Tag Archives: stendhal

The Pink and the Green by Stendhal

I came across The Pink and The Green, an unfinished novel by Stendhal. I’d never heard of it before–and the title, of course, echoes The Red and the Black. I was a bit hesitant to read an unfinished novel. Would I be left hanging? Was it unfinished for a reason? And of course there’s that bigger question looming in the background … should unfinished novels be published? Since I decided to read more Stendhal last year, I’ll answer a big yes to my last question. My copy of The Pink and the Green, a New Directions book and translated by Richard Howard contains the unfinished novel of the title and a complete short story Mina de Vanghel. Both are clearly connected and offer different versions of the same young woman. When I started reading this book, I thought that I’d probably prefer the short story simply because it was finished, but no, I much preferred the unfinished novel. No idea why Stendhal abandoned it, and it is a pity that this novel was not completed.

the pink and the greenMina Wanghen is the heroine of The Pink and The Green. A resident of Königsberg, and the only daughter of Pierre Wanghen, the city’s “richest banker,” Mina, as the sole heiress, is a highly desirable catch. We first meet her at a ball in the year 183_. It’s three in the morning, and Mina has no shortage of dance partners. In spite of this, she chooses to sit out some of the dances in order to listen to the stories of 45-year-old Major-General Count von Landek, recently returned from Paris:

The general was describing the magnificent fountain of Saint-Cloud as it soars skyward, those charming wooded hills of the Seine valley only an hour from the Opéra Comique. Can we say that it was this last image which caused Mina to forget everything else? In Prussia there are indeed great forests, very lovely and very picturesque, but one league from such forests there is only barbarism, poverty, and a vigilance indispensable if one is to avoid destruction. All things wretched, coarse, inconsolable–and which produce a love of gilded salons.

The general, who still smarts from the humiliations suffered by the Prussian army at the hands of the French, begins “abusing French society,” and he lists a few examples of the failings of “this frivolous people.” Mina, who is “intoxicated with France,” cannot stop listening to the general’s stories–although, of course, she believes that French society is greatly superior to that of Königsberg.

A few weeks after the ball, Mina’s father dies unexpectedly. Left with seven and a half million francs, Mina in the company of her still-young mother, is besieged by young men, and the two women are hounded by suitor’s for Mina’s hand. The Wanghen mansion is situated at the “northern end of the Friedrichstrasse,” and it’s a tradition for the young women to sit at the windows of their homes in the afternoons while they do needlework. From this vantage point, the young women can observe the males outside as they strut around on horseback, looking their best in their finest clothing. “Little romances” are created and are fed in this established courtship ritual, but Mina takes her needlework and flees to another room in the mansion as she is so tired of the men parading past her window. The poor girl can’t go outside without being waylaid by would-be suitors who even bribe the servants in order to get information about Mina’s schedule. The pressure is on….

In an aside in which Stendhal tells us that we may be “shocked,” we are told that in Prussia, the girls expect to marry for love:

Yes there are countries where on has the misfortune of not behaving precisely as we do in France.

There’s a lot to find amusing in The Pink and the Green. Mina, fed up with being pursued by the fortune hunters of Prussia, decides to move to Paris–after all, in her idealized view of all things French, she thinks that her life will be significantly improved, but the reality is far different.  Mina imagines that she’ll have peace from the Prussian fortune hunters–a rather naïve thought given her great wealth–all those novels have fed her imagination. For one thing, in Paris there’s a fresh set of French fortune hunters sniffing around, and then Mina’s idea of French society doesn’t match reality. Here’s Stendhal on the subject of Prussian vs. French marriages:

One terrible consequence of this honest freedom is that very often a rich young man will marry a poor girl on the absurd pretext that she is lovely and that he is madly in love with her, which casts a notable shadow on the respectable class of sullen young ladies possessing neither wit nor beauty. Whereas in France the basis of our unwritten legislation relative to marriage is to protect all rich and ugly young women.

And here’s poor Mina after a disappointing evening of French society:

“The coarseness of these people,” Mina sighed. “Have I been deceived?” she went on, her voice slow and pensive.
“Are these the amiable French? Does the agreeable society I have dreamed of exist on this earth?”

What a shame that Stendhal didn’t finish this novel. The introduction states that “Stendhal had no patience whatever, and his time seemed in short supply. He had waited too long before beginning fiction.” The novel may not have a conclusion but Stendhal left “several plans which suggest a possible ending.” These notes are included.

The short story Mina de Vanghel starts off in a similar fashion as The Pink and The Green. It’s still Königsberg–although there’s a different take on Mina’s father. Now instead of being a rich banker, he’s a disillusioned Prussian general “closely observed” by the Berlin police. After his death, Mina retreats to Paris–partially because she sees Prussia as “ungrateful” for her father’s service and partly due to the police surveillance. Of course, she too has an idealized view of French life thanks to novels. Part of this story just didn’t gel for me as something that Mina de Vanghel does seems out of character.

When reading The Pink and the Green, I was reminded of Turgenev’s The Nest of the Gentry and the main character, Lavretsky who is dragged off to Paris but feels out-of-place in the superficiality of its salons. Here’s Turgenev on Lavretsky’s wife, Varvara Pavlovna unleashed in Paris:

In Paris, Varvara Pavlovna bloomed like a rose and succeeded, just as swiftly and skillfully as she had done in St. Petersburg, in making a little nest for herself. She found an exceptionally pretty apartment in one of the quiet but fashionable streets of Paris, ran up a nightshirt for her husband the like of which he had never seen before; she engaged a chic maid, a superb cook and a nimble footman, and obtained an exquisite little carriage and a delightful piano. A week had not gone by before she was making her way across the street wearing a shawl, opening an umbrella or pulling on gloves no less expertly than the most pure-blooded native of Paris. And she had quickly acquired a circle of acquaintances. At first only Russians came to visit, but later came Frenchmen, extremely charming and courteous bachelors, with beautiful manners and euphonious names; all of them talked very fast and a great deal, bowed with easy familiarity and very pleasantly puckered their eyes; white teeth flashed behind their rosy lips.

That slightly predatory image comes right before Lavretsky discovers that his wife, who’s gone native, has sealed the deal by getting a young French lover.

So there are two examples of the foreigner in Paris; French Stendhal writing about a Francophile Prussian heiress fleeing from Prussian fortune hunters in Paris, and Russian Turgenev (who lived outside of Russia every chance he got) writing about poor cuckolded out-of-place Lavretsky–a native of a country whose nobility admires all thing French.  Finally, Stendhal’s most famous novel is The Red and the Black, published in 1830. Stendhal worked on The Pink and the Green in 1837 before abandoning it. Were they intended to be companion novels?  I know what The Red and the Black means, but as for The Pink and the Green…. The only meaning I can guess is love and youth. If anyone knows a different meaning, I’d like to know.

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The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories by Prosper Mérimée

Prosper Mérimée’s (1803-1879) short novel, A Slight Misunderstanding was one of the delights of 2011, and so when I saw that Alma Classics (formerly Oneworld Classics) published a volume of this author’s short stories translated by Douglas Parmée, well, I knew I had to read it. At just over 100 pages, The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories is a slim read and includes:

The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden

Tamango

The Etruscan Vase

A Hanging

The Blue Room

H.B

Those who read and loved A Slight Misunderstanding will remember the role the title played in the tragic drama that played out which involves not a slight misunderstanding (that’s a major understatement) but a huge misinterpretation of intent. Another ‘misunderstanding,’ if you will, occurs in The Etruscan Vase–a story which involves a misinterpretation of a lover’s behaviour.

The misinterpretation also occurs in the story The Blue Room. In this story two lovers elope on a train and their romantic isolation on a carriage is interrupted by an English traveller who’s carrying a bag which contains a large amount of money. The young couple, even though deep in the throes of passion, cannot help but notice the wad of cash, and they also notice a tattily-dressed young man who is apparently following the Englishman.

The train had arrived at N–.The Englishman got out first and as Léon was helping his companion to climb down from their coach without showing her legs, a man jumped down onto the platform from the next coach. He had a pale, even sallow face, hollow, bloodshot eyes and was ill shaven–often a strong indication of criminal tendencies. His clothes were clean but worn; his jacket, originally black, had gone grey at the elbows and down the back; it was buttoned right up to the chin, no doubt to hide an even more threadbare waistcoat.

Love the unshaved look observation. The shabbily-dressed man, as it turns out, is a impoverished nephew of the Englishman. The nephew wants money, and an ugly scene takes place. The young eloping couple depart for their hotel, but once again the romance is interrupted. This time it’s officers of the 3rd Chasseurs hosting an all-nighter for the 3rd Hussars right next door to the young couple’s room. Unable to sleep due to the endless noisy drinking and “ribald” stories, Léon leans out of the hotel window and notices the Englishman’s nephew suspiciously loitering in the grounds outside….

Tamango is the story of a slave uprising. Again we see the author’s delight in the ironic touch when he describes the slave quarters on the ship jammed packed with “black ivory“–the cargo the one-handed Captain Ledoux is transporting for sale on his ship named Hope (there’s that irony again). Ledoux has invented a new way of carrying cargo as Mérimée shows us with both irony and sarcasm:

With the blacks sitting with their backs to the hull in two parallel lines, there was room in all the other slave-trading vessels for people to pass through. Ledoux had the brilliant idea of using this space to put other blacks, lying at right angles to those who were sitting. In this way, his ship could hold about ten more slaves than other ships of the same size. At a pinch, he could have squeezed in a few more, but one mustn’t be inhumane. You have to have at least five feet in length and two in breadth for a black to enjoy his trip during the crossing, which might take six weeks or more. “And after all, ” Ledoux said to his shipbuilder to justify his generosity, “blacks are human beings as much as whites are.”

The story The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden is one of Mérimée’s earliest stories and reminiscent of Hoffman, it’s the weakest of the bunch. Rather unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the non-fiction pieces the most. The Hanging, in which the author recalls a very real event is moving but without sentiment in its recollection of the hanging of a murderer in Spain, a majo or buck who killed a man for an insult. Mérimée notes that he “shall never forget that man,”  a fine specimen who is forced by circumstance to participate in a spectacle involving a number of priests, monks, officers, a penitent and a “life-size” crucifix. The condemned man begins walking proudly but begins sinking as he approaches the  gallows. This is a man whose name is lost to time, and yet Mérimée captures the moment and freezes this spectacle of punishment forever.

For this reader, the gem of the collection is H.B. which, as Douglas Parmée explains in the introduction (and thanks Alma Classics for having the translator write the intro and not one of the many celebrity intro authors who seem to not have read the book), is more or less an “obituary” of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The two men met in 1823 and they corresponded and met occasionally over a twenty-year period until Stendhal’s death in 1842. Here is a beautiful passage Mérimée wrote about his friend:

I’ve attended three pagan burials; The first of a man who’d blown out his brains. His teacher, a great philosopher, and his friends were afraid of shocking respectable public opinion and no one dared speak out. The second was of Monsieur Jacquemont, who’d forbidden any speeches or sermons. The last was Beyle’s.

There were three of us present and so unprepared that we didn’t know his last wishes. On each occasion, I felt that we had in some way been found wanting, if not towards the dead man himself, at least towards ourselves. If one of your friends dies on a journey, you feel sorry not to have wished him goodbye before he left. Departure and death require commemoration with some ceremony; there’s something solemn about it. Even if it’s only a meal, a gathering of like-minded people, something needs to be done and that is what Elpenor is asking for, not just a little patch of soil; he wants to be remembered.

In another section of the piece, Mérimée describes Beyle:

 He displayed blatant contempt for the French national character and eloquently proclaimed all the faults of which our great nation, no doubt unfairly, stands accused: flippancy, thoughtlessness, irresponsibility in thought and deed–all of which he basically shared himself, to a high degree. To mention only one example of his thoughtlessness: when French Consul in Civitavecchia, he sent the French Foreign Minister a letter in cypher–enclosing the code in the same envelope.

What a marvellous tidbit about Stendhal, and one that grants us a unique glimpse into this author’s character. Mérimée appears to have loved Stendhal, and the piece is written with a strong sense of poignancy and loss. Mérimée recounts Stendhal’s opinion on Napoleon (“hard to discover,“) and ranging from thinking Napoleon “a social climber, dazzled by the false glamour of fame,” to “expressing for him an admiration verging on idolatry.” Mérimée notes his friend’s flaws and admits Stendhal’s tendency to “inconsistency.” There are some marvellous details of Stendhal’s experiences during the Russian campaigns.

But perhaps of the greatest interest is the section in which Mérimée discusses Stendhal’s views on love & women, for here, almost by default, we can pick up Mérimée’s inadvertently expressed opinions. At one point, Mérimée recalls Stendhal asking for advice regarding a countess who spoke using the familiar “voi.” Stendhal asks his friend whether or not he should rape the countess and Mérimée is all for it. Again this brought back the carriage scene in A Slight Misunderstanding, and perhaps most telling, Stendhal held the view that “any man left alone with a woman should have a go at her.” This was apparently one of his maxims, and while this was a time in which women weren’t supposed to be alone with men other than their husbands, priests and a few select male relatives, Stendhal’s attitude seems … extreme. 

Concluding the volume with its stories not as fine as Mérimée’s novella,  A Slight Misunderstanding, I carried away a desire to read more Stendhal, for Mérimée grants us an intriguing glimpse of a flawed yet interesting man. As Douglas Parmée says, it’s an “endearing” portrait, and I can’t think of a better term.

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