The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

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Word PressWhat a weird book this is!  Maybe I’m missing the point of it, but it was just very … er, weird.  Our Hero, whose life story the book tells, is Fabrizio del Dongo, second son of an aristocratic family in Northern Italy.  In his late teens, he decides to run off and join Napoleon, who’s just escaped from Elba.  So far, so good – all very Boys’ Own-ish!  He does end up at Waterloo, and then he’s arrested/nearly arrested numerous times, but eventually he makes it safely to Switzerland, with the help of his aunt.  Everyone assumes that he’s having an affair with his aunt (which he isn’t), but no-one seems at all scandalised by it.  Then he gets back into Italy, and enters the Church.  Oh well, so much for being Boys’ Own-ish.  However, he spends most of his time off with various different mistresses, which again no-one seems scandalised by.  Then he kills an actor in a row over a woman, and, whilst people think it’s very shocking that an aristocrat should get into trouble for killing an actor (if there was any irony/sarcasm about this, it got lost in translation), he’s eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Then various people all try to poison each other.  Then Fabrizio is eventually freed, with the help of a) his aunt and b) Clelia, daughter of a high-ranking official.  Clelia and Fabrizio are in love, but she marries someone else and he becomes a high-ranking churchman.  However, they have become lovers, but only meet up at night because she’d vowed never to see him again so says they can only meet in the dark!  Er, very Arabian nights.  They can’t run off together because Clelia’s husband would never let them take his and Clelia’s son (who is actually Fabrizio and Clelia’s son), so they abduct the kid and tell the husband that he’s died.  Then the kid actually does die.  Clelia dies of a broken heart because her son’s died, Fabrizio dies of a broken heart because Clelia’s died, and the aunt dies of a broken heart because Fabrizio’s died!   Well, what a jolly ending!

On top of Fabrizio’s goings-on, there’s a lot about factionalism and political intrigue at court, which seems very interesting … except that none of it’s true!  Parma at this time was ruled by Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa and widow of Napoleon.  She’s never mentioned.  It’s like a Ruritanian court with fictional rulers and courtiers, except that it’s set in a real place at a specific time.

Weird.  Very, very weird!

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