"The Charterhouse of Parma" by Stendhal (1839)
"...But the reader is perhaps a trifle weary of these procedural details, no less than of these Court intrigues. From all such matters, the moral can be drawn that the man who approaches a Court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and in any case risks making his future depend on the intrigues of some chambermaid.
"On the other hand, in America, in the Republic, one must waste a whole day in paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the streets, and must become as stupid as they are; and over there, no opera."
The Charterhouse of Parma is the story of Fabrizio, an attractive, simple-minded man of noble birth. He grows to manhood in northern Italy, witnesses the battle of Waterloo, is imprisoned for murder, and falls in love with a woman he can never truly possess. His struggles are set against the background of imperial Europe in the wake of Napoleon, and the court intrigues which put him both in and out of harm's way form much of the book's plot.
It's not a bad book, but it didn't impress me the way Stendhal's The Red and the Black did, years ago. Yes, the delightful kind of cynicism that made The Red and the Black so good is still present, but in The Charterhouse of Parma it's less obvious, and in my opinion the plot is too convoluted for its own good. I would have preferred something simpler, and more to the point. I would have preferred less artifice, and more art.
But mine is perhaps the minority opinion. I know people who rave over this book, and far be it from me to convince them otherwise. As it is, I think it's worth reading, but extremely overrated. It doesn't make the same kind of sweeping (if questionable) points about European politics that War and Peace does, and yet it doesn't seem to narrow its focus quite enough, so that the characters remain indistinct, and less authentic. There was a wonderful, fable-like quality in The Red and the Black that is almost entirely absent from this book, and this absence left me feeling disappointed.
I'd recommend The Charterhouse of Parma if you've read the other major French novels, but be warned that it wears out its welcome rather quickly.