- Stendhal: La Chartreuse de Parme, and: Concordances des Chroniques italiennes
By their striking dissimilarity, these two works are testimony to the enduring vitality of Stendhal studies. Ann Jefferson's diminutive volume capably addresses the needs of undergraduates who are still discovering why Stendhal's last masterpiece is such an important novel, while the hefty tomes of Jean-Jacques Hamm and Gregory Lessard are not so much intended to be read as to furnish textual data to specialists studying language use and thematic patterns in one of Stendhal's less well-known works, his Italian stories.
Considering the many shelves of commentary available on La Chartreuse de Parme, Jefferson's manual is remarkable for its blend of concision and thoroughness. In straightforward prose, Jefferson sheds essential light on the novel's origins, on the puzzle of its narrative structure, on point of view, narrative voice, attributes of the characters, the theme of writing, the status of art in the work, and Stendhal's notion of style. Citing Balzac's published response to the Chartreuse, she locates the originality of Stendhal's novel in its improvizational composition, which stands in stark contrast to the blueprinted organization of most Balzacian fiction. Without reducing the Chartreuse in any way to a series of narrative riffs, Jefferson argues effectively for using Stendhal's improvization to account for most of the work's salient features, including its paradoxes, anomalies, and imponderables.
The novel betokens improvization, as she points out, in its subordination of plot to action, for action thrives on chance encounters and requires little or no preparation. The spontaneity of the Italian characters, moreover, fits well with the narrator's discursive style, which tends to rely on motifs and formulaic features that are consistent with the traditions of oral narrative. Frequent shifts in point of view, comic reversals, and the narrator's equivocal judgments contribute to the improvisational tone, as do the unreliable eyewitnesses who cannot explain the incongruities of Waterloo. With so little interest in plotting as a means of achieving a desired outcome, Stendhal beams his most flattering light on characters who seek above all to enjoy the present moment. Jefferson offers useful commentary on the difference between "personality" and the superior attributes of une âme passionnée and provides incisive character analysis of Fabrice, Gina, Clelia, and Mosca. In a final chapter, she notes that the characters spend considerable time sending messages and reading letters, such that an "urgent, responsive, impromptu quality of writing" (76) reflects the improvisatory composition of the novel itself. In this spirit, art and natural landscapes, much like language, can be a medium of communication to lofty souls. [End Page 447] Stendhal's style, as Jefferson concludes, is more conversational than literary, and its effectiveness, paradoxically, depends greatly on what is not spoken.
This handy guide to the Chartreuse will be useful to all readers, professors of literature included, who seek a deeper understanding of "one of the most discon-certing novels in French literature" (9). Stendhal's modernity, in Jefferson's view, is more accidental than prescient: the Chartreuse has baroque qualities and looks backward as much as it looks to the future. Specialists may take issue with this position, or with the lack of attention to other interpretational perspectives: biographical, political, symbolic, psychoanalytical, and so on. But as a serious student guide (supporting quotations appear in untranslated French!), this slim volume provides an exceptionally coherent overview of La Chartreuse de Parme.
The concordance by Hamm and Lessard is no less admirable. Having completed similar projects on Armance (1991), Le Rouge et le noir (1998), and La Chartreuse de Parme (2000), they have now provided scholars with a resource that lists all occurrences of more than 9000 words in the Chroniques italiennes, from "a" to "zélés." Each occurrence appears in the middle of some 15 words of...