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The Charterhouse of Parma (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 19, 2007

3.9 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Officer, diplomat, spy, journalist, and intermittent genius, Marie Henri Beyle employed more than 200 aliases in the course of his crowded career. His most famous moniker, however, was Stendhal, which he affixed to his greatest work, The Charterhouse of Parma. The author spent a mere seven weeks cranking out this marvel in 1838, setting the fictional equivalent of a land-speed record. To be honest, there are occasional signs of haste, during which he clearly bypassed le mot juste in favor of narrative zing. So what? Stendhal at his sloppiest is still wittier, and wiser about human behavior, than just about any writer you could name. No wonder so meticulous a stylist as Paul Valéry was happy to forgive his sins against French grammar: "We should never be finished with Stendhal. I can think of no greater praise than that."

The plot of The Charterhouse of Parma suggests a run-of-the-mill potboiler, complete with court intrigue, military derring-do, and more romance than you can shake a saber at. But Stendhal had an amazing, pre-Freudian grasp of psychology (at least the Gallic variant). More than most of his contemporaries, he understood the incessant jostling of love, sex, fear, and ambition, not to mention our endless capacity for self-deception. No wonder his hero, Fabrizio de Dongo, seems to know everything and nothing about himself. Even under fire at the Battle of Waterloo, the young Fabrizio has a tendency to lose himself in Napoleonic reverie:

Suddenly everyone galloped off. A few moments later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead, a ploughed field that seemed to be strangely in motion; the furrows were filled with water, and the wet ground that formed their crests was exploding into tiny black fragments flung three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed this odd effect as he passed; then his mind returned to daydreams of the Marshal's glory. He heard a sharp cry beside him: two hussars had fallen, riddled by bullets; and when he turned to look at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort.
The quote above, a famous one, captures something of Stendhal's headlong style. Until now, most English-speaking readers have experienced it via C.K. Scott-Moncrieff's superb 1925 translation. But now Richard Howard has modernized his predecessor's period touches, streamlined some of the fussier locutions, and generally given Stendhal his high-velocity due. The result is a timely version of a timeless masterpiece, which shouldn't need to be updated again until, oh, 2050. Crammed with life, lust, and verbal fireworks, The Charterhouse of Parma demonstrates the real truth of its creator's self-composed epitaph: "He lived. He wrote. He loved." --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"The Charterhouse of Parma has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation."
--Edmund White

"[A] superb new translation."
--Bernard Knox, The New York Review of Books

"An epic tale of war, love, sex, politics, and religion...an action-packed narrative."
--The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (January 19, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140449663
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140449662
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.2 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #300,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I'm a longtime fan of this wonderful novel which until recently almost no one seemed to read. There is nothing like it in the whole of literature, and the good reader is exhilirated and refreshed by the blast of Stendhal's sustained burst of inspiration: done in six and a half weeks and he lopped off the last 150 pages at the publisher's request (and realized his mistake but couldn't find the sheets: keep looking, folks). New readers are advised to plow through the first 50 pages, which are just as good as the rest of the book but from which it is very difficult to catch the book's unique tone; the great set-piece of the Battle of Waterloo will set you straight. I'm not sure that the vaunted new Richard Howard translation is better than the reliable old waddle of the Penguin, but that might just be my hankering for a familiar flavor. But what a book! Bliss to read it, and the Duchessa Sanseverina might well be the most magnificent woman in the whole of literature; she's certainly the only woman of such stature in 19th century fiction who doesn't have to pay the price for it by a suicide in the last chapter. Much of the book's inimitable energy derives from the enjambment of a whole range of incompatibles: a story out of renaissance Italy set in post-Napoleonic times; characters simultaneously seen from the perspective of great worldly experience and that of an enthusiastic adolescence conceiving them as larger than life (Mosca and the Duchessa primarily, but also demi-villains like the Prince and the hilarious Rassi); and so on. Fabrizio is a dashing cipher, is occasionally idiotic, the very archetype of impassioned inexperience.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
This will be mainly a note on translations--and a rather muddled one at that.

Years before I read "Charterhouse of Parma" I read "Red and Black," and one thing I noticed with that book, which I love, is what a tricky thing it is to translate Stendhal. I read the old Margaret Shaw translation in an old used Penguin--much maligned, just like her "Charterhouse" translation. But I found something odd: Shaw's very British failure to even try to approximate Stendhal's dash and offhand brio, his proto-modern style-of-no-style, actually worked well. Shaw concentrated only on faithfully conveying Stendhal's sense, and so in spite of her mid-twentieth century educated British English, Stendhal's authorial voice came through beautifully. She didn't get his literary style but she caught his thought on the wing, and in "Red & Black" that's what really matters.

But in "Charterhouse," literary style is really inseparable from the work. For this deconstructed medieval fairytale set among the reactionary, repressive, collapsing aristocracies of revolutionary Europe, Stendhal employed a self-consciously traditional tale-teller's style, yet laced through with his own ironic realism. That hybrid/clash of styles is crucial, since it embodies Stendhal's vision of a modern Europe groaningly aborning amid its contradictions: for example, say, in expressing the delicious mash-up of incongruities between that old staple of Euro-tales, the humble subject approaching the throne of the king for a favor, and the shockingly novel, psychologically and politically realistic use Stendhal makes of that received form here. This is the thrilling birth of modern literature, and the presentational voice really matters. And is really hard to get right, judging from the translation attempts I've tried.
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2 Comments 54 of 54 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
Can we make a better book today than The Charterhouse of Parma? No. Stendhal breaks rules right and left and is not always graceful, but the completeness of his fictional universe is staggering. Here is a man who could tell sweeping, epic stories in terms of minute personal expression, and tell them with humane wit. Funnier than James', unburrdened by Tolstoy's morality, more penetrating than Balzac's, and more approachable than Dostoyevsky's, Stendhal's literary universe is one of the most pleasing and evocative for the modern reader, and The Charterhouse of Parma is his masterpiece. Read this book, now!
Comment 55 of 60 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
Hard to say whether Charterhouse or Red & Black is better; lately I lean to Red & Black (get Catherine Slater's Oxford translation; shun the new B. Raffel paraphrase). The fun of reading Stendhal, I think, is his narration; one briefly feels as clever, as observant, as clear-headed, as the narrator.
The Modern Library has apparently decided that, with so many good Stendhal translations out there (Slater; Mauldin's Charterhouse; the NEW Penguin R & B; Lowell Bair's Charterhouse), it has a duty to provide bad ones. Richard Howard's translation has errors that even my schoolboy French can pick up. The New Criterion (which may have its own bones to pick w/ Mr. Howard, true) listed a great many flaws in his command of the French. And he's tone deaf to Stendhal in many of my favorite passages (not as bad as the old Shaw Penguins, but bad enough). If you read Howard's Stendhal & think you don't like him, try a better translation.
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