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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea