The Charterhouse of Parma
Cover of the 1846 edition, preceded by a literary study on Stendhal by Balzac.
|Original title||La Chartreuse de Parme|
The Charterhouse of Parma (French: La Chartreuse de Parme) is a novel by Stendhal published in 1839. Telling the story of an Italian nobleman in the Napoleonic era and later, it was admired by Balzac, Tolstoy, André Gide and Henry James. It was inspired by an inauthentic Italian account of the dissolute youth of Alessandro Farnese. The novel has been adapted for opera, film and television.
The Charterhouse of Parma chronicles the adventures of the young Italian nobleman Fabrice del Dongo from his birth in 1798 to his death. Fabrice spends his early years in his family’s castle on Lake Como, while most of the rest of the novel is set in a fictionalized Parma (both locations are in modern-day Italy).
The book begins with the French army sweeping into Milan and stirring up the sleepy region of Lombardy, which was allied with Austria. Fabrice grows up surrounded by intrigues and alliances for and against the French — his father the Marchese comically fancies himself a spy for the Viennese. It is broadly hinted at that Fabrice may have actually been fathered by a visiting French lieutenant. The novel's early section describes Fabrice's rather quixotic effort to join Napoleon when the latter returns to France in March 1815 (the Hundred Days). Fabrice at seventeen is idealistic, rather naive, and speaks poor French. However, he will not be stopped and leaves his home on Lake Como to travel north with false papers. He wanders through France, losing money and horses rapidly. He is imprisoned as a spy, but escapes, donning the uniform of a dead French hussar. In his excitement to play the role of a French soldier, he wanders onto the field at the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal, a veteran of several Napoleonic campaigns (he was one of the survivors of the retreat from Moscow in 1812), describes this famous battle as a chaotic affair: soldiers gallop one way and then another as bullets plow the fields around them. Fabrice briefly joins the guard of Field Marshal Ney, randomly comes across the man who may be his father (he commandeers Fabrice's horse), shoots one Prussian cavalryman while he and his regiment flee, and is lucky to survive the fighting with a serious wound to his leg (given to him by one of the retreating French cavalrymen). He makes his way back to his family's castle, injured, broke, and still wondering, "was I really in the battle?" Towards the end of the novel, his efforts, such as they are, lead people to say that he was one of Napoleon's bravest captains or colonels.
Fabrice having returned to Lake Como, the novel now divides its attention between him and his aunt Gina (his father's sister). Gina meets and befriends the Prime Minister of Parma, Count Mosca. Count Mosca proposes that Gina marry a wealthy old man, who will be out of the country for many years as an ambassador, so that she and Count Mosca can be lovers while living under the social rules of the time. Gina's responds, "But you realize that what you are suggesting is utterly immoral?" Nevertheless, she agrees, and so a few months later, Gina is the new social eminence in Parma's rather small aristocratic elite.
Gina has had very warm feelings for her nephew ever since he returned from France. Since going to join Napoleon was officially illegal, she and Count Mosca try to plan out a successful rehabilitation for the young man. Count Mosca's plan has Fabrice go to seminary school in Naples, with the idea that when he graduates he will come to Parma and become a senior figure in the religious hierarchy, and eventually the Archbishop, as the current office holder is old. The fact that Fabrice has no interest in religion (or celibacy) matters not to this plan. Fabrice agrees and leaves for Naples.
The book then describes in great detail how Gina and Count Mosca live and operate in the court of the Prince of Parma (named Ranuce-Erneste IV). Stendhal, who spent decades as a professional diplomat in northern Italy, gives a lively and interesting account of the court, though all of what he describes is entirely fictional, as Parma was ruled by Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma during the time of the novel.
After several years in Naples, during which he has many affairs with local women, Fabrice returns to Parma and shortly thereafter gets involved with a young actress whose manager/lover takes offense and tries to kill Fabrice. In the resulting fight, Fabrice kills the man and then flees Parma, fearing correctly that he will not be treated justly by the courts. However, his efforts to avoid capture are unsuccessful, and he is brought back to Parma and imprisoned in the Farnese Tower, the tallest tower in the city. Gina is very distressed by her feeling that Fabrice will certainly be executed, so goes to the Prince to plead for Fabrice's life. The Prince is alienated by Gina's dignity and refusal to yield, but seems to agree to free Fabrice, signing a note written by Mosca. But the Count, in an effort to be diplomatic, has omitted the possibly crucial phrase unjust procedure. The following morning, the Prince arranges for Fabrice to be condemned to a very long prison term.
For the next nine months Gina schemes to have Fabrice freed and manages to get secret messages relayed to him in the tower, in part by means of an improvised semaphore line. The Prince keeps hinting that Fabrice is going to be executed (or poisoned) as a way to put pressure on Gina. Meanwhile, Fabrice is oblivious to his danger and is living happily because he has fallen in love with the commandant's daughter, Clélia Conti, who he can see from his prison window as she tends her caged birds. They fall in love, and after some time he persuades her to communicate with him by means of letters of the alphabet printed on sheets ripped from a book.
Gina finally helps Fabrice escape from the Tower by having Clélia smuggle three long ropes to him. The only thing that concerns Fabrice is whether he will be able to meet Clélia after he escapes. But Clélia – who has feelings of guilt because the plot involved giving laudanum to her father, which she perceived as poison – promises the Virgin that she shall never see Fabrice again and will do anything her father says.
Gina leaves Parma and puts in motion a plan to have the Prince of Parma assassinated. Count Mosca stays in Parma, and when the Prince does die (it is strongly implied that he was poisoned by Gina's poet/bandit/assassin Ferrante) he puts down an attempted revolt by some local revolutionaries and installs the son of the Prince on the throne. Fabrice voluntarily returns to the Farnese Tower to see Clélia and is almost poisoned there. To save him, Gina promises to give herself to the new Prince. She keeps her promise and leaves Parma immediately afterwards. Gina never returns to Parma, but she marries Count Mosca. Clélia, to help her father, who was disgraced by Fabrice's escape, marries the wealthy man her father has chosen for her, and so she and Fabrice live unhappily.
Once he is acquitted of murder, Fabrice assumes his duties as a powerful preacher of the Catholic Church, and his sermons become the talk of the town. The only reason he gives these sermons, Fabrice says, is in the hope that Clélia will come to one, allowing him to see her and speak to her. After 14 months of suffering for both, she agrees to meet with him every night, on the condition that it is in darkness, lest she break her vow to the Madonna to never see him again and they both be punished for her sin. A year later she bears Fabrice's child. When the boy is two years old, Fabrice insists that he should take care of him in the future, because he is feeling lonely and worries that his own child will not love him. The plan he and Clélia devise is to fake the child's illness and death and then establish him secretly in a large house nearby, where Fabrice and Clélia can come to see him each day. After several months the child actually does die, and Clélia dies a few months after that. After her death, Fabrice retires to the titular Charterhouse of Parma (a Carthusian monastery), where he spends less than a year before he also dies. Gina, the Countess Mosca, who had always loved Fabrice, dies a short time after that.
While in some respects it is a "romantic thriller", interwoven with intrigue and adventures, the novel is also an exploration of human nature, psychology, and court politics.
The novel is cited as an early example of realism, a stark contrast to the Romantic style popular while Stendhal was writing. It is considered by many authors to be a truly revolutionary work; Honoré de Balzac considered it the most significant novel of his time, Tolstoy was heavily influenced by Stendhal's treatment of the Battle of Waterloo in his depiction of the Battle of Borodino, forming a central part of his novel War and Peace. André Gide described it as the greatest of all French novels, while Henry James ranked it "among the dozen finest novels we possess".
Stendhal wrote the book in just 52 days (from November 4, 1838, to December 26 of the same year). As a result, there are some poorly introduced plot elements (such as the poet-bandit-assassin Ferrante who suddenly appears in the story; even the author admits that he should have mentioned Ferrante's relationship to Gina earlier in the story).
- An opera on the subject, with libretto by Armand Lunel and music by Henri Sauguet, was premiered in Paris in 1939.
- The novel was filmed in 1948, directed by Christian-Jaque and starring Gérard Philipe as Fabricio, Maria Casares as Gina Sanseverina, and Renée Faure as Clelia Conti.
- Bernardo Bertolucci claimed to have based his 1964 film Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) on the novel.
- In 1981, the novel was turned into a TV series, La Certosa di Parma, directed by Mauro Bolognini, an Italian-French-German co-production.
- In 2012, a joint Italian-French TV miniseries La Certosa di Parma was directed by Cinzia Th. Torrini.
- Garzanti, Aldo (1974) . Enciclopedia Garzanti della letteratura (in Italian). Milan: Garzanti.
- M.R.B. Shaw, Penguin Classics translation 1958
- Stendhal, Charterhouse of Parma, Heritage Press edition (1955), Balzac preface, page viii 
- "СТЕНДА́ЛЬ" (Stendhal), entry in Краткая литературная энциклопедия (Short Literary Encyclopedia) (in Russian)
- Daniel Mendelsohn (August 29, 1999). "After Waterloo". The New York Times on the Web. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
- On the Road: The Original Scroll – Jack Kerouac, Books Review, The New York Times
- La Chartreuse de Parme (1948) on IMDb
- "Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
- La Certosa di Parma (1981) on IMDb
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