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Stendhal | Biography

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Childhood and Family

Stendhal, a pseudonym of Henri Beyle, was born to a middle-class family in Grenoble, France, on January 23, 1783. Just seven years old when his mother died, Stendhal was devastated by her loss. Many years later, in his autobiography Life of Henri Brulard (1890) he documents his attachment to her, including his Oedipal desire to "cover my mother in kisses and for there not to be any clothes." He developed an early resentment toward his father, a lawyer, and a corresponding hatred of authority; he also began to be on the lookout for surrogate mothers. These early psychological patterns show up in his portrayal of relations between and among his novel's characters. In The Red and the Black, the protagonist, Julien, carries on an affair with a woman at least 10 years his senior and later says she was a mother to him. Julien is also the motherless son of a materialistic and unfeeling father.

Stendhal studied at the École Centrale in Grenoble, distinguishing himself in art and mathematics. He moved to Paris in 1799, purportedly to prepare for the examination for the École Polytechnique, an engineering school, but in truth he wished to get away from his father and small-town life. He decided not to take the École Polytechnique exam; instead he began a program of extensive reading and dreamed of becoming a successful playwright. He schooled himself in philosophy, particularly the works of the sensationalists and idealogues, two schools of thought focused on the relationship between sensory experience and human thought.

Military Life

Stendhal's literary pursuits were interrupted by a military appointment he obtained through his relatives and benefactors. He served for a year as a second lieutenant in the French military forces stationed in Italy, where he first developed a love for the Italian landscape and culture that later would be evident in his literary work—notably The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), less famous than The Red and the Black, but another admired, important novel. In 1802 he was back in Paris, working on various writing projects—none of which he completed. Then, in 1806, one of his relatives again got him a military appointment, this time as an administrator in the French army under emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Stendhal first was sent to Germany and then Austria; he accompanied the army into Russia and witnessed the burning of Moscow and the disastrous retreat of the French.

In 1814 after Napoleon's defeat, Stendhal settled in Milan, Italy, where he resumed writing and studied music and the visual arts. That year he published his first book, and eventually began to use the pen name Stendhal. During this period the practiced womanizer fell in love with Métilde, Countess Dembowski; his unrequited love for her continued for six years and inspired his book On Love (1822), a nonfiction treatise on romantic attachments.

Stendhal was forced to leave Austrian-occupied Milan in 1821; because of his many political friendships, he was suspected of being a spy. After returning to Paris, he became active in the city's social and intellectual life, publishing commentary on literature and music, as well as his first novel, Armance (1827).

Writing and Diplomacy

Three years later The Red and the Black was published to little fanfare, though later it would be considered one of his masterpieces, along with The Charterhouse of Parma. That same year Stendhal was appointed a diplomat in a small town in central Italy. In his later years he wrote several incomplete works that were published after his death.

Stendhal died on March 23, 1842, after suffering a series of strokes. He had "Arrigo Beyle, Milanese"—meaning Henri Beyle, citizen of Milan—carved on his tombstone, in homage to his beloved Italy.

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