BOOK REVIEW / An overdose of delights: Lucasta Miller on a sparkling biography of the picaresque and promiscuous Stendhal: Stendhal - Jonathan Keates: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20

STENDHAL's most famous novel, Le Rouge et Le Noir, is a masterpiece of narrative control, but his life, the subject of Jonathan Keates's new biography, was strangely picaresque and unplotted. He was always changing direction - both literally, as he journeyed through Europe, and metaphorically, as he flitted from one career to the next, or bed-hopped, Don Juan-like, through an amazing roll-call of lovers. In literary terms, he was equally promiscuous, moving from genre to genre: travel-writing, art criticism, musicology, journalism, autobiography. 'Nobody knew exactly what people he met, what books he had written, what travels he made,' wrote his friend Merimee in a posthumous sketch.

Born Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783, he was even incapable of sticking to his given name. 'Stendhal' was only one of over 200 aliases he adopted during the course of his life which he would use not only to sign letters to friends but in personal memoranda to himself. Fear of the secret police, so pervasive in early 19th-century France, can only partially explain this obsession with disguise: Keates links Stendhal's urge to reinvent himself with his 'desire to transform reality into his own apprehension of the truth.'

This delight in his own subjectivity was given formal expression in the unfinished posthumously published Vie de Henry Brulard, an autobiographical fragment of extraordinary - perhaps suspicous - candour, from which Keates quotes extensively in the early part of his book. Stendhal hated his father and his provincial home town, Grenoble, but his intense love for his mother (who died when he was seven) must amount to the frankest Oedipus complex in literature: he wanted to cover her with kisses 'and that there should be no clothes . . . I returned her embraces with such ardour that she was often obliged to leave the room.'

At school, Stendhal showed early brilliance in mathematics but his interest in the subject waned once academic success enabled him to achieve what he had always wanted - to escape Grenoble, 'the very incarnation of bourgeois life and literally of nausea'. In Paris, he never made it to the Ecole Polytechnique, and his ambitions turned abruptly to the theatre, though he failed to produce a play. Eventually, his soulless but sucessful cousin, Pierre Daru, soon to become Napoleon's Secretary for War, fixed him up with a job at the Ministry. As a clerk he began badly - his spelling was shameful - but within months he was sent to join the army, then heading for Italy.

Italy became the focus of a lifelong infatuation. During the course of his life he was to spend two important periods living there, first in glamorous Milan, where he went in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon, and then in boring Civitavecchia, where he held the post of Consul and died, aged 59, in 1842. As well as inspiring him with a love of the place, his first visit, with the army, also cemented another enthusiasm - for opera, especially Cimerosa's exquisitely witty Mozartian comedy, Il Matrimonio Segreta. His erotic education was also progressing: we see him copying into his diary a fellow officer's step by step guide to seduction ('. . . then you take your organ between the middle and the index finger of the right hand . . .')

Stendhal did not publish his first novel until he was in his forties. He was too busy doing other things. Because his life seems to have been so confusingly lacking in structure - there is no sense of a straight line towards his destiny - what sticks in the mind after reading this biography is a cluster of sparkling anecdotes: Stendhal notching up the date and time of an amorous encounter on his braces; taking acting lessons; meeting Byron in a box at La Scala; reading in his apartment in the Rue de Richelieu during the July Revolution of 1830 and noting in the margin, 'fusillade from firing parties while I read this page.' The vividness of such stories almost makes up for the absence of visual illustration. There are no pictures in this book, which is a pity. Portraits of at least some of Stendhal's many mistresses would have helped to individualise them.

The shapelessness of Stendhal's life presents obvious problems for the biographer, but Jonathan Keates manages to transmit both his own enthusiasm for his subject and Stendhal's enthusiasm for varied experience. Most importantly, though, he whets the reader's appetite for Stendhal's works, many of which are almost unknown in this country among non-specialists. Even his disastrous first novel, Armance sounds intriguing for the baffling circumlocutions with which it describes its hero's fatal flaw, impotence.

Glimpses of his travel writing tantalise - he has even given his name to 'Stendhal syndrome', a condition experienced by tourists in Florence who have 'overdosed on the city's aesthetic delights'. Most fascinating of all is the unfinished autobiography from which Keates quotes so effectively in the early chapters. The sad thing is that few of these works seem to be easily available in English. Let's hope that this biography will encourage the demand for them.

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map