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  • Political Fiction, Ancient and Modern: From David’s Court to Fabrice’s Charterhouse
  • Robert Alter (bio)

I would like to begin with a brief autobiographical anecdote. In the late 1970s, through circumstances not entirely of my devising, I found myself working on two large projects separated from each other by nearly three thousand years—a critical biography of Stendhal and a book on biblical narrative. From time to time, I would ask myself whether I might be a little daft to be doing this, wondering whether there could be any conceivable connection between the two subjects. On the biblical side, because the David story is one of the greatest pieces of extended narrative in the Hebrew Bible, I drew many examples from it for my book. With the passage of time, it dawned on me that because the David story and Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma are two of the supremely knowing narratives about politics in our literary tradition, there might be connections between them, for all the obvious differences.

Let me first note the most salient of those differences. The David story is told by a narrator who, like his counterparts elsewhere in the Bible, makes a point of keeping a very low profile, not commenting on the characters and events, allowing actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Stendhal’s narrator, by contrast, offers a good deal of commentary on the characters and often seems virtually to chat with the reader—a procedure Stendhal may have picked up from Fielding, whom he passionately admired—as he sets almost everything in a worldly ironic perspective. The satiric outlook of Charterhouse generates moments of high comedy, a quality entirely absent from the urgently intense biblical story. In addition to these differences, Stendhal’s novel of 1838 is even more strongly attached to European romanticism than it is to the scintillating acerbic prose of eighteenth-century England and France that it emulates. Its [End Page 287] rapturous lyric evocations of landscapes are of course inconceivable in the Bible, and though the book swarms with political intrigues, at its center is a tale of extravagant romantic love. The novel in fact has no less than four extravagant lovers: Fabrice; Clélia, whose love for Fabrice proves to be as measureless as his for her; Gina, Fabrice’s aunt, whose unswerving devotion to him barely conceals an incipiently incestuous passion; and Count Mosca, who loves Gina beyond all his prudential considerations as a consummate courtier. The one instance of headlong love in the biblical story is Michal’s for David—she is the only woman in any biblical narrative of whom it is explicitly said that she loves a man. Piquantly, she anticipates Clélia in risking her father’s dangerous wrath by enabling her beloved to escape from assassins. But this is scarcely a romantic story of love unto death, and in the end, we see her, after David has long been separated from her and taken other wives, seething with resentment against him. Other joinings of man and woman in this story seem to be either cases of self-interest or lust rather than love.

A word is in order about the status of each of these narratives as fiction. The court of Parma and all that transpires within it are, of course, patently fictitious, in this instance being Stendhal’s novelistic expansion of a sixteenth- century Italian story he had come across. There are skeptics among biblical scholars who contend that everything in the David story is equally fictional invention, though that seems to me unlikely. I would propose that the writer, who might conceivably have lived only a few decades after David, had before him an account, written or oral, of the principal events of David’s reign, but in order to make compelling sense of them, he felt free to elaborate and to improvise and to employ techniques that are characteristic of fiction, such as interior monologues (brief though they may be), dialogue where no one besides the two historical personages is present, pointed literary allusion, and the thematic shaping of the narrative through recurring motifs and episodes that mirror each other. This is, in other words, what...


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pp. 287-302
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