Modes of Narrative Magic

A student of mine at a 92nd St Y workshop once wrote a short story that featured a schoolyard punch-up. I was fascinated by how her description of the fight seemed to put the reader in the position of an onlooker inescapably fascinated by what was going on, but she had slightly underdescribed the action, so that my view was intermittently blocked by other people’s heads and shoulders and I kept on trying to see the fight. It was a beautifully achieved technical effect, and I asked her how she had come up with it. The others in the class liked it too. She told us that she hadn’t known she was doing it. Which just goes to show you  . . . what exactly?

The last time I read Tolstoy’s great novels I was surprised to see how little description he had written about buildings, salons, furniture—much less of it than I had misremembered; which indicates to me that he conveys such a sense of narrative completeness with writerly means that actually leave a lot out, and it seemed to me that this was less a technical achievement than an emanation of his sense of the wholeness of life and the world. Because he sees it all you’re borrowing his eyesight, and you see what he sees even when he doesn’t mention it.

This is not like Hemingway’s iceberg, owing the dignity of its motion to the submarine seven-eighths of it you cannot see. With Hemingway you’re aware of his subtractions and the hyper-clarity of what remains, whereas with Tolstoy you feel that you’re being shown the whole works, when actually you’re not. There’s a difference between a skillful use of craft and what is achieved by the essence of an author conveying itself to you without apparent artifice.

Then there’s the more radical case of Arrigo Beyle, Milanese, aka Stendhal, who was in deliberate rebellion against the narrative/descriptive manner of his day, especially the reams of description in the historical novels of Walter Scott and what he thought of as the fulsome, over-poeticized scene painting of Victor Hugo. He even wanted to keep things more fleet of foot than the life-crowded pages of his contemporary, Balzac. There are exceptions to Stendhal’s leanness, like the description of the town of Verrieres at the beginning of The Red and the Black, but usually Stendhal likes to set up his scenery with as little fuss as possible. Sometimes he’ll get by with calling Como “that magnificent lake,” and you see it as if he’d put you there. In my favorite of his novels, The Charterhouse of Parma, our hero’s view from a bell tower onto the terrace of his father’s palazzo, from which he is banned, snaps into focus, along with the entire landscape of the region in which it is set, with sudden poignancy: “He could even make out the sparrows hunting for a few crumbs of bread on the big balcony of the dining room. They’re the descendants of the ones I tamed in the old days, he told himself.”

A different example from the same source. Our young hero, Fabrizio del Dongo, is caught up in the retreat from Waterloo, a battle which he is never quite sure he experienced. He’s in conversation with the vivandiere, the woman with a food wagon, who had sagely steered our dashing young idiot through the misadventures of the day.

            “How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul; that is the good side of France.

        “How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul: this is the good side of France.

    “In all I may have thirty gold Napoleons and eight or nine five-franc écus left.”

“In that case you’re as free as air!” exclaimed the canteen woman. “Get yourself out from among this rabble of an army. Jump off to one side, take the first road you can find that’s been cleared a bit on your right hand. Keep your horse going hard, away from the army all the time. The first opportunity you get, buy some civilian clothes. Once you’re eight or ten leagues away and can no longer see any soldiers, take the stage and go away for a week and eat steak in some nice town. Don’t tell anyone you were with the army. The gendarmes will pick you up as a deserter. And though you’re very nice, young man, you’re not yet smart enough to answer the gendarmes. As soon as you’ve got some town clothes on your back, tear your movement order into a thousand pieces and go back to your real name. Say you’re Vasi. And where should he say he comes from?” she asked the corporal.  

        “From Cambrai on the Escaut, a nice town, quite small d’you understand, where there’s a cathedral and Fenélon.” “That’s it,” said the canteen-woman. “Never say you were at the battle and don’t say a word about B * * * or the gendarme who sold you the movement order. When you want to go back to Paris, go to Versailles first of all, and go through the toll-gate on that side, strolling, on foot, as if out walking. Sew your napoleons into your trousers.”

And so on. The vivandiere’s voice is at once so realistically rendered that you know everything you have to know about her right away, while at the same time functioning like a recitative in a comic opera and thereby adding a note of the fantasticated and the irreal—something that happens a lot in The Charterhouse of Parma; but what nails the passage for me is her advice, in the middle of everything else, to eat a steak when he gets to town. For me—for you it might be some other passing touch—that steak is worth a world of scene-setting, character portrayal, landscape painting, a description of the road they’re on, or anything about the weather. Definitive focus has been established. You’ll remember it. And why? Yes, because Stendhal knows how people of all social classes talk, and can do seven versions of each from hard realism to serio-comic rodomontade, but what makes it come across so well is the essential vigor, appetite, intelligence and keenness of sight with which he engages the world and the life in it. That’s him, that’s the man, and it’s in his writing. He can leave out as much as he likes, because he knows the world and puts you in it. Seek out the technical means and you will probably not find them. Essentially, it’s magic.

Earlier on, when he was writing The Red and the Black—one of the foundational modern novels for its character analysis and its air of rebellion against a rotten social order—Stendhal viewed the Code Napoleon as a model of the deglamorized prose style he wanted: plain as possible, as if in the tone of conversation, not that of literature as it was then practiced. By the time he got to the Chartreuse de Parme, he was still more free with the idiom and was able to dictate most of the book in a few weeks. The edition I have at hand runs to five hundred pages, and would have run to a hundred more if his publisher hadn’t told him the damn thing was too long, so that Stendhal lopped off the last section and ended the book with a plot summary. Later on he realized he’d made a mistake and tried to find the pages, but couldn’t. If you ever run across them in an attic, or in some sub-basement of the Galeries Lafayette, which stands roughly where the house he wrote the book in did, please let me, or Sotheby’s, know. There’s always something abrupt about Stendhal. He could throw away the last hundred, write a first fifty that don’t let you in, so that you might quit before you get to the battle of Waterloo, the great set piece that taught everyone from Tolstoy and Crane to Hemingway onward how to write about war.

  He was born French and, to put it very mildly, preferred Italy. He dictated the words he wanted on his tombstone (in the Cimitière Montmartre, near Place Pigalle):

Arrigo Beyle, Milanese




Arrigo, not Henri. From Milan, not Grenoble. Lived, Wrote, Loved. And fifty years after the death of the author, Stendhal’s admirers, Les amis de Stendhal, finally put up a proper memorial atop his grave but changed the order of how he saw his life: Wrote, Lived, Loved. Fans. What can you do with them?

It’s so odd that when Stendhal first set out to write in his youth it was in the genre for which he was least well-suited: verse drama. Think about how much he had to learn to get to where he got. Lived, wrote, loved. War, fiasco, short and stubby, awkward horsemanship, the brains to throw away what everyone knew the art and craft of writing was and cut to a more vital essence and, learning and forgetting everything he needed to, do what truly suited him. Hemingway said that it was the winter retreat with the remains of Napoleon’s army from Moscow that made him as a writer, and while that may not be the whole story it’s essentially right: that bedrock realism that never deserts him even at his most outlandish—anyone for Fabrizio’s romance from his prison cell in the Farnese Tower with the prisonkeeper’s daughter sequestered in the tower across the way?

Whenever I arrive in Paris—and it’s been too long since I’ve been there—my first supererogatory social call is to the Cimitière Montmartre, beneath the chestnut trees, for the pleasure of having met him, best I could.

Vladimir Nabokov said that he had checked, and Stendhal hadn’t written a single good French sentence. I once had a go at the original of the Chartreuse and decided that I’d rather read my favorite novel in translation, not only because my French ain’t that good but because his wasn’t either. Certainly if your French is as middling as mine, his sentences will seem to trudge, and you won’t pick up on all that intricate ironic nuance and constancy of wit. Of the translations I prefer C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s (although for this post I used John Sturrock’s version for Penguin Classics, because it was handy; almost any translation will do, apart from Richard Howard’s highly praised flop, that calls its hero Fabrizio, not Fabrice, and if possible calls la Sanseverina the Duchessa and not the Duchess) because Moncrieff’s is the version I read first, when I knew the book was way smarter than me and I’d have to come back to it when I was more experienced. Moncrieff’s slightly antique air catches the echo of the ancien régime Stendhal the Bonapartist detested, as he detested his father; so that he was a writer and a sensibility both ahead of his time and behind it. That disjunction, along with other internal complications including his wealth of worldly experience indissolubly bonded to an adolescent ardency, produce bracing discords and much sweet thunder.

And then there’s Gina, Gina Pietranera, later the Duchessa Sanseverina, impossibly beautiful, daring, indomitable, Stendhal’s wet dream of Italy—based on his less grand onetime bygone mistress Gina Pietragrua—one of the great ladies of the 19th century novel, and happily one who doesn’t have to throw herself under a train like Karenina—I maintain that Tolstoy pushed her—or swallow arsenic like Emma B., but who triumphs over all her enemies. And Conte Mosca, her lover, the wisest, most wittily Machiavellian man of his day or any other. . . They all come alive by means they won’t teach you in writing workshops—that’s the windup, here comes the pitch—but I like to think that with good counseling, by studying the means that can lead you not only to the technique uniquely suited to you but to the self you can write from,  liberating a mysterious essence at your core that will enable you to write, as Stendhal did, for the Happy Few, and, who knows, maybe a handful more. Some of it might even last.

5 thoughts on “Modes of Narrative Magic”

  1. You’re right, I tried to read Charterhouse of Parma, and gave up after about 30 pages. Impenetrable for me. But I think Tolstoy assumed everyone who might read his books knew what an upper-class drawing room looked like, so it wasn’t necessary to describe it. It was never meant to be entry-level literature.


  2. Yes, but it still works for us, who don’t know that world, unless it’s from movies, which may be a factor. Meanwhile re Stendhal, Balzac, who was the god of the French novel of the day, wrote an unsolicited rave review, nearly fifty pages long, of this largely unread contemporary’s very strange novel. He pointed out that the first fifty pages really had to go, and Stendhal wrote to thank him for his extraordinary and unsought review, and especially for that helpful tip about the first fifty, which he promised to correct. Typically, he never did. For myself, I’ve determined that the first fifty pages, up to the beginning of Fabrizio’s Napoleonic adventure, are precidely as good as the rest of the book, but for some mysterious reason Stendhal has written, in some undetectable way, has neglected let the reader in. The characters are abstractions, except perhaps when Lieutenant Robert has to repair his shoes in order to appear in company. Everything changes when Fabrizio heads for Belgium, and if not then, as soon as he encounters the vivandiere and her cart as he approaches the battlefield. Stendhal’s mistake before that point is very hard to to figure out. It’s very odd. The least one could say is that it took him a while to find his feet with the story, and that he didn’t notice it, and didn’t go back to rewrite it. (Balzac, I think was wrong: it didn’t need t be cut; it needed to be outfitted with doors and windows through which reader can enter.) (It’s a very strange book that, unlike The Red and the Black, has no heirs in the world of modern fiction. Even its strong effect on me is invisible in what I’ve written aided by his influence: see previous post.)


    1. A bit more re Tolstoy: he wrote a full backstory for Anna, including how and why she married Karenin—the Anna we meet in the book wouldn’t have done it, so we must presume her wiser and sadder by experience, but even so it does not entirely convince—but then cut it out completely, leaving us to assume that it was an arranged marriage and she was pressured by her Auntie. Back to matters of scene-setting: when he feels the need to do a full job as in battle scenes, hunting scenes—that bee that whizzes past Levin’s ear. the behavior or his dog, the mowing with the serfs set-piece that is, I think, a tad overdone—his descriptive power is uncanny. I still think he pushed Anna under the train: that was the genesis of the book, and he was going to stick to it even though he’d made Anna too large and vivid not to do better. Even so, Nicola Pagett, the best of all screen Annas, does an incredible job, with her rich, spoiled mouth with the inner-outer monologue in her barouche on the way to the station. (BBC 1977) And we do owe much of our sense of domestic detail to the movies, although this is not true of Karenina’s opening pages: the sofa, the shave, and so on.


  3. Thank you for this terrific piece. The phrase, “you’re not yet smart enough to answer the gendarmes” made me think if Raymond Chandler.


Leave a Reply to Eric Wagner Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s