William Boyd on Stendhal

He was a man of a hundred names, including "Don phlegm," "Giorgio Vasari," "William Crocodile," "Poverino," "Baron de Cutendre," "Louis Alexandre Bombet" and "Anastasius Serpière." 

But he is forever remembered for just one: Stendhal.

A further irony: the novelist christened in France in 1783 as Marie-Henri Beyle, was not a fantasist but a realist. His two most famous works, The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), are known, among other things, for their acute psychological and social insight.

On the other hand, he made his living writing fiction, so his life was spent creating new realities, which we still escape into.

It is no surprise then that he packaged his autobiography as the tale of another, The Life of Henri Brulard by Stendhal (1890), which was not published until a half-century after his death in 1842.

The Life of Henri Brulard becomes the third of Stendhal’s works to make it to Top Ten Land (along with the two mentioned above) thanks to William Boyd. The Scottish writer, who is receiving warm reviews for his sixteenth novel, Trio, is quite the admirer. When we asked him if would like to write an appreciation of any of his picks, he selected it.

 

Appreciation of Stendhal’s The Life of Henri Brulard by William Boyd

I have chosen his strange autobiography instead of one of his novels because I think it is an extraordinary 19th-century text, one that was only published in 1890, long after Stendhal’s death. It’s not clear why Stendhal chose the title, however. Very quickly he reveals that he himself is “Henri Brulard”—another false identity—and in a way this fact illustrates the astonishing modernity of this memoir. It is both playful, in a literary sense, and very frank.

Stendhal hated his father (and doesn’t spare him) and he hated his native city, Grenoble—“The capital of boredom.” Moreover, the book’s narrative is the opposite of chronological. Ostensibly an account of the author’s early years, it in fact skips forward and back through Stendhal’s life as he pleases, almost as if it were a record of his meandering thoughts. It is also illustrated with copious little hand-drawn sketches, done by Stendhal himself—plans of houses or city streets, schematic landscapes and so forth, that flesh out the story of his life.

The whole concept of the book is wonderfully out-of-left-field. Stendhal’s honesty is very compelling and his spirit seems very contemporary—all his grumbles and irritations, his love affairs—requited and unrequited—his professional ups and downs are candidly and mercilessly recounted. You could imagine Stendhal living today—the tone of voice is so surprisingly contemporary—as there is nothing remotely dated about this autobiography thinly disguised as a biography. Even if you knew nothing about Stendhal or his famous novels you would be held and beguiled, I believe. A unique piece of 19th century life-writing, as we would now describe it.