The Life of Henry Brulard, by Stendhal

Henry Brulard? Or Henri Beyle? “Life of Henry Brulard, written by himself. Novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield. To the Messers of Police. This is a novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield”, as Stendhal puts it on the title-page. “Novel imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield above all in the purity of its sentiments”. Except of course, it is neither imitated from the Vicar of Wakefield, nor is it a novel. It is Brulard/Beyle/Stendhal’s autobiography, a memoir of his life and love-life – at least in its conception, though actually Stendhal fails in its 472 pages to get much beyond his seventeenth year – or at least, in a sense: in the sense that he doesn’t endlessly digress throughout into the remainder of his life.

In fact, Stendhal is very much fifty-three, it’s 1836, and he’s living in Italy, writing about thirty pages of this a day (he gives a running commentary, in the footnotes, of how many pages he’s written each day). He’s not doing any research: often, he’s not sure any longer when such and such event happened, what year, what period when he was in Paris – again, he leaves a comment in the footnotes that, maybe when he’s got time, these are things he should look into. Increasingly he wonders about the truth of his narrative, whether any of it did in fact happen like that; whether he’s remembering it correctly; whether he isn’t making it up; whether his memories aren’t made up. He’s constantly surprised in the writing of all the things he’s remembering now which he’d forgotten; and how he sees things now which he didn’t at the time. Often footnotes are simply observations on things to work in to the narrative. He’s happy to repeat what he’s said fifty or so times; he’s certainly not interested in revising his manuscript; someone else can do that – whatever editor in the far-off future is fool enough to publish it (though, as we can see, nobody did) – what disappoints him most, for instance, when he arrives in Paris, is its lack of mountains (he’d imagined there’d be mountains), which we may find naively amusing and which he repeats every five pages for the last 150 pages. Still, no one’s going to read any of this, so what does it matter: or if they do, it won’t be till at least 1880, because nobody in 1836 is capable of appreciating Stendhal, and besides a lot of this is probably libellous. Stendhal isn’t exactly sparing of his acquaintances. Here is what he has to say of Félix Faure, for instance, whom he seems to have known most of his life:

Félix Faure, peer of France, first president of the royal court in Grenoble, a worthless creature and physically worn out … If I ever speak again with that sentencer of the April prisoners, put questions to him about our life in 1799. That cold, timid, egotistical soul must have accurate memories

By far the largest part of the narrative – and the best – is about Stendhal’s upbringing in Grenoble. His mother, whom he adored, died young; he was brought up by his father, for whom he felt contempt, and his Aunt Séraphie, whom he hated. He is never allowed to play with other children, and lives for the most part miserably isolated, burning with romantic, republican rebellion against his monarchist family. The French Revolution is all this while going on in the background. His only wish is to leave Grenoble and never go back there. Eventually (I think he’s still only 15/16) he does, and goes to live in Paris. The narrative in the early part is really quite coherent, but increasingly as the work goes on, it becomes more digressive, reminding me a lot in the end of Viktor Shklovksy’s autobiographical A Sentimental Journey, where there seems at times little flow or connection from paragraph to paragraph – though of course in Shklovsky’s case this poor story-telling is a deliberate piece of his avant-garde artistic vision, whereas Stendhal just can’t be bothered. This seems to come more and more to the fore in Stendhal’s mind towards the end of the book, when he constantly starts wondering who on earth is going to read such rubbish.

It’s said that, like all too many of his works, Stendhal left The Life of Henry Brulard unfinished; but in a sense you can say he did finish it. The last section of the narrative has Stendhal joining up with Napoleon’s army and crossing the St Bernard Pass into Italy (which would become his spiritual home) – the part where perhaps we’d prefer the narrative to have begun; but the actual occasion of Stendhal giving up is his attempt in the last three pages to describe his love affair with Angela Pietragrua – or at least, his inability to do this, his paragraphs suddenly getting very short indeed:

The part of the sky too close to the sun can’t be clearly seen; by a similar effect, I shall have great difficulty making a rational narrative out of my love for Angela Pietragua. How to give a half-reasonable account of so many follies …
Deign to forgive me, oh benevolent reader! Or better than that, if you are over thirty or under thirty but of the prosaic party, close the book up! …
(I have been walking about for a quarter of an hour before writing).
How to recount those days rationally? I would rather put it off to another day.
If I reduced myself to rational forms I should do too great an injustice to what I wish to recount.
I don’t mean what things were like.
What they were like is what I’m discovering for the fist time in 1836.
But on the other hand I can’t write down what they were like for me in 1800, the reader would throw the book away.
Which course to follow? How to portray a mad happiness? …
I swear I can’t go on, the subject surpassses the teller.
I’m very conscious of being ridiculous or rather unbelievable. My hand can no longer write, I shall put it off to tomorrow.
Perhaps it would be better to go straight past these six months …

He gives up about a page further on.

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5 thoughts on “The Life of Henry Brulard, by Stendhal

  1. Wonderful. And hats off to you for reading this thing – you’re the first I know who has. I ponder whether I’ll ever get to it. I’ve loved the Stendhal novels I’ve read (the two most well known), and have dipped into his diaries. But this, like his Love, has always seemed a challenge for which I’ve yet to find quite enough fortitude. On the other hand: I swear I can’t go on, the subject surpassses the teller. Has the problem of the writer ever been so succinctly put?

  2. This is exciting and annoying.

    Exciting because it looks like a great book: the author’s footnotes with the pages/day is a great idea; the admission that he’s not sure how well he trusts his own memory; the confusion as to whether to write about how he feels now about what happened in 1800 versus writing about how he really felt in 1800. All of that’s good stuff and highly tempting. The title page is funny, too.

    Annoying because I’m 53 and working on a novel where the protagonist has similar questions about his own memory and amazement about what he remembers now that he’s writing about his life. My protagonist at least makes it into his middle-age years. Still, every time I think I’ve invented something, I run across examples of my fresh idea that are already centuries old. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

    If my novel had a villain, I’d name him Stendhal. My novel doesn’t have a villain, though.

  3. As with Love, I enjoyed the first half, but it did become a bit of a slog towards the end. (I’m still stuck about 100 or so pages into Love; haven’t moved on for a few years now, but what I’ve read very much stays with me). Next up will be his longest (and again unfinished) novel Lucien Leuwen (which again, nobody reads).

    I did quite like all the metafictional stuff in this, but primarily because it was properly a part of the narrative; not a mere knowing conceit.

    I have my reservations about it being a great book. There’s lots of good ideas and sentences in it, and I’m glad I read it; I shall always fondly look back on Stendhal’s miserable childhood. But it is in general badly written and in need of editing (as Stendhal himself notes).

    I’m a little frustrated in my own writing (especially with regard to Love) that my conception of love is so akin to Stendhal’s; but I assure you all, I came to the view independently. In this, and the case of memory, Stendhal’s only writing down what he feels after all; is it any surprise that we feel the same?

  4. The memoir is way, way easier than Love. But I claim that Henry Brulard is the only Stendhal I understand, which means I likely do not understand it.

    In Grenboble, you can see his grandfather’s house, which is now the Stendhal Museum. Under renovation when I was there, so no idea what might be inside. Hard to see how it would be too exciting. At least I do understand why Stendhal expected mountains. Every day, everywhere he looked, nothing but mountains.

  5. The mountains in Italy are better though, apparently. To be honest, I hadn’t imagined Grenoble had any mountains, but I suppose that’s because I didn’t have any mountains where I grew up.

    I just happened to buy Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist, which sounds very much like Brulard (a similar thing, written a bit before, about the period 1821-30) and which I think may be an easier read too.

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