Stendhal, Ovid and Alison

by Gavin Keeney

“Somewhere, even now, a lamb was being led up to the altar steps, a lamb chosen for its perfection and purity: even its delicate hooves, its knobby, skinny legs, were perfect. The eyes of those who had chosen it were loving — they valued it, enormously. And the lamb itself? It felt this love and shyly looked up at the eyes around it glowing with desire. It would not comprehend that desire had different depths. Gratified, it would get to its knees, it would gracefully lie before its lovers, it would never suspect the blow.”

— Jane Alison, The Love-Artist

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA — Stendhal’s great novel (written in 1838) follows the life of “our young hero” Fabrizio del Dongo (a Lombard nobleman) through the early 1800s and life in-between the various reactionary and revolutionary movements following the French Revolution, including (early on) a turn on the battlefield of Waterloo. It seems to mimic the realist novel but is something else altogether.

The Romantic hero is actually an anti-hero, and the various allies and enemies he engenders in his quest for fire by “enthusiasm” turn one way then the next as circumstances dictate. The rapid succession of troubles — reversals of fortune — lead the reader into a labyrinth of social mores and historical-cultural shadows that end only by illuminating the timeless landscape of tragedy.

Stendhal’s worldweariness reads in a manner of a literary mannerism — it is unclear what his intentions are beyond spinning an extravagant tale of immense intrigue and abominable outcome. His noted style is somewhere between the detached irony of George Sand and the great illumined tableau of Balzac. As the story races ahead — and there are few (perhaps no) denouements allowing the reader to catch his/her breath — an entire epoch unfolds and begins to collapse (notwithstanding the closing, momentary glory of the Prince of Parma’s court).

The sheer bravado of Stendhal’s performance sketches a period of despotism “marred” by the revolutionary fervor of Northern Italy and one detects an almost structural edifice for the tale lurking below the apparatus of places, venues, situations, character, and — um — coloratura. The novel seems to arrive full-blown from the ear of Stendhal and the “libidinal economy” of the protagonist’s rebellion (and eventual accommodation) suggests that the tragedy is more a matter of universal portents told against the rugged landscape of Lombardy than an historical tale of ruination by passion.

It might be best to read this thing straight through without stopping. Such a strategy enhances the nature of the narrative which is truly a tour de force — an (intentionally) overwrought avalanche of words and images — and matches the origin of the text insofar as Stendhal is said to have dictated the story in “a mere seven weeks”.

The Love-Artist — Jane Alison’s re-creation of Ovid’s (Augustan) Rome is sliced through by various portentious events, not the least of which is the purely fictionalized conspiracy of inspiration developed between Ovid, after having produced the Metamorphoses, and Xenia his fair but grave muse.

Xenia’s perturbations — she is a witch seduced and retrieved from the shores of the Black Sea during a “vacation” Ovid takes (while waiting to see how his Metamorphoses is received in Rome) — become the source material for Medea, the poet’s legendary lost play.

The mutual, suspicious presumptions of the relationship between the two main characters begin to impress into this timeframe a dual quest for immortality — on Ovid’s part his desire to be famous, and on Xenia’s part the search for the quinta essentia, the philosopher’s stone. She is actually more a rustic alchemist than a witch. The patrician Ovid and the wild Xenia mutually exploit one another as he develops his re-telling of the ancient tragedy of Medea, hiding from her his tablets of wax and furtively pursuing his patron, Julia, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus.

Xenia sees and hears things … The release of the details of her clairvoyant, visionary experience of Rome are, however, carefully calibrated and mostly concealed from Ovid such that he must at times provoke her to reveal his destiny (which is all that seems to matter to him).

This is an astonishing work of literature that captures the inordinate ambition of a poet suspected of corrupting the morals of Rome and a passionate, confused seer laboring to negotiate the splendour of Rome and cryptic intuitions of the vanity of the same. Alison’s prose singes the reader’s eyes and soul as it piles the story onto the timeless pyre of tragic works of art. Xenia seems to slowly realize that the elusive quinta essentia “belongs” to Ovid (the poet) afterall.

As the pressures build, and Ovid nears the conclusion of his Medea, Xenia has twin visions of the future:

“Here, and here — you won’t believe it — will be palaces with walls and ceilings all covered with images of your stories, with your words, even, painted in gold! And there, on that hill up the river, will be the most gorgeous hall filled with sculptures of your characters, so vivid, so like flesh! And not just in Rome but in palaces beyond the smoky hills to the north, and farther, in cities and countries that haven’t yet risen … In small dark cells far beyond the Alps, a thousand years from now — imagine — men will be bent over you, taking pains to put down your words with a flourish, taking such pains that the thin line that is your work, your life, will stretch on forever …”

This confirming vision of Ovid’s immortality is countered by another image of a ruined Rome buried in dust with Cleopatra’s Needle poking through a grassy, pastoral, future landscape … Poussin’s landscape … As the relationship of muse, poet, and patroness reaches a futility mirrored in Alison’s prose by ghastly intimations of what Ovid is writing (plotting) through Medea, Julia, fueled by hatred of Augustus for banishing her mother and for her own virtual imprisonment, conjures her own vision of revenge:

“She wanted the aqueducts to topple into valleys and upon the famous Roman roads, leaving heaps of pulverized brick. And that tremendous hieroglyphed needle, for which her grandfather had ordered an entire ship to be made, to haul it back from conquered Egypt — she wanted it to shiver as it shattered upon the ground. And oh, the millions of bodies buried beneath all this wreckage, reduced to what they were all along, masses of pulp and blood, senseless. Then, the world torn open, how the beasts, smelling the chaos and blood, would break free from their dens, come blinking out into the sudden harsh light!”

This vision of catastrophic ruination occurs slowly, dawning on Xenia and Julia. For Xenia, it is always coupled with the realization: “So few will remain, she thought, shutting her eyes and listening. But of all of them, Ovid would. Of all this great age, this great Roman world. She could see his face, ancient and boyish, laughing from millennia ahead.” Strange, then, that Ovid is banished by Augustus (a disgrace that actually occurs in the opening scenes of the novel) to a rotting Roman outpost on the Black Sea for his various presumptions and vainglories, and that he dies there never to return to Rome.

“So it was not just that his words would live on for a few hundred years; it was more than that. The bodily, expiring things of the world were transformed by him into words — which themselves would be taken up, millennia later, by other hands, other minds, and transformed once more into voluptuous bodies of color and marble. Sublimation.”

Gavin Keeney writes on the subject of landscape + architecture. He is the author of On the Nature of Things (Basel: Birkhauser, 2000)

Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Modern Library, 2000)

Jane Alison, The Love-Artist (New York: FSG, 2001)


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