Stendhal’s “Memoirs of a Tourist” in the Quarterly Review

I stumbled across something remarkable in an old copy of the British Quarterly Review.  It was a review of Stendhal’s “Memoirs of a Tourist.”  Stendhal is my favorite novelist, so I was not a little interested in learning what the Quarterly had to say about him.  What I found was one of the better vignettes of the author I’ve run across, quite true to life and full of insight into the human condition, written by a sadly anonymous someone who must have himself been a formidable intellect.  I heartily recommend it to the safekeeping of Stendhal’s “Happy Few.”  One could read through many a modern literary review without finding his equal in intelligence, perception, and writing skill.

The Tory (conservative) Quarterly Review and the Whig (liberal) Edinburgh Review towered like giants over the literary and political scene in Great Britain during most of the first half of the 19th century.  Their influence was worldwide, and their praise or contempt could mean life or death to the literary careers of the aspiring artists of the day.  In spite of their political agendas, they tended to be more judicious and fair in their treatment of authors whose politics they found uncongenial than the magazines and journals of our own day.  The Quarterly, however, seldom praised liberals, and Stendhal was a liberal, although one of a decidedly unusual stamp.  Any weakness in a political opponent’s style, the accuracy of their work, or the strength of their logic was treated with a high toned, rather elegant derisiveness.  There were several playful jabs, but nothing derisive in this review, Tory though its author certainly was.

It is clear that this admirable reviewer felt the power of Stendhal’s writing.  In other words, he had that very unusual combination of knowledge and intellect necessary to perceive that he was dealing with a man of genius, at a time when, while that man had a certain literary reputation, he had hardly begun to acquire the literary status he eventually achieved.  One must recall that “Memoirs of a Tourist” was one of Stendhal’s minor works, written under a pseudonym, merely to bring in some very necessary income.  No matter.  Our reviewer caught the essence of the man through the mist, and portrayed him with such wonderful simplicity, strength, and accuracy, that one can only hope that some, at least, of the Quarterly’s readers could appreciate what he put before them.

Here are a few excerpts from the review, which appeared in the December 1839 issue of the Quarterly.  First, the beginning:

“We have read these volumes with lively interest:  much amusement is to be found in them; not a little of valuable information; the observations, reflections, jokes, and sarcasms, of a clever man – a very favourable specimen of the liberal of the present time; noted down from day to day, as he repeatedly asserts, in the course of journeys undertaken for professional purposes through several of the finest, and one or two of the obscurest, provinces of France.  The book is undoubtedly one of the ablest that the Parisian press has lately produced; and we are inclined to believe that it offers better materials for an estimate of the actual social condition of the France of Louis Philippe than could be gathered from a score of works holding forth graver pretensions.”

This is rare praise indeed for a liberal to appear in the pages of such a quintessentially Tory journal as the Quarterly Review.  Our Great Unknown was hardly taken in, by the way, by the typically Stendhalian pseudonym the author used in “Memoirs of a Tourist.”  In his own words:

“We understand (the work) is generally ascribed to the pen of M. Beyle (Stendhal’s real name)… We are not well acquainted with M. Beyle’s personal history (an observation that makes the rest of the review that much more remarkable, ed.) but it is evident that if he be the author of the Memoires, he has endeavoured to mystify his readers by the account which the Touriste is made to deliver of himself.  …never was there a thinner disguise than this gentleman’s assumed character of an iron-merchant.  There is not one mercantile atom in his composition.”  (How true! ed.)

There follows:

“He is evidently a practiced professional litterateur, who has spent a considerable part of his life in Italy…”  (No doubt about that!)

Perhaps the most convincing bona fide of our worthy reviewers recognition of Stendhal’s virtuosity is his attempt to convert him to his own party on the spot:

“M. Beyle may placard whatever liberalism he thinks proper upon fit occasions, but neither he, no, nor any other gentleman (the French have adopted this word by the way, as well as dandy) can be at heart an enemy of aristocracy.  He has exactly the same horror for universal suffrage, even for the coaxing of shopkeepers, and the mystification of town-councils, that the most dainty Sybarite of Vienna could avow.  In all his habits, feelings, opinions – in all but a certain stock of phrases – he is diametrically opposed to the principles of the Movement and the practices of its sincere advocates.”

There is much truth in what our Great Unknown says here, but I suspect he’s rather wide of the mark in converting Stendhal to a Tory, lock stock and barrel.  Be that as it may, I must say I’m grateful the fashion of writing anonymous reviews has passed.  Tory or Whig, our reviewer is surely a superlative one, and I would be pleased to learn more of what he has to teach if only I knew his name.  I appeal to those most likely to know to favor me with any clues they might have.

I note in closing that this particular number of the Quarterly Review has a great deal more matter of interest to anyone who cares to peek through a looking glass at another age, including an account of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, written long before Darwin dreamed of publishing “The Origin of Species.” 


H. G. Wells, H. L. Mencken, and the Baby Boomers

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
I like reading old magazines, especially when I get tired of seeing today’s political agendas, and today’s political correctness between the lines of the modern ones. I suppose they have political agendas of their own, but at least they have the virtue of being different. A while back I was paging through a copy of “The American Mercury,” published in the days when H. L. Mencken was still its editor. If Mencken wasn’t the best editor this country ever produced, he’s definitely on the short list. When he praises a novel, you can be sure it’s not a puff piece for a literary pet. Well, in this mag, I was not a little surprised to find him waxing effusive over a novel by H.G. Wells, and one I’d never heard of: “The World of William Clissold.”

Now, I enjoyed reading “The Time Machine,” and “War of the Worlds” once upon a time, but never game them a second thought as serious works of literature. They certainly never impressed me as the sort of thing Mencken would waste time reviewing. My curiosity was duly piqued. I got the book. As usual, the Sage of Baltimore was right. “Clissold” is the genuine article.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll be fascinated. Wells wrote the novel when he was about 60, and it’s full of interesting insights and observations about the significance of reaching that age, what a post-60 future might look like, his observations on how others that age were dealing with life, etc. As with any great work of literature, I’m sure you’ll find reflections of your own thoughts as well, assuming you’ve managed to attain such a ripe old age.

Again, as with all good novels, “Clissold” is full of anecdotes that were surely drawn from Wells’ life experiences. For example, he tells the story of his visit to Geneva during the heighday of the League of Nations in 1922. There, among a host of other interesting types, he tells of meeting an old Indian. In his own words:

“I remember a charming Red Indian from Canada with a wonderful belt of wampum; it was a treaty all done in beads; by it the British Government gave sovereign dominion for ever and ever to the remnants of the Five Nations over a long strip of country running right through Canadian territories, territories in which prohibition and all sorts of bizarre moder practices now prevail. The Canadians were infringing the freedoms of that ribbon of liberty by sending in excisement and the like. So the Five Nations, with a grave copper face, wampum treaty very carefully wrapped in tissue paper, were appealing from the British Empire to mankind.”

As the cliche goes, “he couldn’t make stuff like that up.” And sure enough, one finds several references to the incident on the Web, for example, here and here. You’ll find more on wampum, along with a fascinating history of the Five Nations here.

There is much other food for thought in “Clissold,” including a rather heavy handed exposition of his world view and his rather Rand-like version of what mankind needs to do to save itself, a summary of which may be found in the Wiki article linked above. A closer look may be found here. Another chapter is devoted to a review of the news media of his day. Modern connoiseurs will surely find it fascinating. Other than that, I can only echo Mencken’s recommendation. This novel is well worth a read.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. L. Mencken, and the Uplift

Odd, that two men as different as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the New England Puritan, and H. L. Mencken, the infidel sage of Baltimore, were such kindred spirits when it came to what Mencken called the “Uplift.” Mencken’s loathing for the professional saviors of the world is well known. Here’s what Hawthorne had to say about the type, represented by Hollingsworth in “The Blithedale Romance.”
“…Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be. And this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he had himself conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, at last-as these men of a mighty purpose so invariably do-he had grown to be the bond-slave. It was his philanthropic theory!”
“He knew absolutely nothing, except in a single direction, where he had thought so energetically, and felt to such a depth, that, no doubt, the entire reason and justice of the universe appeared to be concentrated thitherward.”
“…They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose.”
“They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect-so cunning has the Devil been with them-that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.”
…so Hawthorne, the novelist and prophet.