Thursday, June 17, 2010

the true face of Mount Lu

An urge, yesterday, to find out what Victor Hugo thought of Stendhal. Why? Simon Leys compares them, or their effect, in an introduction to his translation of Prosper Mérimée's Stendhal tribute, Henri Beyle. The critic Albert Thibaudet, says Leys,

drew an interesting distinction between writers who "have a position" (think of Victor Hugo, for instance) and writers who "have a presence" (here the example of Stendhal immediately comes to mind).

He goes on.

We feel captivated, inspired, overwhelmed when we read Les Misérables, without necessarily experiencing a particular urge to explore Hugo's life; or, should we do this, the exercise would probably not significantly increase our appreciation of his masterpiece ... With Stendhal, the reverse is true.

He points out as an aside that Stendhal's admirers call themselves Beylists while "admirers of Hugo do not call themselves Hugolians;" he could also have pointed out how happy it is that the followers of a man who spent his life finding new pseudonyms for himself (Mérimée lists two of them, César Bombet, Cotonet -- Leys adds more: Cornichon, Pardessus, Tonneau, Le Chinois, the last of which must have been of special interest to the translator, who was a professional Sinologist until his retirement) now hide in plain sight by calling themselves after his real name. Leys himself uses a nom de plume: his name is Pierre Ryckmans. As for Hugo, he thought Stendhal's The Red and the Black was a "misformed thing." I found that in Graham Robb's Hugo biography.

They played cards until ten o'clock, while Hugo aired his views ... Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir was a "misformed thing" written in dialect. "The only works which have a chance of traversing centuries are those which are properly written," which was why "Balzac's hour to sink into oblivion will come much sooner than he thought."*

Balzac liked Beyle, and the critic Sainte-Beuve took him to task for it: "It is obvious how far I am from sharing M. de Balzac's enthusiasm about Beyle's Le Chartreuse." George Sand decided that Beyle's "style was original and true but he wrote badly." (Beyle on Sand: "If the Charterhouse [of Parma] were translated into French by Mme Sand, it would be a success, but would require two or three volumes to express what it now does in two.") The devout literary gossip Edmond Goncourt mentioned him only to wonder at his "strange preoccupation with women." Mérimée seems not to have thought very much of his friend's books, although he praises him for taking criticism well. "I never met any man who could accept criticism of his literary works with more equanimity. His friends always used the bluntest language with him: quite often, he sent me manuscripts that he had previously submitted to Victor Jacquemont: they would contain scribbled comments such as: "Detestable -- written by a concierge!" and so on. When he published his book De l'Amour, they all laughed." Sylvia Townsend Warner, translating Sainte-Beuve's remarks on Beyle, comes up with the same word that Leys' translation gives to Jacquemont: "I have been re-reading, or trying to re-read Stendhal's novels; frankly, they are detestable."

Proust records Sainte-Beuve's boast, that he arrived at his opinion of Beyle's writing only after talking to the dead man's friends (Mérimée was one of those friends), and makes an angry response, which could also be also be a riposte to the Beylist admirers Leys talks about at the start of his introduction, the ones who feel "a particular urge" to explore the author's private life. "In what way does being a friend of Stendhal's make one better fitted to judge him? For those friends, the self which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been inferior to the outer selves of many other people."

And this passage from Within a Budding Grove chastens both Saint-Beuve and Hugo.

The reason for which a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him. It was Beethoven’s Quartets themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging a public for Beethoven’s Quartets, marking in this way, like every great work of art, an advance if not in artistic merit at least in intellectual society, largely composed to-day of what was not to be found when the work first appeared, that is to say of persons capable of enjoying it. What artists call posterity is the posterity of the work of art. It is essential that the work (leaving out of account, for brevity’s sake, the contingency that several men of genius may at the same time be working along parallel lines to create a more instructed public in the future, a public from which other men of genius shall reap the benefit) shall create its own posterity. For if the work were held in reserve, were revealed only to posterity, that audience, for that particular work, would be not posterity but a group of contemporaries who were merely living half-a-century later in time. And so it is essential that the artist ... if he wishes his work to be free to follow its own course, shall launch it, wherever he may find sufficient depth, confidently outward bound towards the future.

Beyle critiqued his works, writes Mérimée, "as if discussing the works of an author who had died many centuries ago."

Shortly before the passage about genius that I've quoted there, Proust writes:

So that the man of genius, to shelter himself from the ignorant contempt of the world, may say to himself that, since one’s contemporaries are incapable of the necessary detachment, works written for posterity should be read by posterity alone, like certain pictures which one cannot appreciate when one stands too close to them.

Which Leys echoes, apparently unconsciously, at the end of his introduction to Henri Beyle:

[Mérimée] only missed the essential thing: Stendhal's genius. But it would be naïve and unfair to blame him for such a failure, which probably reflects a sort of natural law. A thousand years ago, a great Chinese poet had an intuition of this, as he was passing through the mountain range that surrounds the sublime Mount Lu:

I never saw the true face of Mount Lu
For the simple reason that I was in the very midst of it.

*"Nothing odd will do long," etc.

The Henri Beyle translation takes up more than half of Leys' little brown and black With Stendhal -- lent to me through the mail by Lisa at ANZLitLovers. (Her review here.) George Sand was also translated by Leys. Goncourt was translated by Robert Baldick. Stendhal-on-Sand was translated by Francis Steegmuller. Budding Grove is Moncrieff.


  1. Wonderful review, Deane, I shall send the URL to the publishers because I know they'll be pleased to see it too.
    I especially like the link you have made to Beethoven (he's my favourite composer, has been since I was a teenager.
    BTW Hugolian sounds like a sort of cardigan, don't you think?

  2. I hadn't thought of that, but I can't look at Mérimée's name without hearing someone, imaginary, silent, describing themselves as, "Merry me." ("I'm just a very happy person.")