By the time Henri Beyle died in 1842, all his grand ambitions had come to naught. His once-brilliant career as a soldier and a diplomat ended with a dull tenure as the French consul in the obscure Italian port of Civitavecchia. His other career, as a fumbling Don Juan, had long before sputtered to a halt. Ill health and loneliness plagued his last years. His novels were unpopular and neglected, and a good part of his life's work lay unpublished in his desk drawer, unfinished and fragmentary. He was so little known by his contemporaries that nearly all the obituaries got his name wrong. The only foretaste of the acclaim that would eventually surround his penname came two years before he died when Balzac wrote a 60-page article praising The Charterhouse of Parma. "You have taken pity on an orphan abandoned on the street," an astonished Stendhal wrote to the younger, more celebrated, author. "I did not expect to be read until 1880." 
    With Stendhal, there is always that date: the moment in the far-distant future when his work will be appreciated, the justice of posterity. The year changes, but the hope never diminishes. "I am taking a ticket in a lottery in which the biggest prize comes down to this: to be read in 1935." Or again: "I only attach importance to being printed in 1900." He had a lifelong habit of writing obituaries for himself. Twenty-one wills were found among his papers after his death. Even at the age of eighteen, he entitled his journal "Memoirs to Serve for the History of My Life," and listed the important dates in his life up to that point, as if he were preparing his obituary, or his biography. 
    His hopes have been justified. His fame has grown from the moment of his death, and new biographies continue to appear. The latest, by Jonathan Keates, records the vicissitudes of his life in a straightforward and readable narrative. His story reflects the drama of the age. Stendhal was six vears old when the French Revolution began. As a soldier in Napoleon's army, he was responsible for provisions during the disastrous retreat from Moscow. Later he fled Milan after the Austrian police suspected him of involvement with the secret conspiracies of the Carbonari. This is not, at first glance, a pure literary existence, like Flaubert at Croisset, or Proust in his cork-lined room. Stendhal fought in wars, seduced women, traveled widely, threw himself into cultural and political controversies. His books seem a bit like happy accidents in the midst of a crowded and eventful life. 
    And yet with Stendhal, even more than with most great writers, we come up against the limitations of biography. The facts do not reveal the sheer strangeness of this evasive man. On the surface, he is the simplest of writers, frank and sincere, but the surface is a deception and a bafflement. Stendhal had a remarkable obsession with anonymity and concealment. He published work under 25 different pseudonyms; one scholar has found more than 350 aliases. He almost always signed his letters under assumed names, sometimes ridiculous, such as Cesar Bombet, Baron de Cutendre, William Crocodile, Anastase de Serpiere. Keates emphasizes practical reasons for these subterfuges, and there is no doubt that Stendhal had good cause to fear the autocratic regimes of the post-Napoleonic Restoration. Yet his disguises go beyond what political expedience would require. They provide a window to the deepest truths of his imagination. 
    Keates has given us a biography of Beyle, the capable administrator, the brave soldier, the fat and foolish lover, the far-sighted liberal expatriate. Keates modestly acknowledges the limitations of his approach; he intends to draw attention to the lesser-known works, the writings on music and on Italy. But Henri Beyle, nineteenth-century man of letters, is nothing more than Stendhal's most successful disguise. Keates does not quite capture Stendhal the major imagination, the author whom Nietzsche called a "human question-mark," the Stendhal who transformed the genre of the novel, the Stendhal who wrote that "speech was given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts." 
    Few have written so much about their inner lives and yet revealed so little. Stendhal had a highly developed taste for secrecy. "I have never talked of the thing I was passionate about," he claimed. Instead he made cryptic notes in the margins of his books and on his shirt cuffs, often in code or in pidgin English. In regard to his great unrequited passion for Metilde Dembowski, for example, he records "the greatest event of his life" on September 30, 1818. But he does not elaborate, and Keates cannot explain. 
    His autobiographical writings are fragmentary and rambling, but they are fascinating in their mixture of frankness and duplicity. If Freud ever came across The Life of Henri Brulard, Stendhal's "autobiography," he might have been taken aback by the blithely acknowledged Oedipal impulses. "I was in love with my mother," Stendhal writes. "I wanted to cover my mother in kisses and for there not to be any clothes." But the psychological sophistication is not as remarkable as the playful modernist tone, Stendhal's skeptical attitude toward his own capacity for self-knowledge: "I'm going to be fifty. It's high time I knew myself. What have I been? What am I? . . . Was I sad by nature then? . . . Have I been a witty man? Did I have a talent for anything?" 
    Like Rousseau, Stendhal is eager to disclose everything, even unsavory details. Unlike Rousseau, he does not care much about justifying himself. We are far from the redemptive structure of Augustine's Confessions and much closer to the ironic self-reflection of Proust or Nabokov. He does not so much tell his story as question it: the narrative emerges and dissolves at the same time. He struggles to remember images from his childhood, but many details are missing. He compares his tattered memory to frescoes in Pisa, "where you can make out an arm easily enough, but the piece next to it, which showed the head, has fallen away." 
    The casual style and the tone of spontaneous improvisation bewitch us. Yet the usual paradoxical complications appear. What other autobiography is written under an alias? The title page insists we are reading a novel imitated from The Vicar of Wakefield by one Henry Brulard. Again and again Stendhal expresses horror at "the terrible quantity of Is and Mes" that an autobiography requires. He decides that the only antidote to egotism is absolute sincerity. Yet by the end of the first chapter, we learn that he has already lied to us. He admits he did not go to the battle of Wagram, as he claimed in the first paragraph. 
    In his other significant memoir, Recollections of Egotism, Stendhal recounts his Paris years, when he first made a name for himself as a middle-aged wit and a journalist. "I entered Paris with one idea," he begins, "not to be found out." Like Julien Sorel, possibly the most paranoid protagonist in world literature, Stendhal imagined enemies at every turn. He returns again and again to his desire not to be seen, not to be known, to turn invisible at will like Angelica in Orlando Furioso: 
    I would wear a mask with pleasure, I would change mv name with delight. The thousand and one nights I adore fill more than a quarter of my brain. Often I think of Angelica's ring. My supreme pleasure would be to change into a tall blond German and wander about Paris. 
    Keates is occasionally exasperated by Stendhal's errors, fantasies, and lies. Large parts of Stendhal's first two books, essays on art and music, are plagiarized. He regularly makes up quotations and blurs dates. How can he be so unreliable, for all his talk about truthfulness? Again and again we return to the great theme of his novels, the classic Stendhalian paradox: the honest hypocrite, the romantic fabulist who lies in good faith and hides in plain sight. 
    Stendhal is one of the great masters of negation, but in his hands disenchantment becomes an affirmation of the imagination. As with Byron, his cynicism represents an acute moment of Romanticism. He played the role of the cynical aesthete rather than the gloomy mystic or the baroque visionary. He despised the rhetorical flourishes of a figure such as Chateaubriand. From an early age, he knew the tone he sought: "simple, easy, concise." He sought to expunge any hint of literary pretension. "Classical in style, romantic in ideas" was the famous formulation from his pamphlet Racine and Shakespeare. The result was an unemphatic spontaneity that seems thoroughly modern. 
    His style has always been controversial. Henry James considered The Red and the Black so badly written as to be unreadable. In a famous letter to Balzac, Stendhal claimed that "in order to acquire the correct tone" he read two or three pages of the Code Civil every morning. Moreover, he regarded "beauty of phraseology, its roundness, rhythm, etc." as a flaw which leads to falsehoods. "Often I ponder for a quarter of an hour whether to place an adjective before or after its noun. I seek to be 1 ) truthful and 2) clear in my accounts of what happens in a human heart." 
    The result is that the novels have a freshness and a directness which translate well into the aesthetic terms of our century. They are fluid and alive like early Godard films: immediate, concrete, unformulaic. The prose is modest; its felicities have an accidental quality. From Don Quixote onwards, novels have made it their business to deflate romantic illusions, and Stendhal brought this irony to the level of the sentence. "I am trying extremely hard to be dry," he writes in On Love. "I am continually beset by the fear that I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating a truth." The style reflects this deep mistrust of language. Violent, often absurd, passions are represented through the most terse, objective language. 
    The narrative moves at an astonishing pace, and becomes even more elliptical at precisely the moments when other authors would be most expansive. For example, at the climax of The Red and the Black, when Julien Sorel is on his way to shoot Madame de Renal, we are given only a few quick details: `Julien had set off for Verrieres. On this rapid journey he was unable to write to Mathilde as he had intended; his hand made nothing but illegible scrawls on the paper." 
   Stendhal's deepest contribution to the novel lies in the psychological complexity of his creations. He charts their emotional flux with scrupulous attention and endows them with an inwardness unprecedented in French literature. He observes how the greatest passions oscillate wildly: "There are moments in violent and unrequited love when you suddenly think you are not in love anymore." Emotions are not only fickle, they are inevitably perverse. "Always do the opposite of what is expected," Prince Korasoff advises Julien Sorel. In the world of Stendhal, this is an inescapable law. 
    A huge gulf opens up between intention and result, between feeling and action. On parting with Julien, Madame de Renal appears indifferent, when in fact she is too overwhelmed with love to show her affection; whereas Julien, playing the part of the passionate seducer, feels nothing. "Is being loved no more than that?" Julien thinks after their first night in bed. Excessive self-consciousness sours genuine feeling; true emotion, coming only by surprise, is overwhelming and can find no way to express itself. 
    This is realism; but more importantly, it is a literary discovery, the frisson of disillusion transferred to a new key. Tolstoy and Proust made this discordance an important part of their method. Tolstoy acknowledged the debt that War and Peace owed to the Waterloo sequence in The Charterhouse of Parma. The teenaged Fabrice del Dongo imagines that the French soldiers he encounters are heroic friends out of Ariosto; instead they steal his horse. The Emperor passes, but Fabrice cannot glimpse him. The battle field is utter confusion: drunken soldiers fleeing, distant sounds of cannon-fire. At the end Fabrice still doesn't know. Has he seen a battle? And was that battle Waterloo? 
    The dry tone brilliantly undercuts the fantasies of the Romantic imagination. But, paradoxically, Stendhal's final vision is as Romantic as any of his protagonists might have desired. Whereas Flaubert never loses the ironic flicker in his voice, Stendhal ultimately renews his faith in the rapture of self-projection. Mathilde de la Mole may be ridiculous imagining herself as Queen Marguerite, but in the end, when she buries her lover's head with her own hands, she has achieved a credible Romantic apotheosis; we are caught up in her absurdity despite our own skepticism. The mock-heroic reaches a belated, but genuine, sublimity. 
    Stendhal was attracted to the grotesque, the violent and the remote, the fantastic. The exotic aspect of his imagination is often discounted. Erich Auerbach argued that "the modern consciousness of reality began to find literary form for the first time" in The Red and the Black. The innovation, according to Auerbach, consisted in the concrete presentation of contemporary political and social conditions. This view of Stendhal as a kind of glorified sociologist can be traced back to his famous description of the novel as a mirror. But in fact the term "realism" has blinded us to the strangeness of his imagination. 
    The Charterhouse of Parma, with its farcical adventures and dramatic escapes, mixes realism with an older genre of romance. This kingdom of Parma can only be found on the same imaginary map as Shakespeare's Bohemia and Nabokov's Zembla. In The Red and the Black, the melodramatic plot and the epic structure are disguised by the deceptively realistic patina. Yet compared to Madame Bovary, which is credible in every detail, the fantastic quality of The Red and the Black is clear. After all, how many actual girls in 1830 buried their lovers' heads in caves, followed by thousands of peasants with candles? The realistic detail is mere thread for the romantic novelist to spin his fables. 
    Our interest in the seminary at Besancon, for example, where Julien studies to be a priest, does not derive from the accurate portrayal of the Jansenist schism within the nineteenth-century French church. The atmosphere of paranoia and gloom in this prison-like tower has an imaginative power independent of any given reality. It is a gothic episode, terrifying and claustrophobic. Yet Stendhal works with a light touch. He does not overwhelm us with masses of description, as a gothic novelist might; instead he focuses on the well-chosen detail, unexpected, even bizarre. So, for example, when Julien tries to master all the proper signs of devoutness, we learn that "there is, in seminaries, a way of eating a boiled egg that indicates the progress made in a life of piety." And if this owes more to Stendhal's absurd imagination than to the realities of seminary life, do we care? 
    Stendhal provides no realistic documentary account comparable to Flaubert's treatment of the revolution of 1848 in Sentimental Education. The Red and the Black, which purports to be "a chronicle of 1830," does not even mention the revolution of that year. He found the "bourgeois monarchy" of Louis Phillipe as frightening and absurd as that of the Bourbon kings. Towards the end of his life, he collected old Italian chronicles; one became the inspiration for The Charterhouse of Parma. These melodramatic milieus, full of spies and intrigues, corresponded to his inner world. Stendhal found the same elements in Bourbon France as in Renaissance Italy: deceptive courtiers, insane conspiracies, corrupt institutions, the prison and the guillotine. In every age, politics is an assault on individual dignity; history is perpetual chaos. Yet his characters never submit passively to the encroachments of the outer world. They are the resistance, the "happy few," the ones who leap out of the tapestry, who manage to define themselves on their own terms. 
    The young man who dreamed of living in a Parisian garret and writing plays like Moliere never abandoned his comic muse. Even the unfinished Lucien Lecien, known as his most realistic novel, has a cartoonish quality. We move from the aristocratic Ultras, who throw a birthday party for the exiled King, to the corrupt bureaucracies and the fake elections of the juste-milieu, all depicted in an absurd light worthy of Dickens or Waugh. We meet the grotesquely pretentious lady of Parisian society, Madame Grandet, and the ambitious small-town hypocrite, Dr. Du Poirier. They are all pretenders, all motivated by vanity, that most Stendhalian of passions. Shame and humiliation threaten at every turn, the shame of dishonor, the humiliation of a crowd throwing mud at you, the constant fear of being found out. 
    Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole are monsters of vanity, and their love affair is a grand sadomasochistic comedy. Mathilde can love Julien only so long as she believes her love is not reciprocated; she is only happy when she suffers the bliss of being disesteemed. Love is the goal of existence in the Stendhalian universe, but reciprocal love is always a missed opportunity. Almost all his characters suffer from a kind of skeptical madness which makes them constantly doubt the sincerity of their lovers. They seize upon any evidence, they credit the least suspicion, they summon up unnecessary obstacles. To be loved is to be known, and they all seek to hide. The most successful love affair, between Fabrice del Dongo and Clelia Conti, is conducted entirely in the dark, because Clelia made a vow to the Madonna that she would never set eyes on Fabrice again. "Life is simpler than that," an exasperated Zola complained about Stendhal. 
    Skepticism, which destroys love, also poisons self-consciousness. Julien Sorel is as suspicious of his own emotions and attitudes as he is paranoid about other people. Everything is an act, a role, a calculated performance to advance himself. He proudly identifies with Tartuffe, but Julien's talent for hypocrisy is also his tragedy. He cannot be natural, or at least he cannot know when he is natural. His delight in his capacity for self-invention does not compensate for his painful sense of inauthenticity. Ultimately, his yearning for an integrity he cannot fathom is what makes him such a compelling character. 
    Attempts to interpret The Red and the Black through the spectrum of class conflict will always fall short. A scholarship to the Polytechnique would not have appeased Julien. Even in an egalitarian utopia, Julien would be a destructive force, an avatar of negative will. He wages war, not against society, but against reality, with the fury of a powerful imagination enraged by an unknowable world. 
    His will to power is matched by an equally powerful impulse to sabotage himself. Throughout the novel, he undermines his masquerades by inappropriate displays of emotion. And at the end, when he shoots Madame de Renal, he wrecks all his ambitions. Yet ruin makes him happier than success ever did. He refuses to attempt to escape from his prison cell. Only now, in conditions of stasis, can Julien begin to know himself. His sublime indifference toward his approaching death marks the triumph of his integrity. 
    When Stendhal was a young man, he was determined to write for the stage. He set about his task with an extraordinary deliberateness. Keates describes his frenzy: "He read eagerly among the playwrights of the past, Terence, Machiavelli, Goldoni, analysing styles, moods, effects, and night after night he visited the theaters, cramming his notebook with observations to penetrate the alchemical formulas and magna arcana of genius." He did not lock himself away like Flaubert, but it turns out that Stendhal was a literary man all along. He worked on the same play for thirty years, even carrying it from the flames of Moscow, but he never finished it. It was only well into middle age, when his career in government was a failure, his family inheritance ruined, his love life in shambles, that he found the form in which he could express his genius. 
    He was 43 when he published his first novel, 47 when he wrote The Red and the Black. All his novels teach the futility of worldly desire. Ambition always ends in ashes, but his heroes and heroines realize an authentic splendor in the amplitude of their imaginations. These characters are not just actors in a drama, they are analysts of their own passions, and they have the improvisatory gifts of great artists. This capacity for self-invention explains why, almost two centuries later, they remain vital. They investigate their emotions from every possible perspective; they are blessed with a consciousness nearly as supple as the novelist himself. You might say of Gina Pietranera, Duchess Sanseverina, the heroine of The Charterhouse of Parma, that she has followed Henry James's advice: she is someone on whom nothing is lost. 
    Such a character is easy to praise and difficult to manufacture. This was Stendhal's true mimetic genius: not so much to represent the structures of society, as to reproduce the workings of the imaginative mind. Consider the moment when Julien Sorel, in the midst of his genuinely beautiful meditations in prison, laughs at his self-seriousness: "Talking to myself all alone, with death two steps ahead, I'm still a hypocrite." Or when Count Mosca, falling in love with Gina, finds himself reluctant to enter her box at the opera, and then is amused that, at his age, he can still be as timid as a young lover. 
    The Duchess may be a murderess, but she has unforgettable gusto. She brings the same spontaneous passion to her life that Stendhal poured into his work. When we try to comprehend the feverish inspiration which allowed Stendhal to compose The Charterhouse of Parma in just fifty-two days, we are reminded of her spirit. This late flowering of his genius has the autumnal atmosphere of a Shakespearean romance. Beneath the exhilarating tempo and the comic-opera atmosphere lies a bitter story of loss. The Duchess never loses our sympathy, even at her most selfish, but in the end, her manipulations cannot bring her what she most desires. The book incarnates what Randall Jarrell described in another context, "the Wisdom of this World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of this World isn't enough." The pursuit of happiness may always reach a dead end, but Stendhal teaches us not to care: the imagination is strictly a matter of ecstasy. 
    Henri Beyle was a thoroughly entertaining character. His conversation was witty, his friends were gifted, he had opinions on just about everything, from opera to mathematics. But in the end, after prolonged exposure to the persona of Henri Beyle, we are left with an impression of unreality. The impossible love affairs come and go; friends are cherished, then discarded; enthusiasms cultivated, then abandoned. We begin to suspect that his fantastic show of energy might have been a ruse, that the writer, the true self, may have used the distraction of his noisy personality, like a fireworks display, to sneak away and dream in private. 
    His novels have not lost their power to liberate the reader's imagination. "A novel is like a violin-bow," Stendhal wrote. "The box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader." And their creator? Condemned to his unreal existence, waiting for the moments when his dreams would issue forth on paper, he had to pretend to be an ordinary person. Near the end of his life, Stendhal composed a strange fantasy, Les Privileges, a contract with God in 23 clauses. The privilege-holder could turn himself into any animal, or occupy two human bodies at once. He would be invulnerable, have the eyesight of a lynx, run five leagues in an hour. He could heal suffering, divine the thoughts of the people around him, and get any woman to fall in love with him. His penis would grow erect at will. It is a kind of weird prose poem, written at the onset of old age, affirming his lifelong quest for transformation in the face of death. 
    One of Stendhal's final documents is a baffling notebook entitled "The Last Romance." It describes his last great passion, inspired by an unidentified married woman given the pseudonym "Earline." Scholars debate her identity. They even question her existence. Is Stendhal recalling an old love affair? Fantasizing about a possible new one? Or are these notes for a novel? He writes with his usual proliferation of alibis, cryptograms, and secret codes. The boundary between life and fiction blurs. The dream world encroaches. The imagination consumes larger and larger chunks of life. And then one evening, on the Rue Neuve-des Capucines, Henri Beyle collapsed and died, vanishing forever inside the behemoth known to posterity as Stendhal.
From The New Republic, June 15 1998
A review of STENDHAL
By Jonathan Keates