This is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more than a reminder to the writer, and crude illustrations of rooms, streets, and scenes that played a part in the early life of Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle).
And it is only the first twenty or so years in Stendhal's life that are covered, comprising his childhood in Grenoble, his first few months in Paris, and his happiness at joining Napoleon's army in its invasion of Italy.
Why is it called The Life of Henry Brulard when Stendhal's real name is MarieHenri Beyle? If we learn anything in the first twothirds of the book, it is that MarieHenri loathes his father and his aunt Seraphie, who seems to spend most of her time belittling and punishing him. He refuses to call himself Beyle, adopting instead the name Brulard, which belonged to his late, beloved mother. When Seraphie dies and he finally gets to Paris, he is disconsolate because in Paris there are no mountains, as in his native Dauphiné. In fact, until the very end, when Stendhal falls in love with Italy, he is a young man not comfortable in his own skin:
"Is Paris no more than this?"Although The Life of Henry Brulard lacks the formal excellence of a great literary biography such as we are accustomed to, it is so manifestly truthful and selfcritical that, for once, we do not feel that the author is busily embroidering an alternate past for himself.
This meant: the thing I've longed for so much, as the supreme good, the thing to which I've sacrificed my life for the past three years, bores me. It was not the three years' sacrifice that distressed me; in spite of my dread of entering the Ecole Polytechnique next year, I loved mathematics; the terrible question that I was not clever enough to see clearly was this: Where, then, is happiness to be found on earth? And sometimes I got as far as asking: Is there such a thing as happiness on earth?
The whole book was written over a fourmonth period in the 1830s, when Stendhal was fiftytwo. Reading The Life of Henry Brulard is like experiencing a great writer forgiving all the dead ends and defeats of his youth. It is, if anything, a kind of celebration of a wayward youth. Stendhal stops writing abruptly when he feels his life is on the right track. What we get are all the wrong tracks that threatened to overthrow his development.
Fortunately for all of us, Stendhal went on to become a great writer, one who was eventually happy within his own skin. Henry Brulard was the draft of his autobiography that Stendhal never finished. Stendhal was certainly right to publish it in his lifetime. The work was not complete and from what one can see from the document that exists, Stendhal had no idea where he wanted to go with the work.
It is the role of the scholar to take documents like Henry Brulard and draw from them to create a true biography. Packaging and presenting this as a somewhat complete work does a disservice to both Stendhal and the unfortunate person who pays for it. This has to be one of the finest autobiographies ever written. I'm a little surprised to see the less than positive reviews of it here. I found Stendhal's meandering and picturesque tale of his formative years to be perpetually engaging, admirably honest, witty and intelligent throughout. I especially enjoyed his ongoing commentary on (and rejection of) bourgeois European life and the lasting and significant influence that great books (like those of Rousseau) had on him. Also, his mature recognition of youthful folly was constantly as humorous as it was courageous. A nearly unsurpassable masterpiece.
Much of it is also simply incomprehensible. There are anecdotes I completely fail to see the point of.
Take this observation: 'I learnt English only many years later, when I invented the idea of learning by heart the first four pages of The Vicar of Wakefield [Ouaikefield:]. This, I fancy, was around 1800. Someone had had the same idea in Scotland, I believe, but I didn't find that out until 1818 when I got hold of some Edinburgh Reviews in Germany.'
Little or no connection with what precedes and follows this passage. It sounds like a madman's comments. 'Invented the idea'? What's the idea? How do you learn a language just by memorizing four pages of text in it? And who was that Scotsman? Didn't he speak English already? What is he talking about.
In the Dutch edition that I read, the notes don't help me either.
And it's full of these random jottings. The whole thing sounds like Stendhal muttering to himself rather than addressing any reader. (Of course, the thing was never finished or published in his lifetime.)
Granted, that is also what gives it some life.
And maybe memoirs (with all those names of people most everybody has now forgotten) just isn't my genre. Found this book hard to digest and the tale somewhat far fetched. More Hocus Pocus than escape. The two pricipal characters outwitting the 'wiley orientals' and intriguing their way to freedom just 2 weeks before the end of the war. Not pointless, but just too much of a bore for my liking.