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

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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.