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
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence