If The Charterhouse of Parma (1859) is not the greatest work in that great body of literature which is the French realistic novel of the nineteenth century—and more than one good critic has thought it so—it is surely the most brilliant. According to Erich Auerbach, Stendhal founded modern literary realism, which portrayed the nineteenth- century world in light of a new historical awareness of an all-embracing political, social, and economic reality. But the Charterhouse also goes back to the sixteenth century in finding the germ of its story of love (love inflected marvelously in a variety of ways) and intrigue in an old Italian manuscript. It goes back to the eighteenth century, too, in its principality of Parma, an anachronistic parochial autocracy moldering stupidly in the nineteenth-century present. Its stupidities, which Stendhal treats with an urbane, amused irony that nevertheless has lively indignation behind it, are the vanity and cruelty and crimes of the petty kingdom’s ruler; the venality and servility of officials; the police-mind and the newspeak language of government; the emptiness of political parties; and the lying on all sides. It needs little effort on the reader’s part to recognize the twentieth as well as the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries in the novel’s picture of things. An outsider in his own time as in everything, Stendhal could roam freely in that time dimension of which he was so conscious.

He went back to another time, too, in his style of writing and the character of his work. His, Valéry wrote, is “the kind of abstract and impassioned literature, sparer, lighter than any other, which is characteristic of France”—characteristic of France more especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like The Red and the Black (1830), the Charterhouse is a serious comedy that ends in tragedy. But the tone, the wonderful Stendhal tone, is always light, gaiety transfiguring all that cynicism, that fixed belief he had, as Valéry said, in universal falsehood —although transfiguring it into what exactly has always been hard to say. Stendahl’s prose style is spare, in the French classical tradition, but so very spare, often indeed curt, that it goes beyond tradition, as his work as a whole goes beyond tradition. In his Life of Henry Brulard he regretted having written The Red and the Black “in too clipped a style.” He had done so, foolishly, in reaction against “the rhythmic and pretentious phrases” of Chateaubriand and others; but who would pay attention to them in twenty years’ time, whereas with his novels he was entered in a lottery the great prize of which was “to be read in 1935”—i.e., undying fame.

Stendhal’s plain style is easy to read—easy to read in an elementary sense; the Stendhal tone runs up and down a scale of feeling and thought which isn’t easy to read at all. Nor is it not easy to translate, simplicity notoriously being in translation, as in other things, so very difficult to achieve. Of course translating great literature, and even literature not so great, is always difficult; it’s a mug’s game, as a friend once remarked, because you always lose. Still, there are degrees of defeat. The first translation of the Charterhouse that I read, years ago, was by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, a fine writer. In the 1950s, Penguin published M. R. B. Shaw’s somewhat plainer version, which (as well as correcting mistakes) I thought suited the original better. After a long lapse, the end-of-century wave of retranslation has floated the novel up to the surface again: in 1997 the Oxford World’s Classics published Margaret Mauldon’s translation, and now the Modern Library Richard Howard’s.[1] One has learned to be suspicious of publishers’ motives in offering retranslations. Nevertheless new times need new versions, or anyhow that’s what we believe. The Charterhouse of Parma keeps so fresh, by all means let us have a fresh translation, if it’s fresh. No easy job. The Beylean freshness has never been caught, except spottily, in translations of the novels.[2] I think Jean Stewart and B. C. J. G. Knight catch it in their 1958 rendering of The Life of Henry Brulard; maybe the fact that the Brulard is recollections and observations spontaneously jotted down made it easier.

Howard’s version doesn’t catch the freshness any more than earlier ones, I am afraid. It needed only a few pages to see that. But first a more commonplace consideration, its carelessness—for it is shockingly careless at an elementary level, the level of simple sense. On page 26, for example, Fabrizio tells the Countess Pietranera that he is leaving to join the army of his hero Napoleon. The preceding paragraph has informed the reader that the time is six in the morning. “Tonight at Menaggio,” Fabrizio says, “my friend Vasi … has given me his passport.” Six in the morning, and his friend has given him a passport tonight? Well, a small matter.

On page 41, not so small. Fabrizio at the battle of Waterloo (where he famously wonders in the midst of shot and shell if it is a real battle he is in) allows his horse to jump into a ditch full of rain water—which sends up a great splash (ce qui fit rejaillir l’eau à une hauteur considérable) that drenches a general. Madly, the translation says: “this raised the water level considerably.” Now of course the translator knows what rejailler means. It’s just carelessness. In the preceding sentence the “water level” of the ditch is mentioned, and somehow “water level” got into the following sentence too, and stayed there as the translator rushed furiously on. The only other explanation I can imagine is an attempt to give a humorous twist—Stendhal notoriously being such a humorist—to the clause which it doesn’t have.

On page 199, Fabrizio is confessing his sins in church according to a Latin self-interrogatory taught him by his Jesuit instructors. Coming to simony, he passes over it without a thought, though he is going along with a scheme by which he is to be made archbishop solely through Count Mosca’s influence. However—the English text runs, turning the French backsides-front—“had someone offered to give him a hundred louis to become” the vicar of the archbishop, “he would have rejected such a notion with horror.” But what Stendhal wrote is: “if someone had proposed that he [Fabrizio] should give a hundred louis” to get himself made the vicar of the archbishop (Si on lui eût proposé de donner cent louis pour devinir … vicaire.)

On page 305, the French morale, meaning “morals,” is mistranslated as “morale” to produce a baffling sentence. On page 328 the sentence “Loyal to her resolve not to drag the Count to his ruin, [the Duchess Sanseverina] was punished for her cruelty toward this poor man” makes no sense. It turns out a clause is missing: “loyal to her resolve not to drag the Count to his ruin, she would not see him more than twice a month; but she was punished for her cruelty,” etc.

I was startled near the end of the novel by the preposterous figure of “eleven hundred and fifty thousand francs,” given as the salary a government post paid (page 408)—the correct figure is eleven hundred and fifty. So when, turning the pages, my eye happened to light on the number “ten” (page 383, the Duchess is allowing the faithful Ludovic “ten days” recreation before he releases the reservoir’s waters on Parma), I thought to look at the French. The number is two. Not all numbers in the text are incorrect, I’m sure, but at least two are.

The young prince Ernesto on succeeding to the throne also succeeds to his father’s ambition to possess the universally desired Duchess Sanseverina, which he is able to accomplish by extortion: she promises to become his mistress if he will only free Fabrizio from his tower prison and from imminent death by poisoning at the hands of the prison governor. The royal ninny’s consciousness of having done something difficult makes a different man of him for a while: “he became susceptible to general ideas” (page 442). This seems strange. But perhaps Ernesto has begun to think. However, what the prince does in the next paragraph has nothing to do with “general ideas”: he makes a number of generous decisions (and even thinks of appointing the duchess his prime minister!). The abused French sentence is: il devint sensible aux généraux raisonnements—“he became responsive to magnanimous considerations.”

Really, it is too ridiculous to misread généraux as “general,” and then turn raisonnements into “ideas,” and then fail to catch this and other mistakes at the editorial stage. (But was there an editorial stage?) No one seems to have read the manuscript, or later on the proofs, with any attention, neither an editor, editors today being too busy with business to read, which they don’t like doing anyhow (I ask forgiveness of the exceptions), nor the translator, worn out by racing to complete the translation (as he tells us) in some six months.

A last instance, and a particularly gross one. It follows the great scene in chapter XIV in which the duchess threatens to leave Parma unless the elder Ernesto cancels the murder sentence hanging over Fabrizio. Outraged, the autocrat nevertheless shudders at the prospect of the pall of boredom that will descend on Parma if she leaves; he signs the letter of capitulation Count Mosca takes down at the duchess’s dictation. Later on Count Mosca is afraid the prince might put Fabrizio to death in “revenge for the duchess’s tone the day she sent him the fatal letter” (page 282). But there was no letter sent to the prince. The entire business took place in the prince’s study. The letter that the duchess sent, to the archbishop, after returning home, was a copy of the one the prince signed.

How could the translator misremember so brilliant a scene only forty pages later and mistranslate completely a reference to it? It’s more than carelessness, it’s a lack of seriousness.

This little collection of slips (to italicize in the Stendhal style) was gathered from reading one part and another of the work against the French. What might one expect from a systematic comparison of the original with the whole translation? But leaving “slips” aside, what about the quality of the writing; how well does this version read? It runs on unexceptionally, though with nothing like Stendhal’s adroitness, till you run into a literalism, a clumsy sentence, or an absolutely muddled one (such as the sentence about the ladders on page 389), which you do often. Some of Stendhal’s irony comes through, some of his wit, which no translation could avoid. Perhaps some of the literalisms are an effort to do what previous translations hardly try to do, render the Beylean abruptness and brevities, the accourcis. If so, it is not successful. Thus, commenting on the scheme of the amiable Machiavellian, Count Mosca, to make his dearly loved mistress, Gina Pietranera, a duchess by marrying her to the sixty-eight-year-old Duke Sanseverina (who would be rewarded with a Grand Cordon and in return instantly disappear from Parma) and so qualify her for court society--commenting on this, as I say, the narrator excuses his recounting such “highly immoral acts” as follows: Is it “his fault if the characters, seduced by passions he does not share, unfortunately for himself,” do such things? It is true that they “are no longer done in a country [France] where the sole passion surviving all the rest is for money, the means of vanity” (“l’argent, moyen de vanité,” page 105). The quick phrase, apothegmatic, works in French; in English it misfires because it is unidiomatic. Shaw and Mauldon both expanded the phrase to make it English, at the cost of brevity. The efforts of all three fail. It is the kind of thing that makes Stendhal difficult.

Another interesting instance. Clélia Conti is the daughter of the governor of the prison high up in whose tower Fabrizio is confined. Remorsefully, against her duty to her father, she falls in love with him and he with her, across the empty space between her window in the governor’s palazzo and Fabrizio’s in his cell. When he mimics to her sawing wood, for his window is about to be covered with a shutter, this signal is too blatant for Clélia’s filial conscience; she doesn’t appear for several days. Her non-appearance puts Fabrizio in a rage, about which he then says to himself: “Anger for anger, I should have told her that I loved her” (page 310)—Colère pour colère, j’aurais dû lui dire que je l’aimais. “Anger for anger” is very murky; the French too seems at fault, too “clipped,” to use Stendhal’s own word. Here is my attempt at an elucidation: “Now she’s angry and I’m angry—so I might as well have [gone on, been hung for a sheep as for a lamb, and] told her that I love her.” The phrase in question is hard to nail down; maybe I take it too far, or in the wrong direction. But it has to be taken somewhere, it mustn’t be left literal, which is to say blank, as Howard does.

Howard leans for support, leans hard, on the earlier versions, which is perfectly all right—that is what translators do. Mauldon leans on Shaw. Maybe they all lean on Scott-Moncrieff whose Charterhouse I don’t have to hand. What is not all right is the way translators don’t acknowledge the help they get from predecessors. What is also not all right is making insignificant little revisions and passing them off a retranslation. But that is what publishers want to advertise, retranslations not revisions. If Proust weren’t so long, we would have ten more translations of him by now, all basically Scott-Moncrieff nearly as much as the several revisions of his translation that have been made.

Shaw’s translation is a perfectly respectable one. She over-Englished, but what is one to do with the laconic French? Still, so much prolixity. (One instance of her over-Englishing, not prolix, I remember well: “The Jew landlord of their lodgings,” she wrote. This bit of Anglo-Saxon linguistic brutality is not Stendhal’s.) I don’t know whether I prefer Shaw’s or Mauldon’s version; I think Shaw’s, though Mauldon made a lot of felicitous changes.

Howard in his afterword associates the twenty-eight weeks he took to translate the five-hundred-page novel with Stendhal’s seven weeks plus to compose it. I find his putting himself on a level with Stendhal in this way as presumptuous as it is meaningless—for composition and translation, and so composition-time and translation-time, are two quite different things. But from this one understands one reason for the translation’s frivolous carelessness.


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  1. The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendahl, translated from the French by Richard Howard; The Modern Library, 507 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
  2. After writing this, I remebered the excellent translation of Lucien Leuwen by Louise Varèse. When I went to it to test my recollection, I lost myself completely in the rereading. Go back to the text.