I’m finding as I read through material on Stendhal now at the start of my PhD that I can’t help constantly feeding it back into my own mental landscape as a writer.
Of course, “scholarly objectivity” doesn’t really exist, and anyone brings to their studies what they do elsewhere in life (a builder reading Stendhal, or criticism on Stendhal, would bring a builder’s knowledge and issues to the material, likewise a dancer, a tailor, a musician, an architect – whatever!).
Even though the material is necessarily looking at the nineteenth century and at realism, a contemporary writer inevitably measures ideas against his or her own practice.
So Lukács* in “Balzac and Stendhal” leads me to ponder how we do or don’t incorporate the “bigger” political and social world in our fiction. He’s talking about Balzac’s praise-and-criticism for Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma...
In Balzac’s view Stendhal’s novel achieves its comprehensive typicality precisely because its scene is laid in Parma, on a stage of trivial interests and petty intrigues... Balzac reveals an essential structural quality of the great realistic bourgeois novel. The writer, the “historian of private life” as Fielding put it, must describe the hidden fluctuations of society, the intrinsic laws governing its movements, its incipient trends, its invisible growth and its revolutionary upheavals. But great historical events, and the great figures of history can very rarely be adapted to the demonstration of society in the form of concrete types... Balzac considers that a writer does not know his craft if he chooses for his subject the external glitter of great historical events instead of the internal riches found in the characteristic development of social elements. (pp 35-6)
Okay, so we’re no longer in the heyday of the great Realists anymore, but as a writer (getting distracted from my PhD work, or maybe not!) I think there’s still something to be absorbed from this.
Often if you deal with the “trivial” and “up-close” and “personal” you may be accused of ignoring or even deliberately excluding the larger-scale (as if human life were not lived on both scales – and even others), despite the fact that, as feminisms have stressed, the personal is political...
Balzac was not promoting what Lukacs calls “petty realism, the trivially detailed painting of local colour” (that might for instance be purely sentimental) but praises for example Walter Scott by writing:
Scott never chose great events as subjects for his pen, but he always carefully develops the causes which led to them, by depicting the spirit and morals of the age, and presenting a whole social milieu instead of moving in the rarified atmosphere of great political events. (p. 36)
For me this is a valuable way of thinking about the approach to the “political” in a novel, and it’s something I’ll be trying to take on board both in my reading and in my writing.
*Georg Lukács, “Balzac and Stendhal,” trans. H. M. Parshley, in Harold Bloom, ed. Stendhal: Modern Critical Views, New York, Chelsea House, 1989, pp31-49