Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Review: 'Roman Tales' by Stendhal, translated by Susan Ashe

I first noticed this book on NetGalley and when I read the description I decided I wanted to read it. Also, I am always intrigued by writers who write under a pseudonym, his real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. I have nurtured a new found love for short stories lately, so last night I finally got to indulging myself with this collection.
Revered by key literary figures including as Balzac and Mérimée, Stendhal is best known for his novels, but his shorter works were just as powerful. In this brand new translation, Susan Ashe brings his greatest Italian stories to the modern reader, whilst staying true to Stendhal’s style and brilliance.
The collection includes:
-    The Abbess of Castro-    Vittoria Accordamboni-    The Cenci-    Along with accompanying essays by Charles Dickens, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Stendhal himself.
Together, these stories convey Stendhal’s love of Italy and admiration for the society’s honesty, sincerity, and above all, passion. ‘Roman Tales’ will reaffirm Stendhal as one of the great French masters of the 19th Century.
Out of the three stories here translated, 'The Abbess of Castro' is the largest one, taking up almost half the novel. Elena di Campireali, our protagonist, is a young girl whose true love for Giulio Branciforti is spoiled by a proud father and a plotting mother who both consider themselves in a better position to judge than Elena herself. We also see the downfall of pride and stubbornness and it ends very Shakespearian, in death and misery. Stendhal is able to both write objectively and yet make the reader feel for his characters. He perfectly shows that in the real world there are no such things as black-and-white characters. Each one of them has motives that are both pure and base and often their means to achieve their goal are flawed at best. I  probably preferred this story to the other two because there was more of it, but also because although restrained, Elena is still, to a certain extent, active. She is also the only woman in this small collection who is able to take her life into her own hand and make demands, rather than rely on others, mainly men, to help her. I like that in a female character.

'Vittoria Accordamboni' is a mix between a 'who dunnit' and politcal intrigues. It is a nice cooler after the high passions of 'The Abbess' that preceeded it, but also sets the political tone for the next tale, 'The Cenci'. In essence, this is a family tragedy of epic proportions. Shakespeare would have had a field day, as would Freud probably. Again "translated" from an old source, it tells the tale of the life of Beatrice Cerci (portrait to the left) who like Vittoria really existed and was forced to deal with her father in a rather horrid way. This is, although perhaps the most gruesome, the holiest tale of the three, making Beatrice as pious as is possible considering the circumstances. It made me chuckle at times, although I doubt that was Stendhal or Ashe's intent.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Stendhal wrote. I have a weakness for anything old and his claim that he was translation 500 year old Latin sources was right up my alley. But whereas I like it, I can easily imagine that Stendhal's writing style alienated others. It is almost a chronicle style of writing, relaying events without colouring them in for the reader. Yet he is said to have been one of the first Realist writers, writing as early as the early 1800's. As Stendhal himself says:
'Therefore, kind reader, do not search in these pages for a striking style, shimmering with fresh allusions to fashionable modes of thought.' p. 91
Not withstanding his "impersonal" style of writing, Stendhal actually stands incredible close to the reader through his writing style. Take the quote below:
'Personally I would not have chosen to portray this character. I would have been satisfied with merely studying him because he is satanic rather than intriguing.' p. 115
He is here telling us of the truly despicable Francesco Cenci. His aversion for this character is also felt by the reader and author and reader bond in this mutual disgust. By relaying to us events already chronicled, Stendhal takes on the form of a storyteller, scaring his friends with terrible stories filled with love, passion and murder.

Credit should also be given to Susan Ashe, who did a great job at translating a work that itself claims to be a translation. Her writing makes the reading experience fluid and easy, despite the often factual information that is being relayed. Also very interesting was the introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and the essays by Stendhal himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dickens in the Appendices. These additions are very informative and truly offer more insight into the text without being obtrusive or too pretentious, as these essays sometimes are. 

Overall, I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Although I did really enjoy reading it, I do not know whether I'd reread it in the near future. I am a sucker for historical fiction and I guess this is as close to historical as fiction gets. I read it within an evening and a morning because the stories definitely generate a drive in you to find out how the story plays out. The interlinking and historical accuracy of the tales is also a bonus, in my eyes, and I think everyone could enjoy it as long as they approached it with an open mind. 

1 comment:

  1. This sounds really intriguing. I will definitely look out for it. The portrait of Beatrice is really beautiful. She has an almost angelic charm to her face.
    Thanks for the review, for visiting my WWW and for following me on Google. I returned the favour.
    Gwynn
    http://gwynnethwhite.blogspot.com/

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