BOOK REVIEW / Calculus of seduction: Stendhal by Jonathan Keates - Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
PORTLY, squinny-eyed ('my little Chinaman', one lover called him), Henri Beyle, alias Baron de Stendhal, was not an obvious object of female desire. Protectively, he mocked himself, proclaiming a wish to change into 'a tall blond German and to go strolling thus through Paris'. But it was through language that he summoned his powers of seduction. Proteanly changeable (he had a mania for pseudonyms, using more than 200), he was a masterfully astringent salon performer, and a mercurial writer. His work was short-winded and mainly fragmentary (he completed only two novels) and, though known best as a novelist, he was also a critic, a biographer, a diarist, a letter writer, an art historian and a marginalia-ist of Coleridgean proportions. He was also the author of the unclassifiable De l'amour and one of the most tricksy of autobiographies, Vie de Henri Brulard. His life, too, was a ragged affair, pierced by erratic impulses, and spent betwen France, Italy, the German states and Austria, with forays to London and Moscow.

What held it all together was his character, narcissistic, idiosyncratic, and always responsive to the opportunities and effects of the epoch he lived through - the shift from the filigreed hierarchies and codes of the ancien regime to the more demotic jargon of the bourgeois world. Temperamentally and historically, Stendhal stood at the confluence of two languages of intimacy, the libertine stratagems of Laclos and of Don Juan, and the interior emotional nebulae of Werther.

He was born in 1783 in Grenoble - which seemed to him the detestable habitat of bigoted Philistines, exemplified by his royalist father. He was enthused by the language and spectacle of the revolutionary decade, and it was the Revolution that created the conditions of his success, overturning the old-style aristocracy and creating what he called 'the aristocracy of literature'. It was in fact his talent for geometry and mathematics that provided him with an escape route to Paris, where he arrived as the new century, and Bonaparte's reign, began. His uncle landed him a clerical job in the Ministry of War, and he was despatched to join the advancing French armies, following them over the Piedmontese hills and into the plains of northern Lombardy. This route, connecting Paris and Milan, was to become the most important one in his life. In Novara the performance of a Cimarosa opera overwhelmed him, and in Milan - henceforth the capital of his imagination - he was seduced by the buildings, the talk, La Scala and, above all, by the women.

Touched by bonheur, he returned to Paris, and set himself to the vocation of writing. He became infatuated with actresses, scripted leaden dramas, and struggled to distil his voracious and eclectic reading into something like a philosophy. In a characteristic oscillation, as if to cool and make sense of the ardour inspired by Italy, he absorbed the dry rationalism and materialist psychology of the philosophers Destutte de Tracy and Cabanis. He had a geometrician's passion for limpidity of style - his prose models were writers like Montesquieu and Hobbes, and he once claimed that while writing La Chartreuse de Parme, he read two or three pages of the Civil Code every morning in order to hit the right tone.

He spent his late twenties as an efficient but disgruntled military bureaucrat in Saxony and Austria, refining his talents as a correspondent (his most intimate and perceptive letters were sent to his sister Pauline, who for many years acted as a foil for his ego). In 1814, as the Empire disintegrated before his eyes, he withdrew to Milan, where he lived for the next seven years, producing volumes on Italian painting and architecture, and plagiarising musical biographies. Mostly he travelled around the country feeding his senses and his palate: typically, news of the fall of Paris afer Waterloo reached him in Venice, while he was sitting at a table at Florian's. Towards the end of his stay in Milan, he met Metilde Dembowski, the cardinal (and unattainable) love of his life, the first woman to reduce him to trembling gaucheries. The encounter crystallised his emotions, thoughts and talents - and produced De l'amour, in whose staccato insights and elliptical eroticism he found his own dry voice.

Back in Paris in the 1820s, he took refuge in love affairs and salons. He began now to give fictional life - in characters such as Julien Sorel - to his observation of how individuals took up roles prescribed by their historical and social locations, and how self-consciousness about these roles could both infuse and drain intimacy. Much of the final decade of his life was spent as a consul in Italy, exiled to the gloom of Civitavecchia. His last and greatest literary paroxysm came at the end of 1838: in 53 days, he wrote La Chartreuse de Parme. Four years later, he collapsed on a Paris pavement and died of apoplexy.

Stendhal recorded his life constantly, surveying the peeling fresco of his memory through letters, diaries and autobiographical vignettes, in ways that might be thought to help a the biographer but actually present a nightmare of randomly noted judgements and experience. Jonathan Keates's is the first biography in English since Richard Alter's bracing 1979 study: Keates openly shuns interpretation, and doesn't really care to match the insights of Alter (nor those contained in the rich tangle of Michel Crouzet's 1990 French study), but he compensates for this by the rippling enthusiasm and affection which drives his sweetly tuned narrative. Keates is generous with the gossipy minutiae of the world he writes about, and an admirable guide to it.

A solitary, guardedly private man (his diaries are encoded in cryptographies that still defy scholars), Stendhal also relied upon the noise of company: a hater of Sundays, as he aged he made several unsuccessful attempts to get married. Fascinated by the intimate and domestic, he always set this into the wider political context - politics infiltrated the minutest details of gesture and phrase. A child of the revolutionary epoch, he embodied an attractively louche interpretation of republican virtue, a mixture - as Robert Adams nicely has it - of Brutus and the Count Almaviva.

(Photograph omitted)