Ooooh, Fabrice. That’s what all the ladies think when they see him. And now that I know that Gerard Philipe played him in a 1948 film, I’ve got a face to put to the name — Fabrice del Dongo, the beautiful, naive hero of Stendhal’s great novel. La Chartreuse de Parme, or The Charterhouse of Parma, is one of those titles you wouldn’t normally get around to unless you were assigned it in French 420, “The Romantic Novel.” (Actually, from the skimpy research I’ve done, I understand that it’s really considered more of a bridge to realism, on the basis of the canny psychology. On the other hand, people do sigh a great deal about sublime landscapes and they burst into tears all the time, which seems more Romantic.) However, the surprise is that it’s a really entertaining read, and extremely funny. For instance, the narrator apologizes toward the end of the book for droning on about dull details of court intrigue. “On the other hand,” he continues, “in America, in the republic, one must be bored all day long paying court to the lowest kind of shopkeepers, and becoming as stupid as they are; and there’s no opera over there.”
Here are a few key elements of the novel: the hero, Fabrice, is noble, handsome, and has a winning disposition, but otherwise functions as a blank slate upon which women — many women — project their fantasies. The first section of the novel covers his ardent desire to be part of Napoleon’s glorious return to Europe. Famously, he is present at the battle of Waterloo, but in such an inglorious fashion that he must continually ask himself, “Have I really been in a battle?”
From Waterloo, Fabrice returns to Italy, specifically to Parma. This is pre-unification Italy, so Parma is a small principality run by the unpleasant Prince Ranuce-Ernest IV. Stendhal is playing with us here, as elsewhere: in the years following Napoleon’s defeat Parma was ruled by his widow, Maria Luigia.
Stendhal places an immense “citadel” or walled tower in the center of Parma, where the pretty pink marble baptistery actually stands. The tower is the prison and Fabrice ends up there for killing a sleazy actor in self-defense. It is here that he falls madly in love with the jailer’s daughter Clélia, whom he glimpses as she tends her birds in a room opposite his cell. They communicate by primitive flash cards. If you ask me, Fabrice’s jail cell is the true “charterhouse” of the title, for he is supposed to be in solitary confinement. (I’m pretty sure Patrick O’Brian picked up on the seduction of the pretty jailer, in one of the Aubrey/Maturin novels.)
Fabrice is a Catholic priest. This has no effect at all on his romantic life, except that it makes him more attractive to the ladies. We might call this the “Ralph de Bricassart” factor.
Stendhal dictated the novel in 52 days, which accounts for some oddities like characters who literally appear out of the woods to play important parts. My favorite lapse comes six pages before the end when the narrator says, “Here, we ask permission to pass over a space of three years, without saying a word about them.”
The Carthusian monastery closest to Parma is currently a training institute for prison guards. Italian sense of humor?