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Chapter Six Stendhal's Historical Role Stendhal was obsessed with history.1 Unlike Balzac, his junior by sixteen years, Stendhal actually participated in the great modern epic: attached to Napoleon's army, he witnessed the conquest of Berlin and Vienna as well as the devastating disaster of the Beresina. What existed as mere myth for Balzac had been a reality for the older writer, and, like Balzac, Stendhal attempted throughout his oeuvre to analyze the legacy of this poetic past for the more prosaic present.2 Both writers, moreover, saw their fiction as an essentially historical enterprise. Just as Balzac called La comedie humaine a "history of manners,"3 Stendhal subtitled Le rouge et le nair (I83o), "A Chronicle of I83o"4 and described it as a historical novel about the present. "One day this novel will paint bygone days, like those of Walter Scott,''5 he declared in a preparatory sketch for the book. I. Stendhal was the pseudonym of Henri Beyle (I783-I842). 2. Whereas Balzac referred to Napoleon frequently in his novels, Stendhal actually wrote two biographies of the emperor, the Vie de Napoleon (I8I8) and the Memoires sur Napoleon (I837). 3· In the I842 "Avant-propos" to the La comedie humaine, Balzac described his intention to "write the history forgotten by so many historians, that of manners." La Comedie humaine , vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, I976), II. 4· On the title page of the original edition, the subtitle read, "A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century." Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson describes how subsequent editors alternated between the two versions in "The Specters of Revolution; or, Politics at the Concert," in Approaches to Teaching Stendhal's The Red and the Black, ed. Dean de Ia Motte and Stirling Haig (New York: MLA, I999), 24. 5. From Stendhal's "projet d'article sur Le rouge et lenoir," sent to the Count Salvagnoli, cited in Maurice Bardeche, Stendhal romancier (Paris: Editions de Ia Table Ronde, I947), I92. 234 The Spectacular Past Scholars have long seen the presence of the past in the fiction of both authors as the key to their Realist style. Along with the serious treatment of everyday reality, it is the "embedding of random persons and events in the general course of contemporary history, the fluid historical background" in Balzac and Stendhal that provides, according to Erich Auerbach, "the foundations of modern realism."6 Although Stendhal would set Le rouge et lenoir in the very year of its composition, r83o, the novel's contemporaneity bears the stamp of the past. "The present" of Realist novels, Auerbach notes, "is something in the process of resulting from history." The characters and atmosphere in both Balzac and Stendhal, "contemporary as they may be, are always represented as phenomena sprung from historical events and forces."7 In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks likewise sees the "historical perspective" as the dominant feature of Stendhal's fictional universe8 and examines its workings on a narrative level, showing how the past, represented as a model of "paternity and authority," provides the plot of Le rouge et le noir with its principal motor.9 For Brooks, the Realist novel, epitomized by Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir, struggles with history 's power to determine both the actions of the characters and the action of the story. But how, exactly, does history function within the novel? In Le rouge et le noir, the past takes many forms, but in particular it figures as a kind of spectacle: the characters play roles inherited from the script of history in a manner akin to actual performances of Romantic historical dramas that the characters both see and discuss. In this chapter, Le rouge et le noir emerges as a parody of the historical spectacles that are thematized within the novel. I argue that Le rouge et le noir, like Stendhal's later novel, La chartreuse de Parme (1839), is everywhere penetrated not only by the effect of history but by the form history took in early nineteenth-century France and that the mode of the representation of these two novels, their form, takes shape in opposition to the historical conventions of the culture . Not merely a commentary on the influence of the past on the present, or on the ways in which history determines action, the novels of Stendhal, 6. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Willard R. Trask (I953; reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, I974), 49I. 7· Ibid., 48I. 8. "Stendhal's novels are inescapably pervaded by a historical perspective...


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