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The Stendhal vice

Our addiction to reading would not exist without the habit of perpetual writing

Natural style in writing is probably an invention of Stendhal. The master, of course, is Montaigne, but his language is now archaic and requires so many spelling modernizations and explanatory footnotes. Stendhal is like us. His diaries of two centuries ago read as if they had just been written, or rather, were just in the process of being written.

Setting his novels to one side, when Stendhal writes something you never know what genre it is, and the novels themselves are contaminated with the same dilettante waywardness. Stendhal sets out to produce something according to some plan -- a history of Italian painting, a biography, a travel book -- and the plan seems to be forgotten after a few pages. What he writes is always a diary, at once intimate and public, like a letter to a trusted friend. The act of writing never isolates him from the other things of life. He passes the night in a café or party, then writes down what he has seen and heard. He has such an ear, or such a capacity for imaginative re-creation, that he fills pages with other people's stories, told in the first person.

His Italian travel books probably began with the commercial intention of writing systematic guidebooks for the tourist market. But he neither had the patience, and so was easily bored, nor the appropriate method -- so much so, that in many cases a book's title does not square with the content. Of the book Rome, Naples and Florence, almost three-quarters of the content deals with Milan and Bologna, and the space devoted to actual description of these places is minimal.

Of the book Rome, Naples and Florence, almost three-quarters of the content deals with Milan and Bologna"

Stendhal was an enthusiast of opera, and was sensitive to architecture; but he never writes as a critic, or separates the contemplation of art from his own emotional states or from political circumstances. Rather than a guidebook, his travel writings aspire to be a collection of sensations, a register of fleeting, primary impressions, not erudite or pedantic judgments, but immediate responses to a picture, a song, a woman's face seen by candlelight in a theatre.

You meet many people who are highly sensitive to music, painting or poetry, yet never notice what lies beyond the walled garden of their specialties, and relate awkwardly and poorly with real human beings and the ordinary things of life. Stendhal is the traveler who notices everything, the guest who appreciates every detail of courtesy, the lover who, though unrequited, is never embittered or ceases to admire the splendor of women. Before anyone else, Stendhal noticed that in painting the subject would become secondary, and that in writing what would matter was not the mastery of a series of rhetorical modes, but the natural expression of a look, a voice.

Stendhal's vice of writing finds a symmetrical reflection in the addictive vice of reading him. The addiction to reading would not exist without the habit of perpetual writing. What matters is not the book, the plan or final form, but the urgency of registering everything, for pleasure, for vice, for the thing in itself -- because one is lonely and bored, or melancholy, or brimming with enthusiasm, or so as not to forget something you have been told, or because it is night time and you have a notebook and pen in front of you, and you like to hear the scratch of pen on paper. Where no pen is at hand he uses a pencil, he says; writing away in the while the coachmen take to change horses.

Pen, pencil, ballpoint, typewriter, computer: the Stendhal impulse is that of those writers who have never needed a genre, or have skipped from one to the other and back, who enjoy the mobility of alternation: Pío Baroja, Cyril Connolly, Josep Pla, Bruce Chatwin, the Virginia Woolf who could not live without scribbling things in a notebook, and the Bioy Casares who, every night when Borges went home from a dinner, sat up late writing down the highlights of his conversation.

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