, a depth of intellect, a liveliness and a refinement which one might seek in vain in either of the neighbouring provinces of Provence or Burgundy.' Elsewhere he noted that, `in this region, covered with snow for six months of the year, since enforced idleness encourages people to occupy themselves with the making of ideas, the inhabitants have the misfortune of being original'. His fellow countrymen were wholly incapable of falsehood. `It is utterly beyond the nature of any dauphinois to become anyone's dupe. Even while bending the knee before the most triumphant hypocrisy, he can scarcely avoid incurring odium by showing, through some imprudent detail or other, that he has not been deceived.'
Doubtless these thumbnail sketches, like everything else Stendhal wrote, were intended ultimately to relate to his own notion of himself as a creature of invincible perspicacity and sophistication, yet it is hard to imagine him belonging anywhere else than in this comer of France which peers over into Italy. His father's family were peasants of the Vercors region, south-west of Grenoble, settled around the town of Saint-Jean-en-Royans, whose names appeared in official documents as Beile, Baile, Belle or Beyle. Stendhal was ready enough to boast of noble descent, but the social position of the Beyles was firmly established only in the seventeenth century, when Jean Beyle, son of Ambroise, set up as a draper in Lans and married Alix Clapasson of Sassenage in 1656.
It was as the captain-castellan of the Sassenage mountains that their elder son, Pierre, automatically gained a noble title, while the younger, Joseph, became a distinguished local lawyer, procureur of the Parlement de Grenoble and deputy bailiff of the Graisivaudan. When illness forced Joseph to give up his work in Grenoble, he handed on his duties to his son, Pierre, who subsequently made a most advantageous match, in 1734, with the daughter of the grenoblois merchant and banker Pierre Duperon.
All the Duperon girls married lawyers, but of the three Jeanne appears to have been the liveliest and was certainly the most fecund, bearing thirteen children in all. Ten daughters survived, but only one son, Cherubin, brought up to follow in his father's profession and made a procureur by special decree in 1764, when he was only seventeen years old. The Parlement, in granting the boy his certificate, presumably bore in mind the fact that his father's early death had left him with the unenviable task of providing for his sisters, only four of whom managed to find husbands. Earnest, dedicated and hardworking, Cherubin gathered practical experience and professional credit, so that by the year of his marriage in 1781, he was within reach of one of the highest legal honours Grenoble could offer, a seat among the forty advocates of the city's consistory court.
Whether Cherubin Beyle married for love or merely to consolidate his status as a successful lawyer is hard to say, though substantial sums of money in the form of a dowry and settlements certainly entered the calculation. His bride was Henriette-Adelaide-Charlotte Gagnon, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of a distinguished local doctor, who brought with her a portion of 20,000 francs and the expectation of a sizeable inheritance from her aunt Elisabeth. She was, as Stendhal himself tells us, plump, fresh-faced and very pretty, endowed with a noble serenity of demeanour and ceaslessly busy, preferring to do everything for herself rather than put her servants to work. Her favourite reading was Dante's Divine Comedy, of which she had five or six different editions in the original Italian.
Grenoble, where the newly married Beyles settled and brought up their three children, has never been noted either for architectural beauty or for charm of situation. Then as now, the grandeur of the mountainous backdrop set off a city whose rapid growth as a provincial capital had been directed by practical rather than aesthetic considerations. Cularo, the stronghold of a Gaulish tribe, the Allobroges, had been raised to civic status in AD 379 by the Emperor Gratian, with the sonorous title of Gratianopolis, and its subsequent development had always been governed by the line of Roman fortifications, strengthened during the Middle Ages and completed with the thrusting star-points of Vaubanesque ramparts which became such a familiar feature of frontier cities during the late seventeenth century.
Travellers sardonically noted the depressing colours of the two rivers embracing the town. The Isere, even when purged by winter rains and floods, was a perpetual dirty grey, while the Drac stayed a muddy yellow. Even the most benign visitor could hardly ignore the pervasive stench of urine wafted from the dark, foetid alleyways, a grenoblois particular lasting into the present century, when a guidebook writer could still observe, nostrils wrinkling with distaste: `It is necessary to have been accustomed from childhood to such disgusting spectacles, such revolting odours, in order to suffer them without strenuous protest .... the houses are often as filthy as the streets; the majority of passageways and staircases resemble public rubbish heaps.'
Unable to spread outwards, Grenoble had to make do with growing upwards, in a series of tall, dismal, barrack-like apartment buildings arranged around dank, sunless courtyards, and it was on the second floor of one of these, number 14 Rue des Vieux-Jesuites, that Cherubin and Henriette Beyle settled after their marriage. The street, poky and charmless, remains more or less as it always was, though it has been renamed Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau to commemorate a brief visit by the celebrated Swiss in 1768. A plaque commemorates the birth here, on 23 January 1783, of the Beyles' only surviving son, Marie-Henri.
He was not their first child. A year previously, an earlier Henri had died after only four days. Psychology makes much of the spectral sibling within the life of the family, and the burdens of remorse and self-reproach no doubt lay as heavily upon the Beyle household as on any other. Some at least of the tension which was to develop between Stendhal and his father may have been due to frustrated expectations connected with his dead brother which he himself was intended to fulfil.
On the day after his birth the boy was baptized Marie-Henri in the church of Saint Hugucs. His two godparents were his grandfather, Dr Henri Gagnon, and Marie Rabit, widow of his father's noble cousin, Jean-Baptiste Beyle. If in naming her as godmother, Cherubin hoped to strengthen links with the grander branch of the family, he was to be disappointed, for she died the following year at the age of eighty.
It is typical of Stendhal that his earliest childhood memory should foreshadow the perpetual ambiguities of his adult relationships with women. Marie-Louise-Marguerite Pison du Galland was the wife of his mother's cousin, Alexis, a promising young advocate and banker who had been a witness at the Beyles' wedding. Fifty years later he wrote:
I see her now, a woman of twenty-five, rather plump and wearing a great deal of rouge. Apparently it was this rouge which annoyed me. As she sat in the middle of a field known as the Glacis de la porte de Bonne, her cheek came exactly level with mine. `Kiss me, Henri,' said she. I didn't want to. She grew angry. I bit her hard. I remember the incident, probably because I was made instantly to feel guilty for it and the matter was endlessly referred to.
The episode shows, of course, the writer as he would have wished us to see him, contra mundum, recusant, out of step, the unconventional anti-hero of an entirely conventional childhood episode. Madame Pison du Galland might nevertheless have known better, for Henri's kisses were exclusively reserved for his mother, with whom, as he frankly tells us, he was in love. He wanted, he says, to cover her with kisses, adding, `and that there should be no clothes. She loved me passionately, kissed me often, and I resumed her embraces with such ardour that she was often obliged to leave the room.' The intensity of his passion was unforgettable. `She could not be offended by the liberty I took in revealing my love for her: if ever I find her again I shall tell her of it once more. For herself she took no part in it ... as for me, I was as criminal as possible, frenzied in my adoration of her.'
Her death in childbirth on 23 November 1790 was due to the clumsiness of the accoucheur, apparently chosen out of pique towards another male midwife who was a great deal better at his job. Around two o'clock in the morning, little Henri, staying at his grandfather's house, awoke to find the entire household in tears. When the old maidservant, Marion, told him his mother was dead, he was incredulous: `Why couldn't the doctors make her better? Shall I never see her again?' Hearing the priest, Abbe Rey, assuring the tearful Cherubin that Henriette's death was `God's work', the boy found the reality still more impossible to accept. Only on the following day, when he went into the drawing room and saw the coffin under its black pall, was he overcome with violent despair. The very sound of Grenoble's cathedral bells, heard many years afterwards, was enough to remind him of this moment, `inducing a sombre, arid sadness empty of tenderness, the sort of sadness which is akin to anger'.
After the funeral, Henriette's husband ordered her room to be closed, and it stayed sealed for ten years, Henri alone being entrusted with a key and permitted to study mathematics there at a table covered with a waxed cloth. The date of his mother's death remained momentous for him. In Vie de Henry Brulard, the amazingly confessional account of his early life, first conceived in Italy when he was nearly fifty, but made public almost half a century after his death, he noted with laconic significance: `At this point my moral life began.'
It is by no means unusual for a sensitive child to blame the premature death of one parent on the unfortunate surviving partner, and this certainly happened to Cherubin Beyle. Stendhal was entirely candid in expressing a profound detestation of his father. The wretched man was accorded no mitigating virtues except a reverence for his dead wife's memory:
He was an excessively dislikable man, always concerned with the purchase and sale of property, very sharp, accustomed to dealing with peasants, an arch-dauphinois.... What is more, he was extremely wrinkled and ugly, becoming silent and disconcerted even in front of women, whose presence was necessary to him.
Religiosity brought on by Madame Beyle's death made Cherubin increasingly ridiculous and there was even talk of him taking holy orders, though this idea was mercifully scotched by his desire to hand on his advocate's practice to his son at his death.
None of these aspects of Cherubin's character hurt Henri as much as an absolute failure to love the boy for himself rather than for what he represented in terms of an heir to name, status and wealth. A complete coldness developed between the two of them, which the years never succeeded in dissipating. The city of Grenoble, which Stendhal not, we may suppose, without an awareness of the punning potential in its first syllable referred to by the ancient Gaulish name of Cularo, was frequently identified both in spirit and appearance with the money-grubbing, culture-disdaining ethos of his father, to whom he attributed the prevailing joylessness of his childhood and adolescence.
This at any rate is the father whose reality Stendhal invites us to accept. Readers of his novels, accustomed to the blurred edges between fiction and truth in these works, and indeed to the way in which the true so often threatens to engulf the fictive, may well be somewhat wary of the portrait of Beyle pere which emerges from Vie de Henry Brulard. Here as elsewhere, Stendhal is so downright as regards his own version of his life that our automatic impulse is to want to contradict him a reaction he would surely have enjoyed. In the case of Cherubin Beyle, alas, there seem to have been very few factors to mitigate his son's harsh verdict. At best his obsession with the getting rather than the spending of money can be viewed as provident thrift, while his dry meticulousness and emotional detachment must in part have been the results of a legal training which stood him in good stead as he gradually climbed the professional ladder towards becoming one of Grenoble's forty consistorial advocates.
To join this self-elected band of senior lawyers brought privileges along with kudos. Once accepted, Cherubin would have found himself exempted from a number of local taxes and accorded the permission to hunt which marked him as a gentleman. The consistorial advocates were in essence a minor aristocracy, even if their hereditary rights had been abolished in the sixteenth century by Henri II. Cherubin's snobbery, as a member of a family only recently risen from among small tradesmen and peasant farmers, would undoubtedly have been flattered by such distinctions, of a kind calculated to push him further towards royalism and reaction in the coming revolutionary decade of the 1790s. `Beyle' was now a respected grenoblois name, to be proclaimed by a coat of arms with which the lawyer sealed his letters.
`My father,' wrote Stendhal at the full tide of filial resentment, `loved me only as the bearer of his name, but never as a son.' Yet the more we examine the writer's character, tastes and reactions, the closer, however ironically, he appears to the hated Cherubin. The two shared not just the doggedness and prudence typical of their dauphinois heritage, but also an essential secretiveness and reserve. Not for nothing did Henri's friend Francois Bigillion say of the family: `You are Beyles, thus always hiding something. Perhaps this is just because of the way you appear or the way in which I look at you, but you haven't the kind of openness which strikes one at first meeting; it's necessary to get to know you.'
More significant than this, in view of the novelist's adult relationships, are the indications of his father's suppressed emotional life. The piety and moral earnestness which Cherubin evidently hoped to teach the young Henri by example covered springs of deep sensitivity, though one of the more astounding features of Vie de Henry Brulard is Stendhal's pitiless refusal, even as he enumerates such essential traits, to concede their humanity. He tells us how his father wept for the dead Henriette, how he rocked his daughter Zenaide to sleep on his knee, of his passionate enthusiasms and his need for women. None of these details, however, is allowed to soften the portrait the writer resolutely thrusts upon us of a cold, formal hypocrite, meriting all his son's loftiest contempt.
The trouble seems to have been that Cherubin was a bore. Endless letters to Henri on such topics as viticulture, merino sheep and dairy farming were no substitute for the warmth and charm that had vanished from the house with the death of the enchanting Madame Beyle, who, as Stendhal had good reason to believe, never really loved her husband. To whom, amid the gloomy, joyless atmosphere prevailing in the Rue des Vieux-Jesuites, was the boy Henri to turn for attention and love?
Not, it appeared, to his mother's youngest sister, Seraphie Gagnon, now taking her place in the family as the kind of sourfaced maiden aunt who lives by bullying and manipulating her relatives and by pretending to martyr herself on the altar of domestic duty. Whatever compassion we may feel towards Seraphie, charged with managing the Beyle household and provided with little in the way of emotional or material recompense, evidence scarcely softens Stendhal's portrait of an ignorant, vindictive, mean-spirited harridan.
She hated her nephew as much as he loathed her. The boy's maturing cynicism, that rational intelligence inherited as a birthright from the enlightened France of Voltaire, Diderot and Condorcet in which he was born, stood entirely at odds with his aunt's strenuously exhibited Catholic piety, which, according to him, brought priests flocking to her deathbed. A ferocious royalist, whom the news of Louis XVI's execution sent into a paroxysm of hysterical rage, she mistrusted the written word as an agent of progress and a malign influence on young minds, the more so because Henri was so avid a reader. Without a sense of humour and hopelessly insensitive to the subtler gradations of feeling in others, whether children or adults, she quickly assumed the role of uncontested tyrant in a family whose members found it opportune to suppress their instinctive reactions rather than challenge her authority head on.
It is easy to see where the problem lay. Among the three Beyle children, Henri, for whatever reason, was the one most calculated to remind his aunt of her own childlessness. Anything that made her notice him was thus worthy of punishment, but the effect of her spiteful domestic edicts and neurotic rages penetrated more deeply than she can possibly have imagined. The adult Stendhal, for all his appearance of hardbitten detachment, nurtured a raw sensitivity which, when wounded, took comfort in bitterness and scorn. What gives Vie de Henry Brulard its singular vividness, muddled and rambling document though the work appears, is a sense that the creative act of writing it was in itself a judgement on those involved in the author's early life. His ultimate victory over Seraphie is to preserve her for us as the archetypal family ogress, the wicked stepmother of Stendhalian romance, yet something of her spirit seems ironically to inform his withering denunciation of her. Probably it is going too far to declare, in the words of an earlier biographer, that she `deformed his character and depraved him', but the edges of his cynicism and asperity and of his instinctive revolt against banal orthodoxy were unquestionably sharpened through their incessant skirmishes.
Mingled with Henri's detestation of her was a curious erotic ambivalence, on which he is as candid as ever:
Each morning she used to walk out bare-legged, without stockings, in the courtyard. I was seized with such a devil that the legs of my very worst enemy would have made an impression on me. I should willingly have fallen in love with Seraphie, conceiving a delicious pleasure in squeezing this relentless foe in my embrace.
Whatever its true nature, such a feeling did nothing to dampen his joy when, on 9 January 1797, Seraphie, aged only thirty-six, died after a long illness. The termagant who had dragged him out on long, boring walks, who had tried in vain to censor his reading, who had labelled him an impious liar and criminal, was dead at last, and the boy, hearing a servant say `she has passed away', sank to his knees on the kitchen floor to thank God for so great a deliverance. He was not alone. The entire family, after a week of decent sorrow, heaved a sigh of relief. Even his father, whom he characteristically suspected of a liaison with her, seemed thankful for the passing of this household devil.
By then, in any case, Henri's fear of Seraphie had been replaced by smouldering rage. One evening, incensed by the continual sneaking of his younger sister, Zenaide, he pencilled a caricature of her on the wall of the corridor outside his grandfather's dining room, captioned with the words: `Caroline Zenaide B telltale'. The customary after-supper card party was in progress, with the family and their guests playing boston, a French game whose technical terms were derived from the American War of Independence.
When Seraphie discovered the offending sketch, drawn in the guise of a framed portrait, her fury broke up the party. Two of her cousins, Antoinette Romagnier and Justine Colomb, happening to be present, were enlisted in support, but the pair, both of whom were as irritated by her fussing as they were devoted to Henri, rose from the table as though ready to go home, a move which merely made her more angry. As she advanced on the unrepentant culprit, he seized a wicker-bottomed chair to defend himself, holding it in front of him while he backed down the corridor towards the kitchen with his aunt in pursuit. There he remained, weeping indignantly at her stream of obloquy, bitterly ashamed of his tears, until it was time for supper. He had after all been right about Zenaide, towards whom he remained coldly suspicious for the rest of his life. With his other sister, Pauline, a closeness developed only when he left Grenoble and found in her an intelligent and lively correspondent. In the Beyle household itself, the sole source of emotional warmth and friendliness came from the servants, united in their dislike of Seraphie and a certain protective fondness for Henri.
He discovered an ally in his grandfather's valet, Vincent Lamberton, known as Lambert. The young man's initial rejection of his attachment with the occasional cuff round the ear only made Henri more fond of him. Intelligent, ambitious and eager to free himself from a menial position, Lambert had bought a mulberry tree and begun to cultivate silkworms. One day, climbing to pick the leaves, he fell off a ladder, and the resultant concussion led, after three days of blindness and delirium, to his death at the age of twenty-three.
The effect on Henri was devastating. Lambert was the first person beyond his immediate family circle for whom he had felt any genuine love:
The pain of Lambert's death was of a kind I have experienced throughout the rest of my life, a meditative, tearless, inconsolable sorrow. I was shattered and always on the point of collapsing as I entered, ten times a day, the room where my friend lay, and looked at his handsome face as he died. I shall never forget his beautiful black eyelashes and the air of health and strength which the fever only accentuated.... Once, in Italy, I saw a picture of Saint John watching the crucifixion of his friend and his God, and I was suddenly reminded of everything I experienced twenty five years before with the death of `poor Lambert' as we always called him thereafter. I could fill five or six pages with my precise and enduring recollections of such terrible grief. They nailed him in the coffin and carried him away .... Sunt lacrimae rerum.
A week or so later, Seraphie received one of her nephew's rare marks of approval when she vented her anger on the servant who brought her soup in the faience dish that had been used to catch Lambert's blood. As Henri burst into uncontrollable tears, she scolded him and he ran into the kitchen crying, `Infame, infame!' In nearly forty years he would never forget Lambert and `the paroxysms of love, enough to burst a blood vessel' he had felt towards the young man.
There was always the refuge of his grandfather's house in the Place Grenette. Stendhal treasured the memory of Dr Henri Gagnon not merely as a loving and companionable presence in the background of a lonely childhood, but also as symbolizing that part of his inheritance he most valued and wanted others to notice, that lively, pleasure-loving, desinvolte side to his character which he believed was the legacy of an Italian ancestry. Had not his great-aunt Elisabeth, after all, told him that Dr Gagnon was born in Avignon, `a city of Provence, the land where oranges came from, as she said with a sigh'? And had she not spoken also of an Italian forebear named Guadagni or Guadanianno, guilty of `some little murder', who had found sanctuary in the Pope's domain of Comtat-Venaissin during the seventeenth century?
Despite this obvious impulse towards wish-fulfilment by one of the most famous of all literary Italophiles, Stendhal's early biographers were disposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Paul Arbelet, in his monumental La Jeunesse de Stendhal (1919), even went so far as to produce an Italian connection in the person of a Johannes Gagnoni, mentioned in a fifteenth-century diocesan charter as settled at Bedarrides, between Avignon and Orange. Subsequent research has revealed, however, that either Elisabeth Gagnon or her nephew or both of them were romancing. Gagnon is a common enough name in the Midi, deriving from a generic word for the young of any farm animal (for example, the limousin word for a piglet, gagnoun) and the origins of the doctor's family were among humble Provencal peasants, without even the glamour of an unpunished crime, living at Monteux near Carpentras.
It was Jean Gagnon who, towards the end of the seventeenth century, became a military surgeon and moved to Avignon itself. Nobody has yet discovered why his son Antoine, an army doctor like his father, set off northwards to Grenoble, where he married Elisabeth Senterre, a draper's daughter, in 1718. Their son Henri, born ten years later, began his studies at Montpellier, the best-regarded medical school in France, and may have intended to follow family traditions by becoming a regimental surgeon. The desultory and ultimately inconclusive War of the Austrian Succession brought fierce fighting to France's south-eastern frontiers, and Henri Gagnon had his first and only taste of soldiering at the bloody battle of L'Assiette on 17 July 1747, when a French force was defeated by the troops of the King of Savoy, holding the Mont Cenis pass.
Prudently returning to Montpellier to complete his degree, Henri Gagnon at length set up in practice in his native city. As one of the consultant physicians at the Grenoble general hospital, he was admired as much for the soundness of his diagnoses as for the charm of his bedside manner. Among the first local doctors to practise smallpox vaccination, he also experimented with herbal treatments for venereal disease and extended his scientific interests to embrace meteorology and astronomy. His significance in Grenoble society increased with the Revolution, when, during an outbreak of putrid fever in 1799 among wounded soldiers returning from the Italian campaign, he was asked to provide a concise report on the dubious issue of the town's sanitation. In its recommendations of fresh air, sound diet and a scrupulous moderation in the use of purgatives and stimulants as a basis for medical treatment, Gagnon's memorandum shows an admirably enlightened practicality. The document's stylistic clarity suggests, what is more, that he left something more useful to his grandson than mere affectionate recollections.
The doctor cut a distinguished if somewhat eccentric figure among his fellow citizens. Though sporting a fine head of hair, he felt it more appropriate to his position to continue wearing, long after the fashion had died out, an enormous powdered peruke with three rows of curls. He made a point of never riding in a carriage and always carrying his three-cornered hat under his arm as he moved with rheumatic stiffness through the streets of Grenoble, leaning on an elegant little boxwood cane inlaid with tortoiseshell.
His popularity, whether among the poor, whom he often treated free of charge, or with the nobility, whose medical confidences a strong dash of snobbery made him relish, derived from an indulgent gentleness of manner. Stendhal, however grateful for his grandfather's presence among the dramatis personae of a tragicomic childhood, never fails to emphasize what he calls the `a la Fontenelle' aspects of Dr Gagnon's character, the irritating readiness to put up with Seraphie's rages, the reluctance to speak out when really necessary, those negative qualities of prudence and discretion which prevented him from assuming roles of genuine political and social prominence during the early days of the Revolution.
Gagnon had nevertheless contributed his share to the cultural life of Grenoble, as a founder member of the Academie Delphinale in 1772 and as the initiator, in the same year, of a proposal for establishing a public library in the town. The doctor's literary tastes were those of a true son of the Enlightenment: tolerant, liberal, easygoing in matters of religion and morality. Stendhal tells us that he kept a little bust of Voltaire, whom he had visited in his Swiss retreat at Ferney and whose name he never mentioned without a smile of affectionate respect. Predictably perhaps, his favourite writer was Horace, whose mood of well-tempered sensual enjoyment harmonized with Gagnon's own domestic philosophy.
It was natural that Henri, responsive, intelligent and apparently without any friends of his own age, should come under the influence of a man in whose company he spent so many of his waking hours. The house in the Place Grenette, with its terrace overlooking the square, was far more of a home to him than the death-marked Rue des Vieux-Jesuites. Even though we know, from an inventory taken at Cherubin Beyle's death, that the boy's father was a reader of surprisingly catholic tastes (his library included the Encyclopedie, Paradise Lost, Voltaire, Beccaria, Locke, Montesquieu and Richardson) it was Dr Gagnon who fostered that retentive curiosity which was eventually to make Stendhal one of the best-read writers of the early nineteenth century.
In his grandfather's library the boy was given more or less complete freedom, though certain works needed more surreptitious inspection than others. Scarcely turned ten years old, Henri was reading, under the doctor's direction, Voltaire's tragedies and the same author's masterly Siecle de Louis XIV and Histoire de Charles XII. To discovering James Bruce's Voyage to the Sources of the Nile, in French translation, he attributed his `lively enthusiasm for all the sciences of which the writer speaks. Hence my love of mathematics.' Even the turgid Sethos, Histoire ou Vie, tiree des monuments, anecdotes de l'ancienne Egypte, a three-volume didactic romance by the Abbe Terrasson, was a mine of interest, if only because its educational aims were disguised, however thinly, within fictional trappings.
Other books required to be read in secret. Stendhal remembered that when the news of Louis XVI's execution was brought to Dr Gagnon's house, he was pretending to study while secretly reading the Abbe Prevost's Memoires d'un homme de qualite, the novel which contains within it, as a detachable narrative, the author's best-known work, Manon Lescaut. Rousseau too was officially forbidden him, but he managed to get hold of the enormously popular La Nouvelle Heloise, and though he was later to abhor its influence on the writers of his generation, he still felt that the novel's emphasis on emotional sincerity and warmth of heart had been fundamental in developing his own regard for honesty at all costs as a measure of human greatness.
Not all Dr Gagnon's recommendations were enthusiastically accepted. However markedly Voltairean in its merciless economy and clarity the mature Stendhalian manner, Henri, as child and adult, showed no special love for the author of Candide, `legislator and apostle of France, her Martin Luther'. A marginal jotting in a volume of Schlegel, dated 15 March 1821, lists, beside Buffon and Madame de Stael as Stendhal's antipathies, `Voltaire, extremely and for ever'. Moliere, for whom he was later to develop an enduring admiration, held no charms for a boy in search of poetry and romance, whose favourite reading included Don Quixote (much disapproved of by Cherubin because it made his son laugh) and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Bored to death by Racine, a favourite of his father's, he despised him as a contemptible hypocrite who, according to legend, had died of disappointment at not attracting suitable notice from Louis XIV.
Corneille was a different matter. The verve and passion of his lines and the courage of a writer unafraid to take risks and make costly artistic mistakes were more likely to appeal to Stendhal than the formal perfections of a dramatist like Racine who covered his tracks so successfully. What was more, the older playwright was a decided favourite with his beloved great-aunt Elisabeth, a figure of positively heroic proportions among the cast of Vie de Henry Brulard. She possessed all those qualities in which her niece Seraphie was so notably deficient, and several which, morally at least, might have lent her brother, Dr Gagnon, a more impressive personality. She was brave, dignified, reticent and entirely independent, and from what Stendhal tells us, there is every reason to believe that she despised the rest of her family for their failure to rise to her level.
Elisabeth's role as an elderly maiden aunt, the `Tatan' of her nephew and nieces, was scarcely an enviable one. Even if she was supposed to have been crossed in love as a young girl, any chance of marriage had been sacrificed to the needs of her widowed brother and his family. Her life was essentially a prolonged self-suppression: when Henri's mother died, a favourite niece, she refused to weep, and Stendhal recorded that he never once saw her cry. In recompense, however, she became the embodiment of an unimpeachable integrity, the source of `all the honour, all the lofty and crazy impulses of the family'.
The standard by which she judged others was that of her father, Jean Gagnon, whom she remembered weeping with rage when the Austrians were preparing to capture Toulon in 1746. It was impossible to imagine his son, the witty Voltairean doctor, manifesting this sort of patriotism. As for Cherubin Beyle, he would at once have begun calculating what profit he could make out of the operation. The fact that Stendhal felt, on this point as on others, an immediate sympathy with his great-aunt was important in distancing him from the bourgeois atmosphere surrounding him, one of cowardly opportunism and infinite variations on the themes of deceit and hypocrisy. He may not always have been true to the spirit of Elisabeth's sternly expressed morality, but at any rate he tried as far as possible to show himself worthy of it.
In artistic matters her yardstick was Corneille's classic tragedy of love and honour Le Cid, in which the hero's struggle to sustain his moral identity was bound to appeal to her imagination. Elisabeth's ultimate accolade for anything she admired, a word, an action, a book, was `beau comme Le Cid', and since the great paladin himself was a Spaniard, it was natural that Stendhal should think of his aunt, obsessed by honour like some Castilian hidalgo, as having `a Spanish soul'.
Henri was taken to a performance of Le Cid by his uncle, Romain Gagnon, but anyone less Cornelian in spirit it is hard to conceive of. As depicted by Stendhal, this handsome libertine cynic walks into the world of Henry Brulard from the genteelly scabrous pages of Les Liaisons Dangereuses or the novels of Restif de la Bretonne. If, as Dr Gagnon was in the habit of saying, `my son has read nothing', he was still a natural charmer, whose personal and social gifts were enhanced by a none too strenuous practice of the law and by an allowance from his father, with which, as Stendhal succinctly notes, `he bought embroidered coats and kept actresses'.
It was Henri's delight, at the house in Place Grenette, to go upstairs in the evening to his uncle's rooms, to watch him take off these elegant coats and change into a dressing gown before supper, which was served at nine o'clock each night. Then the boy would take up the silver candlestick and solemnly light Romain downstairs. They were always, he remembered, tallow rather than wax candles, but the Gagnons made much of the fact that they were specially made of goat's fat from the mountains around Briancon in the eastern Dauphine.
Romain's glamour made him into another of those figures whom his nephew's imagination eagerly set up against the hated Cherubin, so utterly devoid of elegance or panache. `Young, brilliant and lively, my uncle passed easily for the most attractive man in the city,' he wrote, `to the point at which, years afterwards, Madame Delaunay, seeking to justify her virtue against too many imputed blemishes, said, "All the same, I never yielded to Monsieur Gagnon fils."'
Doubtless it was from among Romain's books that Henri, probably by then an adolescent, got hold of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that fictional archetype of male sexual freebooting aided by female duplicity and competitiveness, which Stendhal later came to believe had been conceived or actually composed in Grenoble, where the author's regiment had been stationed for some years. Still more exciting was a pile of paperbound novels which his uncle had thrown aside as pulp reading, but which Henri, forbidden to touch them by Dr Gagnon, seized upon avidly. The most alluringly trashy was evidently the much-reprinted Felicia ou mes fredaines, attributed to the Chevalier de Nerciat, a mildly pornographic tale in which the eponymous heroine, urged by her uncle not to waste time over scruples but to gather her rosebuds while she may, takes him at his word, recounting her erotic adventures to the curious reader.
Ironically this novel, of no literary merit whatever, confirmed Henri in his resolve to become a writer, even if at that stage it was as a dramatist rather than as a novelist that he aimed to succeed. Equally significant was the influence of works such as Felicia, not to speak of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, on Stendhal's view of sex as essentially a matter of successfully achieved conquests a la Don Juan. After his death, in one of the most penetrating tributes paid to the singularity of his genius, his friend Prosper Merimee would recall that `he always seemed convinced by the idea, much canvassed under the Empire, that any woman may be taken by storm and that it is up to every man to attempt it'. We must make what we please of the military metaphor, though it is hard not to equate such a point of view with the image of thrusting, restless imperial acquisitiveness provided by that ultimate totem Napoleon Bonaparte.
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