Henri Beyle (Stendhal): a capsule biography

When the rotund Henri Beyle dropped dead contemporaries). Long before Flaubert and Civitavecchia and visiting his own country in in a street in 1842 — ‘of apoplexy’ — Proust, he was aware of the fitfulness and 1837 and 1838, he dashed off a book called only three mourners accompanied the coffin ambiguity of memory, its elusiveness when Memoirs of a Tourist .3 Here is a snapshot to its resting place in the Cimetière de we try to snare it. Hence his famous from Lyons, on May 19: Montmartre: one of them was the younger digressive style, the comic zigzag he took ‘Three days ago Mr Smith, an English Prosper Mérimée. Incensed by the from Sterne. puritan who had been living here for fact that no words had been spoken at the Stendhal had his mnemonic devices too. 10 years, decided it was time to leave this grave at this ‘pagan funeral’, Mérimée wrote As a young boy in he had been life. He swallowed the contents of an a short memoir of their friendship. In fact, he made to take drawing lessons by his father: ounce bottle of Prussic acid. Two hours didn’t know much about his friend other than this got him out of the house, which he found later after being very sick he was anywhere that he had served in the Napoleonic stifling. The 175 sketches which can be but on the point of dying, and to pass the campaign and been a mostly indifferent found scattered through the text of his time was rolled about on the floor. His diplomat in Italy, and that he was known in , showing mostly street landlord, an honest cobbler, was working Paris as an occasional wit ( homme d’esprit ) scenes or room arrangements, reminded in his shop in the room beneath: startled by and writer with a mania for disguises; what him of that brief moment of freedom, and the odd commotion and fearing that his he had read of his books didn’t inspire him served as a visual framework for his writing. furniture was getting damaged, he went terribly. Perhaps because he didn’t know so Feeling that there was truth in spontaneity, upstairs. He knocked on the door. No much about the social figure, the sketchy he wrote quickly (his autobiography was reply; so he entered the room through a portrait he left, with the bare title HB, is a written over 4 months in the winter of 1835); boarded-up door. He was aghast to see his captivating one. and although he often presents exact dates tenant prostrate on the floor, and sent for in his writings (his early ability in Mr Travers, well-known surgeon and friend mathematics had allowed him at 16 to quit of the sick man. The surgeon came, the damp provincialism of Grenoble and treated Mr Smith, and very quickly brought enter the new Ecole Polytechnique in Paris), him out of danger. Then he asked him: he was often slapdash in respect of “What the devil did you drink?” chronology. What counted for Stendhal was “Some Prussic acid.” the exact, discriminating account of motive “Impossible, six drops would have killed or emotion. His famously dry book on love you in a jiffy.” “Well, they told me it was Prussic acid.” talked about it in terms of a ‘crystallisation’. “Who sold it to you then?” And there is the famous light, Mozartian “The little chemist on the Quai de Saône.” touch: he was unsparing of himself as he “But usually you get your prescriptions For a son of the post-revolution like was of others, the young provincial who made up at Girard, your neighbour right Mérimée, Beyle (born 1783) had the traits of hoped to cut a figure in the world and across the street here, the best pharmacist a man of the previous century, and a become a celebrated even though in Lyons!” contradictory man at that, ‘All his life he was he didn’t have the physique (or indeed the “That’s true, but the last time I bought dominated by his imagination, and never did inheritance) for it; writing his autobiography some medicine from him, I had the anything except abruptly and with under an assumed name at 53 he is impression he was overcharging me”.’ enthusiasm. However, he got it into his head prepared to acknowledge that all he will be that he acted in conformity with reason. able to convey is the chasse au bonheur — Iain Bamforth “One must be guided in everything by LO- the pursuit of happiness and not the GIQUE”, he would say, pausing between the experience itself. No cynicism is involved; REFERENCES 1. Leys S (trans.). With Stendhal . Melbourne, Black Inc, 2010. first syllable and the remainder of the word. only a serene wistfulness. 2. Sturrock J (trans.). Stendhal: the life of Henry Brulard . But he had no patience for those whose Stendhal’s dedication to the brisk, London: Penguin Classics, 1995. logic differed from his own.’ 1 discursive, associative feel of experience 3. Stendhal. Memoirs of a Tourist , tr. Seager A. Evanston, IL: In fact, Stendhal was every bit a fully- makes it an exhilarating experience to read Northwestern University Press, 1985. fledged 19th-century writer of self- his journals and travel books. Every situation FURTHER READING Many of the novels by Stendhal are available in passable exploration, and he anticipated his own in his life seems to lend itself to translations: The Charterhouse of Parma, The Red and the discovery in the 20th (in his autobiography epigrammatic expression; and anecdotes Black, Armance, The Life of Mozart, On Love, etc. The Life of Henry Brulard 2 he states that he is themselves are occasions for expansive Website dedicated to Stendhal: www.stendhalforever.com addressing the readers of 1935, not his writing: on leave from his consular job at DOI: 10.3399/bjgp10X544230

944 British Journal of General Practice, December 2010