Day Three: The Charterhouse of Parma. If Haulden Caulfield is a character that stayed with me through my teens, in my early twenties it was Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo, two young men on the make, one who has to fight the lowly origins of his birth, the other who is helped by his high origins. Julien is the smarter, more calculating, more ruthless of the two. Thus, I identified with the romantic and impulsive Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma much more. Stendhal’s books are knowing, unsentimental descriptions of a world of power, class and sex. The plots run along at great speed but are psychologically and socially vivid. The opening of The Red and the Black with Julien’s father calculating exactly how much he can get from the local lordling for the services of his son and simultaneously planning to take social and financial advantage of his progeny, bullying him to the extent he flees the home to try his luck with the red (army) and the (black) are marvels of psychology, dramatically rendered so that passion is always close to death. Some people have argued that The Red and the Black is the greater book; and they may be right. But I loved The Charterhouse of Parma more: the lyricism and high comedy of the humour, the dreamy romanticism, the naivete, idealism, haplessness and folly of Fabrice; the way he measures his life in relation to the what he reads; the wonderful Duchess of Senseverina, who could be a character out of Dangerous Liaisons, but even better, warmer, with more facets; the focus on passion; the way Fabrice always seems to be in the process of becoming; until in jail for nine months he’s birthed anew with a different sense of love.
Now, Andy’s question, ‘how did it affect my life?’ I’m not sure. Novels of love and becoming must be especially powerful to a young person trying to find out about these topics in a particularly intense period of development. I think there’s also the question of how an immigrant working class child learns about these things; the culture of home is always so different, from language, to structures of feeling, modes of understanding, that fictions of all kinds occupy a particularly vivid role in our imaginary; like Fabrice, one measures one’s thoughts and desires by those fictions in the hopes of more directly connecting with a culture that is both simultaneously ours but alien: how to be and how to love in a different culture instead of the way your parents insist is right? I think of Fabrice as loveably ridiculous but also the better part of the person I once aspired to be. It’s also probably why I was so socially clumsy then and have remained so since. I wish I’d come across Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son earlier. It would have been a useful corrective. I learned to love Fabrice and Julien, before the quite extraordinary pull of Gérard Phillipe playing those roles in the movies. And I’m glad I did.