At Waterloo, Seeking Glory at the Margins
By SOHRAB AHMARI
Stendhal’s ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ is a Napoleonic novel brimming with political as well as psychological insight
Exactly two centuries since they came to a close, the Napoleonic Wars have lost much of their significance to us, though they shaped the entire course of the 19th century, including the era’s art and literature. The “Napoleonic Idea,” for example, provided the backdrop to the great flowering of realism in the 19th-century novel, from Austen to Thackeray, Balzac to Tolstoy. Their work brings within our grasp some of the enthusiasms, ideals and horrors of these wars.
For pure exhilaration, however, no Napoleonic novel matches Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma.” Published in 1839, Stendhal’s final novel captures the human drama, and the political transformations, wrought by the Corsican’s rise and fall. But unlike “War and Peace” (1869), in which Napoleon features as a major character alongside Tolstoy’s fictional cast, in “Charterhouse” the emperor appears as a fleeting apparition in the life of Stendhal’s protagonist, Fabrizio Del Dongo, a handsome, idealistic and not-very-bright minor Italian aristocrat in search of his life’s purpose.
Inspired less by the Napoleonic Idea than by the emperor himself, Fabrizio escapes his staid, repressive household on Lake Como to fight alongside the French in the Hundred Days campaign—Napoleon’s last, launched shortly after his escape from Elba and culminating in his defeat at Waterloo. Impulsive and unschooled in the arts of war, Fabrizio makes a terrible soldier. First taken for a spy by the French and imprisoned, he eventually makes his way to the front, where instead of finding heroism he ends up drunkenly sleeping through much of Waterloo.