The Charterhouse of Parma

             Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the name Stendhal on his two most famous books, The Red and The Black and The Charterhouse of Parma.  No one reads Stendhal anymore, but he was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite authors.  Kennedy, like Churchill, read history and everything else important, and tried to learn from what he read.   Beyle wanted to be involved in great events, and because he was the nephew of “the famous and industrious Daru, one of the strong arms of Napoleon,” he was not only “in the Emperor’s service,” but followed him to Italy, witnessed the battle of Marengo, enlisted in a dragoon regiment, and became adjutant to General Michaud.

             Like Fabrizio, the main character in The Charterhouse of Parma, Beyle was frequently undone by women.  After the peace of Amiens in l802, he returned to Paris to study, met an actress and followed her to Marseilles.  His father cut off his money, and Beyle was forced to work as a clerk to a grocer. It is not known whether the actress was impressed by this sacrifice; it is known that she left him immediately to run off and marry a Russian.  Whether this broke his heart, or merely cleared his mind, Beyle returned to Paris and from l806 until the fall of Napoleon served in the Grand Army’s commissariat.  In l822, he wrote his first book, Essay on Love, which sold all of seventeen copies in eleven years.  The Red and The Black, which he wrote in l830, did not do much better, and, in fact, the only thing he ever wrote that had any popular success was The Charterhouse of Parma, his last novel, published in l839, three years before his death.

             The novel was read in manuscript – read three times – by Honore Balzac who then wrote a review of nearly seventy pages in which he insisted that The Charterhouse of Parma was far too great to ever attract much of an audience.  Stendhal had, in his judgement, “written The Prince up to date, the novel that Machiavelli would write if he were living banished from Italy in the nineteenth century.”  A novel like this, wrote Balzac, “can find readers fit to enjoy it only among…the twelve or fifteen hundred persons who are at the head of things in Europe.”

             Balzac could have added that Stendhal’s novel is also Machiavelli’s Mandragola up to date, a comedy in which a priest, for the benefit of the church, convinces a beautiful young woman that adultery is not always a sin.  The Charterhouse of Parma is full of men and women for whom adultery is sometimes a necessity and often a badge of honor.  Everything takes place in Parma, a small principality in the north of Italy, ruled by a despotic Prince, Ernesto IV, who since the day he had two Liberals executed is so afraid of retribution that he searches under his bed at night for hidden assassins.  Ernesto, who dreams of becoming the ruler of a united Italy, has a full length portrait of Louis XIV to mark the scale of his ludicrous ambition.  He relies, at times entirely, on the intelligent indifference of Count Mosca della Rovere Sorezana, Minister of Police and Finance, who has separated from his wife, “solely because she insisted on taking as her lover” a friend of the leader of the opposing party.

             Mosca meets Signora Pietranera – or Gina – a widow of twenty-seven who is as beautiful as Lucretia Borgia and as lethal as Lucretia’s brother and sometime lover, Cesare Borgia.  Mosca is overwhelmed, driven mad with desire, but, for all that, quite able to grasp the situation.  He is married; she is a widow, but this, instead of a problem, is the solution.  He arranges to have her marry an old, extremely wealthy man who is desperate for an honor, the Grand Cordon, to establish beyond any question his nobility.  Mosca imposes only one condition: immediately after the wedding ceremony, the groom is to leave Parma and never return.  Gina – the Duchessa – is not unwilling to do this; it is part of the game she is playing.  She is desperately in love, not with Mosca, whom she only admires, but with her nephew, Fabrizio, a dozen years younger.

             Fabrizio had defied everyone, especially the authorities, to join Napoleon’s army in time to wander around the battlefield at Waterloo, wondering whether he has really seen the battle, and, if he has, whether it was really Waterloo.   The fragmentary picture, the  chaotic movements of generals and soldiers thrown this way and that by what was happening directly in front of them, the absence of any coordinated plan, the lack of any governing intelligence, all this, what Stendhal wrote, taught Leo Tolstoy what he had to write about the battle scenes when he wrote War and Peace.  But while Tolstoy would write about Napoleon’s mistakes and how they led to his defeat, Stendhal writes about the dedication of men like himself and Fabrizio to Napoleon and what he stood for.  Fabrizio “loved Napoleon, and, in his capacity as a young noble, believed he had been created to be happier than his neighbors, and thought the middle classes absurd.”

             Fabrizio means it.  Told that he can be saved if he joins the Church, where he would soon be promoted to the highest place, he tell his aunt that he would rather go to New York and become a solder of the Republic.  When she explains “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 votes decided everything,”  Fabrizio changes his mind and spends the next four years doing what Mosca has suggested he must: hear mass every day, take as his confessor a priest devoted to the monarchy, and confess “only the most irreproachable sentiments.”  He also remembered, if he did not always follow, Mosca’s advice to never open a book printed later than 1720, “with the possible exception of the novels of Walter Scott.”  At the end of those four years, Fabrizio has become a monsignor and one of the best looking men in Italy

             Balzac, in his review, credits Stendhal, or rather Beyle, with having been the first to reveal the composer Rossini, “the finest genius in music,” to the French.  Balzac does not notice that, like Rossini, Beyle, in writing The Charterhouse of Parma, has written an opera, an opera full of love and betrayal, violence and vengeance.  Everything is bigger than life, every emotion extreme, death itself nothing more than the occasion, and the opportunity, for an act of exaggerated defiance.  Fabrizio, gone for four years, returns; his aunt, overwhelmed with joy, stares at him in a way that reveals to Mosca what her real feelings are.  Fabrizio meets with the Prince, Ernesto IV, tells him that a subject owes “blind obedience” to his king, a statement so prudent that Ernesto immediately views him as a danger, someone who may follow the highest principles, but will always be “first cousin to Voltaire and Rousseau,” those two prophets of human freedom.

             Fabrizio kills a man who attacks him because he thinks Fabrizio has been seeing the woman he loves.  His aunt persuades the Prince to let him go because he had acted in self-defense, but the Prince, angered by the arrogance, the sense of entitlement with which she has made a request seem a demand, takes his revenge by ordering Fabrizio’s arrest. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, Fabrizio falls in love with Clelia, the daughter of the governor of the prison.  The Duchessa can do nothing, and so decides to do everything.  Mosca had learned, and often recited, one of the great maxims of the French, that “It is better to kill the devil than let the devil kill you.”  The problem, as she sees it, is not one of morality.  “Yes,” she says to herself, “but if it is only suicide for me, it will be murder for Fabrizio; his fool of a successor, our Crown Prince…will have Fabrizio hanged as my accomplice.”

             The Duchessa plans Fabrizio’s escape, but Fabrizio is unwilling to leave Clelia, the girl he has only twice in his life been close enough to speak to.  The girl, who has thought about joining a convent to escape her father’s demand that she marry one of the useless rich who know nothing except how to count, insists that he has to escape, that he will die of poison if he does not and that with his death take away her only reason to live.  They have never touched, much less kissed, but they know each other better than they know themselves.  Clelia helps smuggle in the rope he will need to descend more than two hundred feet from his cell.

             In the meantime, the famous Ferrante Palla, a physician, and one of “the greatest poets of the age,” a man Mosca once told the Duchessa was “a lunatic of our country, but also something of a genius, whom we have since sentenced to death, fortunately in his absence,” offers the Duchessa his life.  He has never met her, but he has seen her from his hiding place in the woods, and, seeing her, has abandoned his mistress and the five children he robs people to feed.  Robs them, you understand, only in the amount he needs and with the promise to repay what he has taken should he ever come into money.  He tells her – and if this is not proof of an opera, it is hard to know what is – “My joy is to die in harming the tyrant; a far greater joy is to die for you.”

             Unwilling to have on her conscience the refusal of another person’s joy, she agrees to signal him when it is time to act, to murder with poison the Prince. Stendhal explains this with the remark, “I am inclined to think that the immoral happiness which the Italians find in revenge is due to the strength of their imagination; the people of other countries do not properly speaking forgive; they forget.”

             The governor of the prison, Clelia’s father, is rendered unconscious, by what at first is thought to be poison, but later known to have been laudanum, so the ropes can be brought to Fabrizio.  Clelia feels responsible for what has been done to her father.  She keeps her promise to help Fabrizio escape, but in an act of contrition, promises the Madonna never to see him again.  She tells him, “If you perish, I shall not survive you a day; Great God! What am I saying?  But if you succeed, I shall never see you again.”

             Fabrizio escapes to Piedmont, and Clelia keeps her promise.  As atonement, she promises her father to marry the rich man she does not love.  Fabrizio’s aunt, who has arranged the death of the Prince and the escape of Fabrizio, realizes that her nephew, in love with Clelia, will never have anything like the same feeling for her.  She has all of the imagination Stendhal explained and, to take her revenge, does everything she can to hasten Clelia’s marriage.  Once she is married, Clelia keeps her vow: she never sees Fabrizio again.  Never sees him, that is, in the strict, literal sense.  They meet every night, in the dark, and the blind euphoria of love conceive a child.

             If The Charterhouse of Parma were a novel of the traditional sort, Fabrizio and Clelia, who, when they saw each other after an absence of several years had been “spell-bound by the sight of each other,” would be seen leaving Parma with their young son, on their way to France or some other, faraway place where they would live forever in the wondrous joy of simply being together.  But The Charterhouse of Parma is more an opera than a novel, and the ending is, more than tragic, infinitely sad.

             The end does not say: The End.  Those word never appear.  There is instead a dedication: “TO THE HAPPY FEW.   Stendhal – Marie-Henri Beyle – it must be remembered, loved Napoleon and despised the  bourgeoise and its measurement of everything in wealth.  This gave him a different understanding of the meaning of a great achievement, which is exactly what The Charterhouse of Parma really is, even if, or rather especially if, as Balzac had predicted, not more than a few people would ever read or understand it. 

The Charterhouse of Parma