Thursday, 19 July 2001

Stendhal: Lucien Leuwen (1894)

Translation: H.L.R. Edwards, 1951
Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 877

Stendhal's famous novels, Scarlet and Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, are accompanied by a set of uncompleted projects, of which Lucien Leuwen is the longest and most complete. Two parts were written, requiring only final editing, and a third was projected before the likelihood that the French censor would ban publication led Stendhal to abandon the project.

What is different about Lucien Leuwen that would have made the censor sit up and take notice? Like Scarlet and Black, its setting is contemporary, but it is extremely critical of the regime and of the narrow minded pettiness which characterised French politics of the period (the 1830s). Real ministers can be identified from Stendhal's descriptions. Every so often, Stendhal even felt that he had to put in little footnotes to remind the censor that the expressed views of the characters do not necessarily match the opinions of the author, even though to be both a radical and a conservative would have been quite difficult.

The hero of the novel is an ardent young man, similar in many ways to Julien in Scarlet and Black. The first part, which was more comprehensively revised by Beyle and published before the second under the title The Green Huntsman, is set in the provincial town of Nancy, where he is posted as a second lieutenant in the cavalry regiment quartered there. His background, which is wealthy but not noble, separates him from his fellow officers and from the town's society. Although, as a sophisticated Parisian, he is contemptuous of the society, both the nobility and the bourgeois, he works to become part of it when he falls in love. His feeling that the stupidity of these people would stop them from being successful in the capital is shown to be wrong in the second part. Here, Lucien deserts his post because of the unhappiness of his love affair, but the influence of his father secures him a post in a ministry.

The whole novel is an attack on the pettiness of the French bourgeoisie, the elevation of mediocrity and the cult of the "dead centre" which would perhaps be equivalent to an exaggerated version of the question often posed in parodies of the British Civil Service - "Is he sound?". In its incomplete state, there is clearly polishing that would have remained to be done, and a certain amount of tightening - Beyle wrote it with the idea that he would put more in than he needed and then cut it; but it remains a savage indictment of 1830s French life.

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