I found a nice hardcopy edition of The Charterhouse of Parma a while back and finally decided to read it. I have to conclude that I am not a fan of Stendahl. I read The Red and the Black a few years ago and deeply disliked its hero, who is essentially a sociopath.
The Charterhouse of Parma is about the life of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio, the second son of the Marchese and Marchesa del Dongo. When Fabrizio is a boy, the region where he lives, near Lake Como, goes back and forth between occupation by the French and rule by Austria. Although Fabrizio’s father is a conservative devoted to the Austrian king, Fabrizio grows up with romantic stories about Napoleon’s exploits. When he is a young man, extremely naïve and stupid, he runs off to fight for Napoleon just in time for Waterloo. He doesn’t even know how to join the army so ends up being mistaken for a spy and having so many ridiculous exploits that I thought I was reading a comedy. I wasn’t. In any case, this adventure results in his being accused by his elder brother of being a spy for the French so that he can no longer reside in Austria, which includes portions of Italy.
Meanwhile, his beloved aunt, the Countess Pietranara, is widowed. She eventually meets Count Mosca, a powerful person in the government of Parma, who falls in love with her. He offers to quit his position and move to Milan to be her impoverished lover (he is married) or to have her marry Duke Sanseverina in name only so that she can respectably move to Parma and be at court—and also be his mistress. She chooses the latter plan.
After Fabrizio’s return from the front, Duchess Sanseverina and Count Mosca try to help Fabrizio gain some position worthy of his birth. They choose the church and advise him how to behave. But Fabrizio is struggling between his instincts and his conscience and consistently falls into one mishap after another.
When I tell you that Tolstoy modelled his description of Waterloo—the least interesting part of War and Peace, which I consistently skipped over—after Stendahl’s, and when I say further that Waterloo, to me, was one of the most interesting parts of this book, you will guess how much I enjoyed it. Actually, I should say the first half of the book, because I finally stopped reading. I did not find Fabrizio interesting and didn’t really care what happened to him.